Did Video Games Teach People To Manipulate the Stock Market?

February 5, 2021 5 min read

How did a large, loose network of strangers upend the stock market recently? Here’s an interesting theory: They did it thanks to video games.

“Both Reddit and Discord have their roots in video games, where rapid discovery of information and coordination between multiple parties is essential to win,” writes disruption researcher Hamza Mudassir, in a piece I was very happy to publish this week on Entrepreneur.

The way Mudassir sees it, the GameStop saga is a direct result of multiplayer games like World of Warcraft. A generation of millennial and Gen Z gamers grew up learning how to quickly disseminate and act on information throughout a group—”with millions being loyal to each other without ever meeting one another,” he writes.

Now here comes the obvious question: Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

We love asking that question about new things. But we shouldn’t. It’s the wrong question to ask—because change doesn’t work like that. And if we want to be change-makers, we need to appreciate what change really means.

So how does change work?

Here’s one of my favorite ways of thinking about it. A few years ago, I interviewed Lee Rainie, the director of Internet and technology research at the Pew Research Center. We were discussing how technology alters us, and he said: “The mark of a learned person used to be, how much do you have in your head? But in the era where you can literally look up the answer in your smartphone, the capacity to do rapid pattern recognition is elevated. Does that make for a dumber or smarter society? Who knows? It makes for a different society.”

In other words, change makes things different, and different isn’t inherently good or bad. (For more on this point, check out my recent podcast episode about whether technology causes us to lose skills.)

Now, contrast that with another recent report about video games. In the middle of January, the New York Times ran a front-page story with the headline: Parents Fret As Screen Time Stretches Into Months. It was about how kids, stuck at home with nothing else to do, have been playing a lot more video games—and suffering as a result.

The story ran with a very dramatic photograph. It’s three people in a dark room, light shining in from a nearby window. In the middle is a 14-year-old boy, headphones on head and a game controller in his hand, fully absorbed in some far-off digital world. To the right, his mother looks on with remorse. To his left, his father looks lost in guilt. The story matched the tone: It was all about the terrible, terrible things that screens do to children. It reported, for example, that “increased online use is associated with anxiety, depression, obesity and aggression.”

Note that language, though: It’s associated with all these bad things. That’s because there’s no proven causation. The Times (briefly) admitted that itself in the next paragraph: “The research shows only associations, which means that heavy internet use does not necessarily cause these problems.” But of course, the story’s framing and language make clear—the only possible outcome here can be negative.

The message is: No good can come from this.

Screens and video games are equated with loss.

Now, I’m not saying that kids should sit around playing video games all day. Nobody should do anything all the time! But the reality is, kids are stuck at home right now. Video games are a much-needed form of entertainment and socialization for them. But if we see video games as an entirely bad thing—if we can’t even imagine the possibility that these games are providing children with some value!—then we’re going to make bad choices. Maybe parents will take the games away, for example, which will leave children without a valuable outlet.

This is why I’m so fascinated by Mudassir’s theory. Have video games taught young people the power of mass coordination? If so, well, the GameStop saga maybe wasn’t the most productive use of that skill—but it’ll surely presage many more impressive and powerful and surely productive things to come. (Even the American Psychological Association acknowledges this: “Video game play may provide learning, health, social benefits.”)

That is how change happens. It’s easy to see loss, like that lazy Times story did. It’s harder to see gain, because it requires deep understanding and an open mind. But I assure you of this: The gain is there.

It’s always there.

For entrepreneurs who want to be true innovators, part of the job is identifying that gain before anyone else.

Want to feel more adaptable? Download Jason Feifer’s free audio course, and learn to find opportunity in times of change!

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