Love thy PlayStation, love thyself.

The search for better economic policy.
May 11 2006 3:55 PM

Love Thy PlayStation, Love Thyself

Why you should make a $500 game console your life partner.

Sony Playstation 3. 
Click image to expand.
Sony PlayStation 3

As summer approaches, millions of Americans busily plan their weddings, full of hope for the future. That is understandable. In recent years, a number of economists and sociologists, including Christopher Jencks, David Ellwood, Kathryn Edin, Daniel Hamermesh, and David Popenoe have stressed the benefits of marriage. But before you tie the knot, pause for a moment and consider whether a spouse is what you really need. Could it be that you'd be happier if you shacked up with the Sony PlayStation 3?

Economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald have suggested that a lasting marriage produces as much happiness as an extra $100,000 a year in salary. This might sound like a strong case for getting hitched. But many economists have shown that happiness is expensive—$100,000 will buy you only a small amount of joy. Studies like these also hide individual variation. Marriage isn't worth $100,000 to just anybody. A recent German study found that matrimony's hedonic gains go disproportionately to couples who have similar education levels but a wide income gap. Worse yet, on average, people adapt very quickly and completely to marriage. As anyone who's ever consumed seven pumpkin pies in one sitting knows, we quickly get used to our favorite new things, and we just as quickly tire of them. As Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert artfully puts it, "Psychologists call this habituation, economists call it declining marginal utility, and the rest of us call it marriage."

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We submit that a relationship with a PlayStation 3 is worth at least $100,000 a year in happiness for all individuals. Unlike a nagging spouse, the PS3 doesn't care about your income or your level of education—it loves you just the way you are.It is true that you will eventually become accustomed to your sleek new PS3, but this will take an extremely long time. The PS3, after all, has been built expressly to keep mind-blowing novelty coming and coming and coming. Periodic infusions of novelty—new games—will keep the endorphins flowing.

Even if you assume that a good marriage is worth $100,000, you can't discount the vast amount of money it takes to woo a spouse. The costs of daily grooming—calculated at the minimum wage—run into the tens of thousands of dollars over a lifetime, not counting the costs of soap, water, Gillette Fusion cartridges, and Old Spice. Then there are the birthday presents, the anniversary presents, and the occasional meals at popular chain restaurants, not to mention the incalculably expensive psychic toll of accommodating your schedule to the increasingly unreasonable demands of your "partner." Compare with the PS3, which does not demand that you bathe or slather yourself in cologne and is available for guilt-free sensual pleasures 24 hours a day. Admittedly, you will have to purchase new games to keep the romance alive with your PS3. This, however, is vastly less expensive than renewing your nuptials, the tack taken by human couples such as Kevin Federline and Britney Spears.

Some weak-kneed gamers will object to paying the PS3's high price tag: $500 for the "cheap" version, $600 for a souped-up model. This reluctance is understandable. Amusements like the PS2, the Xbox 360, and the Turbo Grafx 16 were never an adequate substitute for human companionship. Keep in mind, however, that none of these platforms could play Blu-ray DVDs, a fatal flaw rectified by the PS3. Life with the primitive PS2 is best understood as a loveless marriage, a source of stress and anxiety rather than true happiness.

And really, how expensive is $500? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income in America in 2003 was $43,318. Gamers skew young, so let's be conservative and cut that number in half. That's $21,659. The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development says Americans worked an average of 1,792 hours in 2003. That comes to $12.09 an hour for those making half the median. At that rate, a $500 PS3 can be had for a little more than 41 hours of work—about half of which you will spend reading blog posts about Lindsay Lohan. That 41 hours of work will earn you how many hours of dopamine-pumping PS3 action? The Entertainment Software Association informs us that the average American gamer spends about seven-and-a-half hours per week, or 390 hours annually, riding the video tiger. Let's again make a conservative estimate and assume that PS3 users will log twice that amount: 780 hours a year of gaming time. Now suppose your PS3 explodes in a dazzling shower of sparks after exactly one year. In that tragic circumstance, each hour of pixelated joy will have cost you about three minutes on the job. If it makes you feel better, you can spend that three minutes in the bathroom.

The Bush administration's "Healthy Marriage Initiative," an innovative effort to encourage stable marriages among the poor, has been one of the hallmarks of compassionate conservatism. Wouldn't it make more sense, though, to establish a "PlayStation 3 Initiative" that will put video game consoles in the hands of the neediest?

Reihan Salam is a columnist for Slate.

Will Wilkinson is a writer and policy analyst in Washington, D.C.

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