Study Examines How Video Games Portray Addictive Substances

Content note: Discussion of drugs and drug use.

Substance use isn’t a major topic in many games. It comes up in some, of course, from Chloe Price’s casual marijuana use to the heavier drug themes of various Grand Theft Autos, but most games aren’t spending much time on accurately representing drug users. As a recent survey has made clear, though, a great many games do portray the substances themselves. You might never think of your character as a drug user, but there’s a good chance they’re popping pills, injecting plasmids or smoking skooma.

The survey was conducted by Archstone, a recovery center for people with substance use disorders. They took at look at the top 100 bestselling games per console to see how they portrayed illicit substances.

While you might be expecting a recovery center to come down hard on substance use in video games, Archstone takes a measured approach, focusing on the numbers. For example, 61 percent of the games they looked at portrayed real drugs, like cocaine and marijuana. The remaining 39 percent either used fictional drugs like Jet, ADAM or Skooma, or they used a combination of real and fictional drugs. The majority of drug references were found in action games, at 51 percent. The most popular drugs to portray are stimulants. Almost 24 percent of the games Archstone examined included multiple stimulants.

And what are games doing with drugs? Mostly, they’re filling the same role power-ups have since the dawn of video games. Some in-game drugs make you stronger — 32 percent, to be precise — while others, a further 28 percent, make you healthier. The remainder have disorienting effects. Rarely do games grapple with long-term consequences of substance use, but it does happen. Still, designers might be best served to consider whether their games are portraying dangerous substances as an unalloyed positive.

No one is calling for industry-wide changes in response to Archstone’s findings — not even Archstone. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) already accounts for drug use in its ratings. In an article from BBC, an ESRB spokesperson explained how ratings are decided:

The ESRB rating system weighs factors that are unique to an interactive medium, such as the reward system, frequency, and the degree of player control among others,” the ESRB added. “Therefore, the mere presence of something like a health pack in a game may not result in a restrictive rating being assigned.

“However, given the context in which drugs appear in a game, the ESRB may assign a restrictive age rating, along with either the drug reference or use-of-drugs content descriptor.”

Archstone’s Logan Freedman also points out that these aren’t games for kids, suggesting that adults can make their own decisions about playing games that portray substance use.

“It comes down more to parents and what their kids play,” he said.”They’re made for adults. It says [so] directly on the box.”

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