A recent study on the prevalence of drugs in popular video games has drawn some interesting and alarming conclusions. This study seems to show that there are a lot of video games in which drug use is beneficial to the player. Of course, everyone is familiar with Mario’s magic mushrooms, and many games feature pills that increase your health or grant special abilities, but there is more to the story than that.
The study was conducted by Archstone, an addiction awareness organization that runs a drug recovery center based in Palm Beach, Florida. The research was done personally by their leader, Logan Freedman. Freedman started by looking at the 100 best-selling games for each of the major consoles, examining each one for drug-related content. These games were then examined in greater detail to reveal as much as possible about the way drugs are commonly portrayed in this medium.
In many cases, video games that feature drug use will invent fictional drugs, instead of referencing drugs from the real world. For instance, the Elder Scrolls series contains a drug called Skooma, which is a crystalline solid that can be smoked from a glass pipe, and which is powerfully addictive. In the same series, certain Elves are known to smoke caterpillars and grubs for their intoxicating effects. In the Grand Theft Auto series, a narcotic called “Spank” is introduced. In the Heavy Rain series, the main character is addicted to a fictional drug called Tryptocain. Archstone’s study found that about 60% of these games contain references to real drugs, whereas about 40% make use of fictional drugs like those mentioned above.
When breaking down drug-related games by genre, Archstone found that the biggest percentage of these games are considered “Action” games. 50% of the games reviewed by Archstone fell into this category. Role-playing games came in second with 22%, followed by shooter games (19%), and adventure games (8%).
In fairness to the makers of these games, it should be noted that drug use in video games does often have negative consequences associated with it. For instance, in the Elder Scrolls series, Skooma carries a high risk of addiction, and can also get the player thrown in jail. In addition, just carrying it around will cause other characters to shun the player. In the Grand Theft Auto series, the player can find pills randomly distributed throughout the landscape, but they do nothing except cause the game to move in slow motion. Archstone’s study found that, in 40% of the games they reviewed, drugs have a disorienting effect. However, the study also found that in 32% of these games, the drug acted as a power-up. In 28% of these games, the drug restores or boosts the player’s health.
In an interview with the BBC, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) stated that it attempted to take all factors into account when deciding how to rate a particular game. The article containing their full comments can be found here: http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-42808573. To summarize, the ESRB stated that they were happy with the way their system handled drug references. They pointed out that the context of the reference has to be taken into account in order to produce an accurate rating.
While this information may seem alarming, it should be noted that most of the games containing drug references are games that are rated and intended for an adult audience that understands the differences between fiction and reality.