Power Up: Should Virtual Drugs Help You Win?

asks whether drugs aiding players in their success sends a pro-drug message

Over the course of the past decade or so, video games have become almost synonymous with violence in the minds of concerned parents everywhere. However, it is the increasing inclusion of drug abuse – along with waning restrictive measures – that has sparked new concerns.

Game series such as Fallout and Max Payne, depict drug use as a form of power up. Painkillers are used to replenish health and increase focus in Max Payne, while cocktails of “chems” in Fallout allow the player to increase their strength, boost intelligence and occasionally slow down time. Even alcohol is used as a power up in Prey, to replenish the player’s health.

Unfortunately, these games are not alone in their misleading attitude towards drug abuse. According to a 2017 study by Archstone Recovery Center 60 per cent of games containing drugs – out of the top 100 games – portray their usage as a benefit to the player, with 32 per cent of those being solely for use as a special skill power up.

The Archstone study also found that approximately 61 percent of the games investigated contained real world drugs; cocaine, heroin and marijuana to name a few. Duke Nukem 3D portrays a relatively realistic, although heavily sugar-coated, use of steroids. The game allows the players to gain double speed and boost attacks until it wears off – with little to no consequences. Despite the primary use of drugs in video games often holding positive connotations, the vast majority also demonstrate the negative side effects of addiction alongside them.

Although this is for all intents and purposes, a valid effort on behalf of the producers to maintain an at least somewhat anti-drugs stance, it consistently falls short. For example, in Fallout the adverse effects of the drug cocktails can be easily and swiftly cured by a doctor, an ability which implies that any negative symptoms of drug abuse have an easy fix. This is a frankly dangerous idea for video games to suggest, because it implants the notion that the benefits of drug abuse outweigh the drawbacks – an idea that is perpetuated throughout most games containing drugs as power ups.

All this being said, it’s unlikely that these ‘power up’ depictions of drugs influence real life substance abuse. The claims of direct cause to effect between the two are unsubstantiated at best.

However, the causal link between these video games and a change in attitudes to drugs has been scientifically proven. In a study by Brady (PhD) and Matthews (PhD), the results unequivocally showed that young men randomly assigned to play Grand Theft Auto III (GTA III) had more permissive attitudes towards using alcohol and marijuana. This was regardless of whether GTA III was a game they’d usually select for themselves, proving that it was the content and portrayal of drugs in the game, and not any personal predispositions, that led to a more relaxed view of drug use.

Even though this finding provides a link between virtual and real drugs, the Entertainment Software Rating System, who assign age and content ratings to US games (much like Europe’s own PEGI), stand by their existing drug-related guidance on such games. This is a result of the widely followed philosophy that it is a parent’s duty to protect their children from the content, and not the duty of the content to accommodate underage children playing their games.

However, this issue has become more prominent with the rise of Twitch streams and Let’s Play videos. Due to the lack of restriction – especially with YouTube Let’s Play videos, as the algorithm only assesses the suitability of videos and not the games themselves – children of all ages are capable of being readily subjected to these games and their portrayal of drugs.

As a result, it’s almost inevitable that these impressionable young teenagers have their view of drug abuse softened by these misleading video games, even as a passive audience member.

As a consequence, the representation of drugs in video games as providing players with superhuman abilities cannot be directly linked to encouraging the use of drugs among the players themselves. The representation can and does increase the appeal of drugs, lessening the harmful connotations associated with the substances.

The misleading depiction of drug use, in tandem with the lax functioning of age restrictions in this era of Let’s Play videos and Twitch streams, could be dangerous. Impressionable teens and tweens alike are subjected to content that repeatedly shows drugs as beneficial and desirable in order to get ahead, leading to a more permissive, rather than intolerant, view of substance abuse.

Image: PEGI

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