Approximately 155 million Americans play video games. But if you envision hordes of children and teens going head to head at Mario Kart, then think again. The average age of an American gamer? 35. As a result, game offerings have become increasingly geared to grown-ups, complete with mature themes: violence, sex, and even drugs.
How are drugs portrayed in video games? To explore this interesting issue, we examined the 100 bestselling games for each console and then zoomed in on those that include drug references. What types of substances are featured in America’s favorite games? Which genres include the most games with drug references? Are these drugs real or fictionalized? And how do they affect gameplay? Check out our findings below.
Illicit Substances in Video Games
While they may just be games, the majority of the drugs they feature are decidedly real. Among the games with drug references that we examined, 61 percent featured real substances. Cocaine, heroin, and marijuana were the most common, but painkillers, steroids, LSD, and mushrooms (real mushrooms as opposed to the harmless fungi Mario and Luigi gobbled up) also made cameos.
Around 38 percent of the games featured fictional drugs found in-game only, while fewer than 1 percent featured a mix of real and fictional substances. Among the most noteworthy faux substances: Dr. Scarecrow’s fear gas in Batman: Arkham City causes intense fear that can lead to insanity or even death. The Fallout series of games features a cocktail of “chems” with effects such as slowing down time, increasing strength, and boosting intelligence. And in Heavy Rain, triptocaine is an addictive substance that sparks cravings and causes withdrawal symptoms, though its actual effects are somewhat murky.
Video Game Genres and Illicit Substances
Based on sales, shooter games are the most popular genre as of 2016. Action games claim the No. 2 spot, followed by role-playing games. Among all the video games we examined featuring drug references, over half were action games. This genre is characterized by physical challenges that require the player to use various skills to overcome them. Role-playing games and shooter games each comprised around one-fifth of drug references, while adventure games only made up around 8 percent.
It’s clear that some genres lend themselves to a more natural portrayal of drugs than others. Some games have drawn criticism for their clunky attempts to incorporate illicit substances. Not all gamers appreciate it when games take the role of a middle-school counselor trumpeting an anti-drug message. In addition, critics note the hypocrisy of portraying drugs as extremely negative while, for instance, encouraging the player to use violence against drug dealers in the game.
The Effects of Drugs in Video Games
Whether real or fictional, the drugs in video games have a variety of effects on the protagonist. Of those we examined, 40 percent of games featured drugs that caused the user to become disoriented in some way. For instance, in Max Payne games, a substance called Valkyr gives users vibrant hallucinations when it’s injected.
Another 32 percent boost a character’s power while ingested, while 28 percent increase a character’s health. In the BioShock series, for example, a drug called ADAM lets players gain new abilities or improve current abilities. And Duke Nukem 3D attempts a pretty realistic portrayal of steroids, which allow the character to double their speed, boost their attacks—and then endure the effects of the steroids until they wear off.
Drugs in Video Games During the Last Two Decades
By looking at a decade’s worth of data, you can track the trends in drug references in video games. In the late ’90s, games featuring drugs were relatively uncommon. GameCubes, XBoxes, and Playstations dominated during 2002, when a minor spike occurred. During that year, Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto Vice City debuted amidst controversy about the violence they contained and its effects on young players.
Another jump occurred in 2008, but the releases of games with drugs truly peaked in 2011—a big year in the world of gaming, with the worldwide launch of the Nintendo 3DS and the release of a number of noteworthy games and sequels. Call of Juarez: The Cartel, released in 2011, generated a great deal of excitement (and controversy) for its groundbreaking portrayal of drug wars in Mexico.
Popular Drug Combos in Video Games
In some video games, more than a single drug is featured. The most common combination of drugs? Multiple stimulants. Nearly one-quarter of the games we looked at included more than one stimulant. Used to stay awake, gain energy, and get high, stimulants are extremely addictive. Common examples include cocaine, crack cocaine, and meth.
Almost one-fifth of the games we examined featured a combo of stimulants, psychedelics, and opiates. Opiates are drugs derived from opium, which inhibit pain signals in the brain. Common types include fentanyl, heroin, and oxycodone. Psychedelic drugs, which alter the thought process of users, include LSD, mushrooms, and salvia.
The Grand Theft Auto series of games contain an array of substances, including cocaine, heroin, and marijuana. L.A. Noire features both heroin and morphine, and Narc—a controversial game that includes killing fictional drug dealers—includes references to numerous drugs, including cocaine, heroin, LSD, and marijuana.
Illicit Substances in Games
Whether portrayed with gritty realism or eye-rolling cheesiness, it appears drugs in video games are here to stay. Our research reveals an intriguing glimpse into the role that both real and make-believe substances play in our favorite games. But injecting, consuming, and snorting illicit substances to gain strength or speed in a game is much different from doing so in real life. If you or someone you care about is losing their battle with drugs, get help today. Our knowledgeable staff is more than happy to help you start your path to a better future, contact us today at 561.631.9478.
We examined the top 100 bestselling games per console and then analyzed each ESRB rating for substance use in order to further investigate the types of drug use present per game.
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