Earlier today, The Truth Initiative released a paper entitled âPlayed â Smoking and Video Gamesâ , in which the organization levies some pretty heavy accusations at the video game industry. This report states that âtobacco use is prevalent in video games,â that studios use smoking to make âcharacters âtougherâ or âgrittierâ,â and that these elements are prone to make youth pick up smoking.
The desired outcome is to encourage parents to monitor what games their children play, urge the ESRB to label games containing tobacco use, and to demand game developers and publisher to stop including tobacco use and tobacco images in their games. They even request that policymakers look into creating laws to stop depictions of tobacco use in games that children may play.
âThere is a lot still to be learned about smoking and video games. But we know enough to have serious, well-based concerns,â says the Truth report. âA 2015 survey found that 26% of males and 22% of females between the ages of 18-24 who play games, also bought cigarettes, but we do not know if or how their smoking behavior is influenced by the games they play.â
The report, while admitting âlittle scientific researchâ has been done on the impact of tobacco in video games, believes that studies detailing smoking in film is a fair comparison. Citing an editorial from 2000, they quote it by saying â44% of adolescents who start smoking do so because of smoking images they have seen in the movies.â This might be seen as a false cause, especially since the editorial only states that that these children were âattributable to movie exposure,â which is a far cry from a causal effect.
The report also uses several childrenâs responses to questions about smoking, that seem geared towards identifying smoking as a culprit. Most of these quotes seem to be in response to directed questions, asking specifically about Truthâs concerns. In a video posted to Truthâs YouTube page , one kid responds, âI think it would be like the Lieutenant or the Captain commander guy, like the guy in charge,â in response to a question that one could only assume was similar to âWhat kind of characters smoke in games?â None of the questions asked or how these kids were approached were provided in the video. The emotional scenes of Ghostâs death in Advanced Warfare 2 is called âcoolâ by a young girl, her answer clearly edited to imply that the smoking was the source of her admiration.
On page three of the report, Truth quotes a National Cancer Institute report , stating that âmedia communications play a key role in shaping tobacco-related knowledge, opinions, attitudes and behaviors among individuals and within communities.â Upon pulling up this document, I discovered that the study found that media âaffects both tobacco use and prevention,â just as Truthâs article is attempting to âshape tobacco-related knowledgeâ as well, the report specifically mentions âmedia campaigns for tobacco control.â
According to a French psychology paper by seven doctors entitled âEarly substance consumption and problematic use of video games in adolescence,â states that despite finding a correlation between video gaming and higher consumption of alcohol, they found that tobacco use âdoes not vary between video gamers and non-video gamers.â The report continues, stating that âit seems that exposure to tobacco and cannabis through video games is not as important as exposure to alcohol.â The study does suggest however that longer play time can contribute to first substance consumption, but this can be drugs, alcohol or tobacco and is more likely in addictive personalities.
The Truth report mentions games like Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea, Fallout, Halo, Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 and Advanced Warfare 2- all games that have been rated as Mature by the ESRB . Starcraft 2, which does feature smoking characters, and received a T rating that states there to be âuse of alcohol and tobacco.â The ESRB states that content descriptors are ânot intendedâ to list every type of content, and that âabsence of a content descriptor does not necessarily mean the total absence of such content.â
The article also cites a 2015 survey called âTobacco imagery in video games: ratings and gamer recallâ that suggests that 42% of video games participants played had smoking in it, but that only 8% of those games received âUse of tobaccoâ warnings on their ESRB review. This study asked participants to list their favorite games, and then to recall which ones had smoking in it. These games were then analysed for tobacco usage, and then cross checked with the ESRB. One of the authors provided me with their list, which includes games that failed to describe scenes featuring smoking; including Final Fantasy VII, Deus Ex, Team Fortress 2, Half-Life. 74% of the games on the list are rated M, and most of those do not warn about tobacco use.
While there have been games that the ESRB clearly missed in E to T (mostly of background or side characters), the survey also has some discrepancies of its own. Star Wars Galaxies is listed, and points to a user created wiki page describing an online character called âAdam-Wan Ken-Obi,â who has a character description mentioning the seriesâ âdeath sticks.â The list also includes Goat Simulator, and links to a video entitled âGoat Simulator: Bacon Cigarettes,â which doesnât feature the consumption of either bacon nor cigarettes, and is titled that way simply because the commentator states at the beginning of the video âall we need now is some bacon cigarettes and we can all die happy.â I reached out to the author of the list for comment, but they were unable to be reached in time for publication.
In one section of âPlayedâ, it uses examples of tobacco use from various titles over the past few years as clear indicators of tobacco encouragement. In one example, they point out that Fallout: New Vegas features chewing tobacco, which provides a character with increased perception and agility. They however fail to mention that players can get addicted to the substance, and has negative outcomes through its use . They also suggest that Assassinâs Creed promotes the use of tobacco simply because one can trade it in the game. These games are also rated Mature.
The Master Settlement Agreement, a 1998 accord between most of the United States, forbids the payment or any other considerations to promote tobacco products âin any motion picture, television show, theatrical production or other live performance, live or recorded performance of music, commercial film or video, or video game.â
âThe glamorization of smoking in video games is cause for serious concern, particularly because youth spend more time playing video games than going to the movies,â said Robin Koval, CEO and President of Truth Initiative in a press release. âTobacco products are often used by âcoolâ and âstrongâ characters, by characters controlled by the players themselves, and are often not reflected in a gameâs rating. We hope this report will lead to better awareness of how tobacco images might be influencing kids to smoke. It should also drive the gaming industry to become more transparent in disclosing and describing the potentially harmful content of their games.â
Truths plan to help eradicate teenage smoking has several points of focus, including the ESRB properly identifying incidents of smoking in video games, and a call to parents to monitor activity. However, they are also requesting that âdevelopers and publishers should stop including tobacco use and tobacco images in their games.â They also want government to step in, asking policymakers to ârecognize that the prevalence of tobacco use in video games may undermine public health gains in the reduction of youth tobacco use.â They end their article, asking âgovernment agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health should undertake in-depth research on the impact of tobacco use imagery in entertainment media, including video games.â
What do you think? Does the video game industry indirectly promote smoking, or are these traits used as a way of painting characteristics? Let us know in the comments, and if you enjoy articles like this, make sure you continue reading Mouse N Joypad.
We reached out to The Truth Initiative, but was unable to reach them for follow-up questions.