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In 2016, Vice reported information that connected underage drinking to video games which include representations of alcohol. Conversation around video games’ negative influence on young players is nothing new, but typically those conversations focus on laziness and aggression. The inclusion of alcohol use to the conversation could be somewhat frightening to parents of teen gamers.
Since then, some members of the gaming community have spoken up in defense of popular games that include narratives with alcohol. Riley MacLeod, writing for Kotaku in 2018, mentioned the Max Payne series, Firewatch, and Stardew Valley as examples where excessive drinking is portrayed as a bad or dangerous thing. MacLeod also noted that other games like Red Dead Redemption, Mass Effect, and Watch Dogs offer a more nuanced view of alcohol consumption, promoting moderation.
However, not all audiences may interpret virtual drinking scenarios in the same way. Who makes up an audience and how coherently those healthy messages are conveyed determine a lot. Unfortunately, research indicates video games meant to discourage drinking have fallen a bit short of this objective.
Drug Narratives and the Behavior of Young Gamers
A 2016 study revealed that teen players are influenced to drink by video games with narratives that include alcohol consumption. The study discovered that 44% of popular U.K. video games between 2012 and 2013 included drinking within their story arcs. Disconcertingly, adolescents from the ages of 11-17 were twice as likely to drink if they had played these games.
This isn’t the first time substance use in virtual narratives has been brought into question.
It’s worth noting that this issue may reach beyond legal substance abuse. ArchStone Recovery conducted a study on video games released in the early 2010s and found that 32% of the games they studied featured power ups for game characters that used illicit drugs. Additionally, 28% of these drugs had positive health effects for the characters. Since research shows that teen gamers are more likely to drink when playing games that portray drinking, it’s worth asking if players are more likely to use illicit drugs when their games include them as well.
The Influence of Media on Youth Culture
Media has a strong hand in shaping youth culture. Video games are generally targeted to teenagers, but most video games feature adults. The story lines and characters within these games, especially when more realistically crafted, could cause teens to subconsciously view characters as role models.
Similar to how gamers who engage with violent media may be more aggressive, media with alcohol abuse could encourage consumers to drink more. Studies have shown that a surprising 21% of high school children are reportedly binge drinkers. The influence of media on youth culture should be recognized as a potential factor in this problem.
Of course, this isn’t a problem specific to video games. Movies and television shows such as Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why also portray underage drinking and drug use. While youth culture has always had a history of substance experimentation, media portrayal of these problems is something to be examined.
Teaching Critical Thinking to Gaming Teens
Teenagers should be taught the consequences of irresponsible drinking. The toll it can take on a developing mind and body, as well as one’s social relationships, should be presented in a realistic way. Teens should be informed on the dangers of drinking before being presented with the opportunity in real life.
For instance, educators can continue the work put forth by organizations like MADD and show the realities of drunk driving. This is crucial considering that in 5,750 drivers aged 16-20 were involved in fatal crashes related to drunkenness in 2017. Additionally, the dangers of alcoholism to one’s liver and brain should be taught to teens before they are even given the opportunity to drink.
It wouldn’t hurt to explain the lesser-known consequences of drinking, either. This would include the activity’s relationship to rosacea, which is commonly overlooked. It could also include alcoholism’s hand in causing gum disease. The purpose of giving this information to teens wouldn’t be to needlessly scare them, but to ensure they are aware of the real dangers of excessive drinking habits.
If gaming teenagers are taught the dangers of some of the activities they see in games, they will hopefully make positive decisions on their own about drinking. They will be able to play a game like Red Dead Redemption or Max Payne and appreciate it for what it is: a game — not a guide on how to live. Teens must be taught that substance abuse disorders should not be normalized. Instead, they should be handled with mental health and addiction recovery services. The strength of knowledge could triumph over peer pressure.
But the greater hope is that this mindset will transcend video games and be applied by young people to all types of media. Alcohol usage may have found a root in youth culture, but that doesn’t mean teenagers can’t make informed decisions about it. Its place in video games, movies, and TV probably won’t go away any time soon. To change the statistics regarding portrayals of alcohol consumption and youth behavior, young people should know the consequences of irresponsible drinking and why they should avoid it.