Video games are popular and immersive sources of media across all age groups. With the advanced gaming systems and dazzling digital effects we have today, video games have become a primary form of entertainment for young kids, as well as adults. However, with so many games rated for kids ages 10 and up, people may not think that a game intended for children would promote any questionable content.
Yet, in 2011, 12.6 percent of newly released video games featured tobacco. Throughout the last several decades, the surgeon general has warned about the dangerous influence of smoking in media on youth, encouraging less widespread normalization of the deadly habit. However, smoking remains prevalent across films, video games, and other forms of media.
Smoking in Video Games
Smoking in video games is used similarly to smoking in films; it is a quick and easy habit to give a character to convey them as careless, tough, and even cool. With so many teens and young adults eager to be depicted in these ways, it’s no surprise the influence video games are having.
According to the Surgeon General of the United States, youth who are exposed to images of smoking in movies and other media like video games are more likely to smoke, with those getting the most exposure to smoking in films becoming about twice as likely to start smoking as those who see minimum amounts of smoking in films and entertainment. These normalizations of smoking in media are pushing smoking towards unwary players.
Red Dead Redemption 2
This western action-adventure game was released in October 2018, and was the biggest entertainment launch of the year, grossing almost $725 million. To convey its western nature, tobacco is used as a tool and asset throughout the game to fill a “dead eye” meter that allows them to shoot their weapons accurately by slowing down time. It’s a useful tool throughout the game; however, to use it, a player must chew or smoke tobacco to refill the meter, while taking a hit to their character’s health.
Further Reading: Finding Hope in Futility in Red Dead Redemption 2
The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) did not note tobacco use as a part of the video games’ mature nature. This is a common theme; according to a 2015 survey by the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), there was verified tobacco content in 42 percent of the video games that participants reported playing; however, only 8 percent of these games had received tobacco warnings.
Metal Gear Solid
Metal Gear Solid is one of the longest-running video games series. In the last couple of installments of this series, the main character uses smoking to fill a “psyche” meter that allows the character to relax enough to steady his aim. In other installments of the game, smoking has allowed the players to control the time of day and have been the cause of other rewards. Although these games are mature-rated, smoking plays a large role in providing a player with the confidence and relaxation they need to succeed throughout the game.
This popular first-person shooter series allows players to smoke cigarettes to gain “mana,” which allows players to use their special abilities; similar to the aforementioned games, this comes at a slight cost towards the player’s health. The BioShock game developers created several fictional brands of cigarettes and cigars to avoid directly promoting cigarette companies. Throughout these games, there is subtle promotion of smoking through the characters and their surroundings.
Further Reading: “A Man Chooses, A Slave Obeys” | BioShock at 10.
Children, teens, and adults love these video games because they’re so immersive and detailed, and they allow players to feel as though they’re in another world. However, video games have the same influential effects on gamers as movies do on viewers, in regards to how they portray smoking in a positive light. Although these games were Mature-rated, nearly half of U.S. adolescents reported that their parents allowed them to play Mature-rated games at least occasionally, according to the UCSF study.
Negative Media Impact
Children and teens are highly susceptible to media and advertising impact, unable to realize that certain habits are simply meant to convey the personality of a fictional character and should be avoided because they’re entirely unnecessary and bad for their health. However, the tobacco industry knows that to stay afloat, they need to convert today’s youth into smokers.
According to the National Youth Tobacco Survey, 81 percent of high school aged participants said they initially purchased vape-ware because they were offered in flavors they liked.
Since the huge rise in vaping, smoking among teens has dropped significantly. However, there is a greater portion of the youth population vaping now than there ever was smoking, raising concerns among medical professionals due to the lack of long-term studies on the health effects of vaping.
Although smoking and vaping have been normalized through the media, smoking continues to kill 1000 Americans every day; and over 16 million Americans were living with a smoking-related illness as of 2015. Smoking remains the single most preventable cause of death in the U.S.; which is why the Surgeon General advocates against the positioning of tobacco products in films and video games intended for minors.
People are creatures of habit. The more of a certain habit we see around us, the more influenced we are by them; and it often takes picking up a habit to drop another one. Video games have come a long way in the last several decades, becoming the favorite pastime of many teens and adult individuals.
While video game designers should have the freedom to give their characters personality traits and habits, they should remain wary of the influence this has on consumers. It may be beneficial to consider leaving unnecessary smoking out of video games intended for minors, but those in charge of giving video games an age ranking should be more sensitive to the effects these games are suggested to have on minors and rate them accordingly.