Study: Games Aren't Portraying the Adverse Effects of Drug Use

More than 100 games were examined for a study from the Archstone organization

Trevor Philips is portrayed as a drug addict in 'Grand Theft Auto 5'

Drug use in video games is often shown in a positive light, giving characters performance boosts and "unlikely strength," a new study from drug addiction awareness organization Archstone recently found (via BBC News).

To conduct its study, Archstone data scientist Logan Freedman looked at the 100 best-selling games across each console, taking note of the real-world and fictional drugs within. "It found that in the games that featured drug use, the majority – 61 percent – used real-world names. And in several cases, the fictional drugs were obvious replicas of real drugs," BBC says. 

Across genres, action games feature the most mentions of drugs, falling just over 50 percent. Role-Playing games comes in at second with over 20 percent of games mentioning drugs in some capacity, while shooters featured the lowest mention at just under 20 percent. 

The issue with the prevalence of drugs in games is not simply their existence, but the way they're used. Oftentimes, drugs are used as a health or performance boost. A staple of the Max Payne series, for example, is the titular protagonist's use of pain killers to replenish health – which he's addicted to. Similarly, in Arkane's 2017 game Prey, drinking alcohol replenishes health, at the cost of briefly-blurred vision.

Freedman, though, points to a more nefarious – albeit fictional – drug in The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim: Skooma. "It's a crystal. You smoke it out of a glass pipe and you have withdrawal afterwards," Freedman said, drawing similarities to crack cocaine. 

In other games, players are encouraged to make a drug cocktail of sorts "[u]sed to stay awake, gain energy, and get high, stimulants are extremely addictive. ... Common examples include cocaine, crack cocaine, and meth," Freedman said, though neither he or the BBC mentioned any specific examples.

Though the results of Archstone's study might be eye-raising, the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) said its "happy with its drugs-related guidance."

"The ESRB's robust rating submission process ensures accurate, detailed and reliable rating information that parents are aware of, regularly use and trust to help decide which games and apps are appropriate for their children and family," a spokeswoman for the Board told the BBC. 

"The ESRB rating system weighs factors that are unique to an interactive medium, such as the reward system, frequency, and the degree of player control among others," the ESRB added. "Therefore, the mere presence of something like a health pack in a game may not result in a restrictive rating being assigned.

"However, given the context in which drugs appear in a game, the ESRB may assign a restrictive age rating, along with either the drug reference or use-of-drugs content descriptor."

Freedman tells the outlet he doesn't want game content to be changed in anyway, rather given the drug-related content in some games, he hopes parents will be more mindful of what their children are playing. 

"They're made for adults. It says [so] directly on the box," Freedman said.