Drinking Games: Addiction In Virtual Spaces

An exploration of addiction in gaming, whether as a mechanical device or something more.

“Looking for a fix, man?” asked the unscrupulous dealer who met The Courier at the gates of Freeside. “I got what you need.”

Money was tight, but Dixon’s self-branded whiskey seemed too good a deal to pass up. Four bottles in exchange for a handful of caps closed the deal before The Courier headed for The Atomic Wrangler to bunk for the night. His ten cap room wasn’t much, but four walls, a roof, and a locked door within this pocket of civilisation beat roaming the Mojave. These were perfect conditions to indulge in a bottle of his newly acquired firewater before bed.

The Courier awoke to three empty bottles, little memory post check-in, and a blinding headache. With the little cash he had, he headed for the slots, but not before sinking his last bottle to take the edge off.

The rest of the day played out in bursts of three; shuttle runs between the tables, the bar, the cashier’s desk – a desperate, yet ruthless trifecta. The next few days went much the same as The Courier sustained himself on a blur of whisky, beer, and small but steady roulette winnings. No food, no water, no sleep. Day four marked the end of his luck, not to mention his money, and a botched pickpocket attempt saw him finally outstay his welcome at The Wrangler, a sentiment confirmed by the ricochet of gunshots that ushered him to the door.

With no money and nowhere to go, The Courier spilled onto the streets, dehydrated and sleep deprived. Worst of all, though, he needed a drink. He needed a drink.

“Looking for a fix, man?” The Courier’s heart both sank and skipped a beat simultaneously. “I got what you need.”

Clean out of whisky, Dixon suggested a batch of his self-branded Jet amphetamine. The Courier reluctantly obliged, before crashing at a dilapidated house at the far end of town. A soiled mattress marked the end of his travels as he passed in his sleep.

Image taken from the Real World Drinks Alcohol Addon

Substance addiction is a subject almost completely ignored by video games. Few games have attempted to broach the subject, and those that have have tended to do so by enforcing tropes, or to facilitate plot devices.

In 2010’s Fallout: New Vegas, ‘hardcore’ mode forces players to monitor the protagonist’s sleep patterns, as well as his hydration levels. By overindulging in chems and/or alcohol there’s a good chance that The Courier will become addicted. At first, this creates certain perks for the hero – strength is increased after consuming booze, for example – but thereafter negatively affects his condition. He becomes lethargic, lacks focus, becomes dehydrated – this can eventually lead to death. Granted, New Vegas puts the problem of addiction in place, but then, frustratingly, does very little else with it.

The above narrative is an attempt to draw parallels with the real world and how very destructive substance addiction can be. However, in this virtual reality, addiction is so easily dealt with it is almost a gimmick. To put things into context, picking locks in The Atomic Wrangler proves a far more arduous task than going cold turkey, and a quick doctors visit can reverse any ill-effects instantly. That said, Obsidian’s post-apocalyptic Las Vegas sandbox is one of the few games which dares to portray a degree of real addiction at all.

So the ultimate question is why is this the case? If addiction is readily portrayed in literature, in cinema, in books, and in music, why are there not more substantial, more intelligent explorations of a very real and systemic social issue via video games – particularly given the interactive nature of the platform? If people want to understand drug addiction, video games can surely help bridge that gap.

Generally speaking, games – particularly those within the mainstream spectrum – fail to engage any systemic social issues head-on, tending to broach such concerns tangentially if at all. Societal issues – either sociopolitical or socioeconomic – are usually explored in order to prop up the functions of genres (as in much genre fiction in other media), and thus are rarely scrutinised at any length.

“I think there’s still this idea that people don’t understand addiction as a coping mechanism often for stress and trauma,” says Harry Shapiro, the chief executive of UK-wide addiction information charity DrugScope, pointing to the stigma that society tends to hold against substance addiction. “No one rightly wants to become addicted to drugs or alcohol, or anything for that matter, obviously people find themselves in situations where they then turn to drugs or alcohol to cope. But the problem is, of course, you make a choice to start taking drugs, whatever it may be. However justified the reasons might be, some people see this is as, ‘well, that’s your decision, that’s your lifestyle choice, hard luck if you get into trouble.

“That said, we carried out a general public poll just a few years ago, and there was a lot of sympathy for the idea that if people want to get off drugs or alcohol, then there should be proper services to help them do that. People do understand to some extent – people get themselves into these situations, but still should be able to be helped out of them.”

Video games don’t necessarily have the power to directly help people out of such compromising situations, but given the recent surge of independent games tackling wider and deeper social themes – Actual Sunlight, Depression Quest, and Ether One, to name but a few – they could serve to better educate people about the illness of addiction.

Instead, what we have are games like Max Payne 3, which depicts its protagonist as an alcoholic, but instead of doing so with empathy, Payne’s addiction really only serves to perpetuate a handicap and his image as a stereotypical emotionless ‘lone wolf’; glamourising his alcoholism in the way that The Sopranos glamourises organised crime. BioShock’s portrayal of addiction crudely facilitates its foes in the way of violent, gene tonic-obsessed Splicers, not to mention Jack’s reliance on Eve to succeed. Even though it may well be intended as a satirical swipe at Nancy Reagan’s “War on Drugs” political campaign of the time, Williams’ 80s classic NARC saw the protagonist rid the streets of roaming ‘junkies’ with a machine gun as a means of combating drug addiction. Charming.

Shapiro notes that the internet has blown the conversation about drugs in the public domain wide open. Information can now be shared freely on a global scale which is a great thing, yet it’s also introduced easier means of sharing drugs and drug recipes – particularly via the dark web. Although not particularly well-versed in video games, Shapiro mentions a recent magazine article which caught his eye – a piece about GamerGate, and how Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest was under fire. Shapiro hadn’t known about the game before and the article brought it to his attention. Instead of focusing on the negatives of the situation, he identified that the game’s treatment of the issue suggested there was scope for innovation in his own field.

“I don’t actually know all that much about games – I’m not a gamer,” he says. “But I can see that if it’s done in the right way with the right kind of motivation behind it, and of course the right research and evidence, then it could be a great thing. There’s plenty of rubbish out there, not just in games, in everything: drug information, drug films, and so on.

“If it’s done in the right way, though, and it’s entertaining as well as educational, it could be good. I’m interested in talking to people who develop these games because I think it’s an area that hasn’t really been explored properly and, potentially, could be very valuable.”

One such game which does approach substance addiction from an educational and wholesome point of view is Minority Media’s Papo and Yo. Based upon creator Vander Caballero’s real life experiences with an abusive alcoholic father, Papo and Yo sees protagonist Quico at times help, and other times flee, a monster type figure which stands as a metaphor for his childhood.

The aim of the game is to tackle a series of puzzle set pieces, whilst directing the monster along the way. At first, the monster seems endearing, but eventually frogs are introduced to the game’s puzzle mechanics, which represent alcohol. By consuming the frogs, the monster is sent into a burning rage whereby he then seeks to attack Quico with depicting the very real Jekyll and Hyde personas of Caballero’s now deceased father.

“I had to tell the story in a medium that no one had told before,” Caballero explains. “I had to show something that could actually help [the player] to be in my shoes, and see what I felt. In video games, the topic of addiction is barely touched upon, there are so many topics which we do not touch. But video games are very powerful simulations that give us a lot more in depth emotion experiences with the subject, for example when you go to a movie, you sit for two hours, you identify yourself with the character, and then you just leave. In games like Papa and Yo, you are actually there in real time. If you drop the controller, the monster is still enraged. If you stand still, what is he going to do? He’s going to attack you.

“At the moment, the most precious thing is – because actually you’re dealing with the most difficult emotions that you’ve lived through in the past – you’re reliving them; but you’re reliving them in a safe place. That is the power of video games, and I think that’s why Papo and Yo was appreciated. I think people appreciated the game because it’s inspiring the medium of video games to confront a sensitive subject.”

The juxtaposition between the whimsical and the terrifying in Papo and Yo illustrates the temperamentality of substance addicts so well that even those with little understanding can appreciate Caballero’s message. Papo and Yo marks a milestone in how video games can not only acknowledge addiction, but can also serve to educate in an oft-ignored area.

In essence, the industry is growing up. The average age of video game players in the UK is now 35 years old, thus the average player is likely to know, or have crossed paths with, or have at least heard of an addict at some point in their lifetime. There is more space now for the conversation than ever, and as an interactive medium video games can help broaden and modernise the discussion.

“We’re just at the beginning of a new era in video games – one that we’re striving to tackle difficult subjects all around,” adds Caballero. “A lot of beautiful independent games will be released in years to come. Once you open the genie bottle, a lot of personal things will come out that are really touching. But it’s really hard as an independent developer to be in the position where you’re able to take a leap of faith and create an emotional game – to find money to make them and in turn make money back. The drama genre in movies is highly profitable and sustainable – we don’t have a sustainable model to create games like Papo and Yo, just yet.”

The drama genre in gaming is expanding, however, both through the creation of games that fit directly within it, and through the introduction of everyday concerns and social issues in the sci-fi and fantasy mainstays. The ways in which BioWare weaves real life drama, tension, love, and loss into its Mass Effect series strikes at the heart of its players, and Obsidian handles similar themes with comparable prestige in the aforementioned Fallout: New Vegas. DontNod Entertainment’s Life Is Strange is in essence a coming of age of story – dealing with cliques, abuse, friendship, and romance. Although not entirely divorced from sci-fi elements, it does have a more distinct focus on the real world when compared to its genre counterparts.

With Papo and Yo, Minority Media has set a precedent and a standard for itself, in continuing to push boundaries and by tackling subject matter which evokes social commentary – something Caballero freely admits. After the game’s release, Minority was inundated with personal tales from players who could easily relate to the game. By playing out Caballero’s metaphorical depiction of his formative years, players saw their own stories, and their own struggles and experiences with addiction, and they thanked Caballero for his creation.

Perhaps one of the most interesting stories was sent from a father who had watched his son playing Papo and Yo. He later contacted Caballero to say that the game had made him realise how his son felt whenever he chose to shout at him. Not only can a game like Papo and Yo touch victims, but it can also touch the aggressors; again testament to the power of the medium.

“I think there could be a market for this kind of thing that simply goes beyond people who play games,” says Shapiro. “Unfortunately there’s a certain image of the kind of people who’re deep into gaming, but I think if you did the right sort of game then it could be valuable for professionals, for clinicians, staff who work in treatment services – all kinds of people – who aren’t your classic, stereotype of a gamer.

“So as well as an audience within the traditional gaming community for this kind of thing, I think it’s got a potential beyond that.”

For information and help with addiction, check the list of resources below (UK only):

DrugScope: 020 7234 9730; info[at]drugscope[dot]co[dot]uk
Talk to FRANK: 0300 123 6600; text 82111; frank[at]talktofrank[dot]com
Alcoholics Anonymous UK: 0845 769 7555; help[at]alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk

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26 Comments

  1. RaoulDuke says:

    “Instead, what we have are games like Max Payne 3, which depicts its protagonist as an alcoholic, but instead of doing so with empathy, Payne’s addiction really only serves to perpetuate a handicap and his image as a stereotypical emotionless ‘lone wolf’; glamourising his alcoholism in the way that The Sopranos glamourises organised crime.”

    The horrific vomiting, drunken head shaving and CONSTANTLY reminding us of how much he regrets his decisions [which I’m sure drink plays a big part in making]. Looks life a reaaal attractive life choice, not. I think he’s a great character I don’t want to BE him. Do other people want to be middle-aged, ex-cop alcoholics?

    • RaoulDuke says:

      Italics fail!

    • P.Funk says:

      I never realized that the Sopranos glorified organized crime….

      • MuscleHorse says:

        Was going to say that; otherwise great article, but that line makes Joe sound like he hasn’t actually seen it and has just picked a random crime pop culture name.

        • P.Funk says:

          Its a very weak angle to take when you’re doing that cheap swipe at mainstream gaming by saying X Y or Z is glorifying stuff. It really speaks to preconceptions over firm understanding of things. Its even apparent this part of the article is rather lazy about it since we get this line:

          Even though it may well be intended as a satirical swipe at Nancy Reagan’s “War on Drugs” political campaign of the time, Williams’ 80s classic NARC saw the protagonist rid the streets of roaming ‘junkies’ with a machine gun as a means of combating drug addiction. Charming.

          Open with caveat that criticism may be invalid, close with smug impertinence as if you’re validated. Meh, very very meh.

          I’ll take my conversation about the potential of games to heal addiction without the requisite moral outrage at mainstream society.

    • Premium User Badge

      Henke says:

      Agreed. I’m replaying MP3 right now and all the drinking scenes are just Max sitting in his hotel room and feeling miserable and thinking about his dead wife. There’s nothing glamorous about it.

  2. gunny1993 says:

    I am kind of waiting for a game to move me to understand something in the same way “Flower’s for Algernon” did, “To The Moon” got the closest but I think it could have done more with the format, maybe a cross between to the moon and “Gravity Ghost” would be what I’d want.

    But the nature of these things is that you didn’t know you needed it until it was there.

  3. Premium User Badge

    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    As recently as last year we had Wasteland 2 with “Junkie” NPCs who attack on site. There is an option to give them drugs but if you don’t have any you will be attacked. Is there a story that plays out if you don’t kill them? Seems like the writers were again going for the same old drug-addicted-psycho trope you see in most post-apocalyptic fiction.

    I actually played my New Vegas character as an alcoholic. ANY booze I found I immediately had to drink. Well, I guess I don’t mean immediately immediately, more like after nobody is trying to kill you immediately. It is actually quite easy to be sloshed the entire game.

  4. K33L3R says:

    Condemned 2 had a mechanic were your alcoholic character had to drink otherwise he’d get the shakes and would be unable to aim correctly, don’t know if it affected the game any more beyond that
    His actual addiction got brushed over for the most part, it did help establish how badly messed up the guy was but wasn’t really mentioned after that
    I guess it must of done something right for me to remember it years later as nothing else from that game particularly stands out

    • drygear says:

      ***SPOILERS***
      Doesn’t he literally get into some kind of fistfight with his addiction and beat it up?

      • K33L3R says:

        Maybe…?
        I really struggling to recall that but I bet you’re correct, can’t even remember what the ending was or if I even got that far :/

  5. alms says:

    I was afraid this post would post P&Y for me, but I think if anything, it’s pushed it up the ranks in the backlog.

  6. simontifik says:

    I think the main reason we haven’t seen much serious treatment of drugs in gaming is because most game developers probably haven’t had substance abuse problems on the scale of other mediums. Artists, musicians, writers and actors have a much longer history of involvement in drug culture so there is no shortage of art, music, books and movies about drugs. When heroin becomes rife in the programming community we might see some serious treatment of drugs in games.

    • P.Funk says:

      its because gaming isn’t a serious medium for social consumption. Its strongly embedded in the “its just a game, something to waste time and escape in” category and the whole “games as art” conversation is still very pedantic and exhausting. We haven’t reached the point it seems where most normal people are willing to allow gaming to exist both as Transformers as well as Her.

      One day I think.

    • ZPG Lazarus says:

      You definitely have to be an addict to understand how it feels. Comic books and Hollywood try the “drug issues” with their own characters like Tony Stark and Roy Harper (Speedy). A few issues of shooting up/drinking, and in a climatic issue they suddenly stop for good. If the authors were ever in that place they’d know its not that simple in the real world.

      As far as drinking games go, most people don’t want admit they’re alcoholics–I didn’t–but they want resolution with the emotions they’re trying to deal with. As an alcoholic, I didn’t want a “drinking game” to help me–I just needed to ease the pain. I was estranged from my family so I played Gone Home. I had serious anger issues, so I played Left 4 Dead. I needed people in my life, so I went to AA.

      Simply, we don’t want some stupid game demonizing us or going “woe is me.” We want a simple tonic of a game that can help us search our soul and find out why we’re filling the hole in our hearts with drugs.

    • Jackablade says:

      A lot of development is about working for long hours, often late at night, often under a lot of stress. It also, in my experience, attracts a large number of people who tend towards social and emotional difficulties.

      While it’s not fine dining restaurant levels, I’d speculate that you’d probably find higher than average drug use in games studios and certainly unhealthy degrees of alcohol consumption.

      • El_Emmental says:

        Drug use, not so much – you can easily get fired for a failed test and heavy drugs are too physically and mentally demanding to be compatible with software development. Some will take some pills on the weekend (clubs/rave), but won’t be able to do that during the week. It’s just that you can’t take off several days out of a project because of a bad “episode”: you forget what you were coding, where you were in the development process, it’s lengthening the development way too much and it’s an even bigger problem when several programmers need to work together.

        But I can confirm the widespread alcoholism in software development: combining the high stress and the extreme tension between the commercially-minded management and the logically-minded developer tends to put the devs in an inescapable situation, where they have to push their intellectual logic abilities to the max, on a project that is driven by a completely subjective (and often illogical) analysis of the business situation.

        And when that business analysis ends up actually making lots of money (when it shouldn’t if humans were logical), it’s even more mentally straining: the world is completely absurd, their job is completely illogical, but they still have to switch to an insanely logical way of thinking whenever they code. A typical day begins with no drink (or just one), then once the managers aren’t there or too busy, a drink or two in the afternoon. The rest is done at home, when releasing the pressure. Large companies like Google or Microsoft actually have people working on that, trying to understand what could be done to reduce the severity of the problem.

  7. Xzi says:

    An interesting article, but it all leads in to the bigger issue of the mental health stigma in the US. Despite what the old ad campaigns said, crime does pay. It’s just that it usually pays out biggest for the US courts and criminal justice system, not to mention all the taxes and fees that get collected by the city and state. Especially when even the jails are becoming privatized now. Why would they want proper treatment for mental health issues and/or drug addiction (one tying in to the other usually), when repeat offenders for minor crimes like possession pay the bills?

    Bit of a tangent there, but the point is this: our country refuses to have a serious dialogue on mental health and the drug addictions that occur as a result. As long as the system itself is fundamentally broken and closed off from that discussion, a video game on the subject is not going to change anything. Call me a pessimist, but it is what it is.

    • cylentstorm says:

      I don’t know if others would call you a pessimist for stating an honest opinion, but I won’t. I applaud anyone who would expand the boundaries of digital media to include socially- and politically-relevant issues rather than shy away from the slightest possibility of offending someone’s delicate sensibilities. However, There have been countless songs, books, movies, photographs, paintings, etc. that have broached the subject of drugs in various ways, yet most seem to more oblivious or ignorant than ever. I’m not sure that a video game would have any more of a significant impact than more traditional media–interactive or not.

      Sure–the decriminalization of marijuana is a source of much debate here, “hard” substances provide income for those on either side of the law, and alcohol is as much of a mainstay of US society as it ever was, but prescription drugs are both omnipresent and nearly always ignored, save for a few blurbs in mainstream news media. The reality is that most of the pushers wear white lab coats now, and will happily take your money in exchange for magic pills that will “cure” what ails you–no matter how severe or trivial that may be, and never mind the long list of side-effects. Pharmaceuticals have become the go-to solution for the majority of the populace, and dependency upon them is as common as soccer-moms in SUVs. Better living through chemistry, indeed.

      Yes–by all means–open and honest dialogue over addiction in any form is welcome and necessary, but opening another channel for communication is of little use if no one is paying attention.

  8. Mr Coot says:

    Re: “…why are there not more substantial, more intelligent explorations of a very real and systemic social issue via video games”. I would suggest that one of the reasons the industry does not explore addiction more in games, is the fear of killing off its best customers after they begin introspecting on the nature of addiction and recognising addictive patterns in their own consumption of games. Personally, I have the means to support a heavy consumption of games and am very satisfied with my current level of consumption so doubt addiction/addiction recovery themes would make me question my own game consumption (just what an addict would say, I’m sure).

    I considered societal censure as a reason for the industry not being willing to explore addiction more, but decided that as long as there was a classification under which the game could be legally released, any action to shut down a game by lobby groups would probably have the effect of generating more sales. ;)

    • Mr Coot says:

      cof cof. Don’t mind me, replying to self… but I thought about this a bit more and I’ve changed my mind on the suspicion I would be immune to messages regarding addiction and addiction recovery in games. I think if those messages were too prevalent, I would probably just avoid those games. I suppose it must be like a smoker (just guessing, I am not one) faced with graphic images and health warnings on ciggie packs. I would rather be left alone to enjoy my addiction in peace!

  9. gruia says:

    this is not much of a problem.
    if people had good eastern buddhist education, and learn about attachments
    hell, people dont even know their love is an obsession and addiction ))

    what im saying is these games only scratch the surface. they are like headless chikens who are meant to whine and sooth isntead of being constructive

    our culture is way too immature. and i dont have the studio to educate it

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      So.. if you think all that, I wonder why your conclusion is that it’s not much of a problem.

      • P.Funk says:

        Perhaps he’s trying to suggest that the flaw in western culture is so great that simply expanding the scope of what a few computer games do won’t really count as more then a drop in the bucket.

  10. Premium User Badge

    Wisq says:

    I think one issue with addiction in games is player control. Specifically, the fact that the player has control, and that game design typically dictates that you shouldn’t take control away.

    Part of the reason it’s so easy to go cold turkey — or other similar willpower tests, like keeping your character’s weight under control in GTA San Andreas, or taking care of your Sims — is that the player decides almost every action for the character with the cool detachment of not actually living that character’s life. Your character doesn’t get cravings, they don’t do things when you’re not paying attention (since you’re always paying attention), etc. Essentially, your PC is your pet — they may start whining at you because they’re hungry, but when and how much they get fed is still entirely up to you, at least until it starts directly risking their health.

    Now admittedly, I don’t know of any friends of mine having taken hard drugs, but I do have some smoker friends, and I’ve heard the horror stories of trying (and failing, in their case) to quit. The cravings, tightly linked to when they used to smoke, e.g. immediately after every single meal. The habits — when I asked “can’t you just not buy any more cigarettes and wait it out?”, they spoke of finding themselves heading to their usual smoke shop and buying more cigarettes entirely on autopilot. (When’s the last time your game PC wandered off to the shop and bought something without you telling them to?)

    Games also don’t typically try too hard to monitor your character’s mental health (with some exceptions). If you want to simulate a drug addiction system via game mechanics, it’s probably best represented by your character undergoing mental stresses that actively hamper their ability to perform normal tasks, and then offering various ways out. Typically, there would be a slow-and-difficult “healthy” solution, and a quick-but-temporary substance abuse solution. But then you’re still faced with the problem that the player can easily identify and choose the healthy solution with little regard to realistic willpower.

    Finally, there’s also the issue that (AFAIK, not an expert) a lot of substance abuse occurs when a character is otherwise unhappy about something. While we frequently have characters who have lost a loved one, been betrayed, etc etc., they’re usually far too busy kicking ass to really feel bad about it for any length of time. But then, this also probably relates back to social stigmas about mental health, and not wanting a lead character to seem “weak” (even if mential issues shouldn’t be seen that way).

    • El Mariachi says:

      The converse is that making/letting one’s avatar take mind-altering substances doesn’t alter the player’s state of mind. You don’t get high just because your Sims are, so it’s not any more fun than if they’re not.

      (I’m reminded of RPGs where players can have casual sex with NPCs (*coughWitcher*) — what’s the point? A not-even-very-titillating cutscene? Granted, some games use it as a way of strengthening interpersonal relationships, but even then it’s mostly just a way to boost an NPC’s loyalty or fulfill a side-quest.)