Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Tobacco Move to Video Games

I grew up in an era where I saw smoking fairly prevalent in movies and television. Lighting up a cigarette or cigar on the big screen was part of the norm. Movies such as 'Scarface' helped drive more of the cultural norm about cigarette usage. One of my favorite movies, 'Blade Runner,' utilizes the smoke from cigarettes to create unique shadows and atmosphere to add intensity to a scene. I wasn't influenced by smoking. Never had one, and never want to. My parents taught me about the media and the difference between reality and fantasy at a young age. But for a number of kids, the "coolness" associated with smoking became synonymous with the movies. And who doesn't want to be cool?

It wasn't until the late 90's that we began to see the smoking trend take a turn after a massive push-back from the CDC, consumer rights groups, and eventually Hollywood itself to help promote a healthier America. After so many years and regulations against tobacco companies, you'll be hard pressed to find a cigarette in a film these days. And if it's on television, it's usually the punch-line for a jokes, or the character is admonished for their habit (Chandler from 'Friends' comes to mind).

Why am I talking about smoking? The Truth Initiative, the people that make those "real life" ad campaigns about smoking, recently released a study about smoking in video games. Titled 'Played-Smoking and Video Games' the report is upfront about the fact that they don't know how video game playing ties in to one's smoking habits. But they do note that there is an increase in the number of characters portrayed with cigarettes.

The group interviewed 44 teens and young adults to get their perception about smoking in video games. Before I hear the cry's of foul, I realize that 44 people is not a good sample size. It's certain that a larger sample, even with 100 people, would yield better results and, most likely, fewer people commenting on smoking characters. Franchises from Nintendo are devoid of all cigarette references. They compared their findings to the University of California at San Francisco's 2015 study where they found 42% of today's most commonly played video games contain tobacco references. The ESRB labeled 8% with a warning. And given recent studies that show that 44% of teens and young adults are more likely to smoke if they see a movie character do it, connections are being made that video games are no different.

The Truth Initiative has a few steps that they want the ESRB and the government to take - such as labeling all games as M if there are any tobacco references. Dudes and dudettes...it's not a crime to smoke. That option seems a bit too extreme even for my anti-smoking tastes.

What I would be curious to find out is if tobacco lobbyists are using their funds to entice game designers to add cigarettes into games. Based on popularity right now, GTA Online, Call of Duty Black Ops 2, there are no brands associated with the cigarettes. But for lobbyists, any sale is a sale.

Or is this another instance of my generation growing up with the images of smoking being edgy, and using it as a trope to represent an aspect of their characters without spelling it out with dialogue?

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