It’s the holiday season and video games are showing up on gift wishlists, but how do you know if the games and apps are not only age appropriate, but content appropriate as well, for your children? The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) rating category guide provided on the front of the video package or boxed game can give parents a general idea of the age level and possible content of the game. The game content descriptors are supposed to reference any tobacco use, but often times fail to do so. As an example, “researchers verified tobacco content in 42% of the video games that participants reported playing, but only 8% of these games had received tobacco warnings from the ESRB.” It’s little ways like this that the tobacco industry reaches our youth to normalize smoking and tobacco use.
According to a new report titled “Played: Smoking and Video Games” by truth initiative, “tobacco use is prevalent in video games played by youth.” About “56% of teens play video, computer or mobile games, averaging two hours and 25 minute per day” That is a lot of exposure watching someone using tobacco, even if the characters aren’t real. Gamers identify with the animated characters who “provide role models for behaviors” and help shape game users’ “opinions, attitudes and behaviors” that “smoking is common.”
The tobacco companies deny they target youth, but the placement of tobacco in video games and apps is a form of free advertising, even if specific trademarks are absent. Studies on smoking in movies has found “44% of adolescents who start smoking do so because of smoking images they have seen in the movies,” but few studies have focused on video games. Players spend far more time gaming than watching movies so it would make sense that this exposure to tobacco would have a similar or stronger influence in shaping their attitudes about tobacco. And these tobacco scenes have increased dramatically throughout the years, according to the chart on the right.
Some games allow players to select whether they want a character to smoke, while other games remove that option. In one popular game rated “Teen” (content generally suitable for ages 13+), three of the 13 soldiers players can select smoke. And some of the characters who smoke are the only ones “capable of doing particular tasks.” In another game chewing tobacco provided characters with increased abilities. Players may not be legal age to purchase tobacco for their own use, but their characters can purchase and sell it for profit, again normalizing underage use. It appears if you want to play the game to win, tobacco must play a key role to get the job done.
There are steps that can and should be taken to protect our kids from becoming targets of the tobacco industry while they play games. Most parents would not let their children watch hours of someone smoking or using tobacco, but how many of them know this is exactly what is happening while their child games in video games? One way for this to change is for the ESRB, which is self-regulating, to support and adopt the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control guidelines, and require “adult ratings which restrict access of minors.” We know this will not stop popular games from being used and viewed by minors. Our policymakers, however, are in a position to mandate restrictions of tobacco imagery to youth, whether it is advertised on television, or hidden in a video game.
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