Summer’s here and school is out, giving young people everywhere newfound freedom for their favorite pastimes. At the top of the list for many youth? Video games.
What these young people see when playing their favorite video games might surprise you: characters smoking tobacco.
Enter Overwatch, a multi-player game from Blizzard Entertainment that is being called “one of the hottest video game releases of the summer” and in less than a month hit 10 million players. While the game is being lauded in reviews for its refreshing approach and a diverse cast of heroes, tobacco use is front and center in the form of a lit cigar in the mouth of one of those heroes: bounty hunter and outlaw Jesse McCree. With a rating that says play is suitable for teenagers, the game’s tobacco-use imagery sends an influential and potentially harmful message to the young people who play the game.
Overwatch matters as it appears poised to be a major player in the rapidly emerging field of e-sports, where teams of video game players compete in national and international competitions. By one estimate, 71.5 million people watched competitive gaming in 2013, with the largest e-sports events offering multimillion-dollar prize pools. By 2018, e-sports revenue is expected to surpass $1.9 billion.
According to one recent report, international soccer clubs, including some of the largest and most lucrative teams in the world, are looking into sponsoring e-sports teams, including for Overwatch.
But Overwatch is by no means the lone offender.
A recent review by Truth Initiative found that smoking is prevalent and often glamorized in video games popular among youth. When Truth Initiative commissioned 44 video interviews with teen and young adult “gamers,” all of the participants recalled seeing smoking in games on a regular basis. Gamers commented that seeing a character use tobacco made that character appear “tougher” or “grittier.”
Imagery of tobacco use in video games was documented last year in a research study from the University of California, San Francisco. Researchers verified tobacco content in 42 percent of the video games that participants reported playing in their analysis. The researchers also documented that only eight percent of those games had received tobacco warnings from the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the gaming industry’s self-regulatory organization that rates video games and apps.
Video game characters smoke in best-selling game franchises such as Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and Halo. More than 100 million copies of games that feature tobacco use from these franchises have been sold. Unlike Overwatch, these games are rated “Mature” (content generally suitable for ages 17 and up), but they are played by teenagers nationwide.
While the science linking tobacco in video games to youth smoking behavior is still taking shape, tobacco use in video games is likely to promote youth smoking. The best thing that creative and commercial forces behind video games can do to protect youth and young adults from tobacco is to stop depicting characters engaged in smoking.
The U.S. Surgeon General has concluded that exposure to tobacco use in films promotes youth smoking. Video games are likely to work in similar ways. More studies, especially longitudinal studies, are needed to determine whether exposure to tobacco use in video games leads to increased use or facilitates progression to regular use of tobacco.
But, young people are playing video games now and seeing tobacco use glamorized on screen by some of their favorite characters every time they sign on. With video game play ranking as the second favorite media activity for teens and teens that play games averaging two hours and 25 minutes per day, it’s important that we call attention to tobacco use in video games and begin a dialogue about how to protect youth from the very real life threat of tobacco use and nicotine addiction.