Some video games glamorize smoking so much that cigarettes can help players win
A grizzled cowboy walks up to a train station in an old western town and meets a man smoking a cigarette. This is where the cowboy learns about a good way to make money, an important part of winning the game. If he smokes enough premium cigarettes and collects enough of the trading cards found in each pack, he can sell complete sets — like the “Famous Gunslingers” and the “Prominent Americans” sets — for a fortune.
This is a scene from the massively popular “Red Dead Redemption 2,” just one well-known video game that not only features tobacco imagery, a known contributor to youth smoking, but uses cigarettes as an interactive experience that can even benefit a player.
At a time when the dangers of glamorizing smoking — still the leading cause of preventable death in the country — are well known, many video game makers have not gotten the picture. Research shows a correlation between exposure to smoking imagery and the likelihood to smoke among young people. In fact, 44 percent of adolescents who start smoking do so because of smoking images they see in movies. Tobacco use in video games is likely to promote youth smoking in similar ways, and may even pose additional concerns since video games are more active and intense experiences, according to the Truth Initiative report “Played: Smoking and Video Games.”
“Unlike when people watch movies and merely observe tobacco being used, many games feature playable characters who smoke — simulating and rewarding smoking behavior for the player,” the report states.
While the important issue of violence in video games is well known, few adults may realize how many of the storylines feature tobacco use. Here are four video games that feature smoking as something that can benefit players.
“Red Dead Redemption 2”
In addition to the value of cigarette trading cards, tobacco use has more benefits in “Red Dead Redemption 2,” which sold $725 million during its first three days, the “biggest entertainment launch” of 2018, according to the company that makes the game.
Players can use tobacco products to fill their “dead eye” meter, which allows them to slow down time so they can make very precise and accurate shots with their weapons. This meter is easily depleted, but using tobacco products, such as chewing tobacco, cigars and cigarettes, is one of the ways to refill this meter, with a minor cost to the player’s health.
The “Mature”-rated game does not mention tobacco use in its rating by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the gaming industry’s self-regulatory organization that rates video games and apps. A 2015 survey by the University of California, San Francisco verified tobacco content in 42 percent of the video games that participants reported playing; however, only 8 percent of these games had received tobacco warnings.
Many youth play games like this that are rated “Mature.” A study of U.S. adolescents found that nearly half (49.5 percent) of them reported that their parents allowed them to play Mature-rated games at least occasionally.
“Metal Gear Solid” series
In some of the latest installments of the popular “Metal Gear Solid” series,“Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots” and “Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain,” the main character Snake continues his past proclivity for smoking.
In “Guns of the Patriots,” smoking can fill the character’s “psyche” meter, which allows him to steady his aim, at a small cost to his health. A fan site attributes this power to the “relaxing effect” of cigarettes, even though quitting smoking is linked with lower levels of anxiety, depression and stress. In “The Phantom Pain,” smoking cigars gives players the ability to control the time of day. Previous versions of the “Metal Gear Solid” games have also rewarded players for smoking.
The games, which are Mature-rated, are part of one of the longest-running and most popular video game series.
In the popular first-person shooter series “BioShock,” players can smoke cigarettes to gain “mana,” a substance that allows players to use their magic or special abilities. It just comes at the cost of a little health.
The “BioShock” universe includes several fictional brands of cigarettes and cigars, and the 2016 version of the game, “BioShock: The Collection,” shows children smoking. A fan site for the Mature-rated game quotes a character talking about his favorite brand: “I'm a Nico-Time man, always will be. Why? They smoke good and don't cost half a damn.”
"StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty"
While smoking in “StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty” is not as directly advantageous as in other games, it is an example of a "Teen"-rated game that portrays smoking positively. (Tobacco use can be found in many video games rated appropriate for teenagers, including six popular Teen-rated games that glamorize smoking.)
In the popular military strategy game where humans battle aliens, three of the 13 featured soldiers smoke, including the main character. In addition, the only characters in the game who can do certain tasks, such as operating space construction equipment to raise buildings, are shown holding a lit cigarette in their mouths or behind their ears.
Tobacco imagery in entertainment continues to portray smoking positively, as a normal social behavior and as glamorous, rebellious and edgy. These images have influence, especially among youth and young adults, who are uniquely susceptible to social and environmental influences to use tobacco. Almost all smokers — 98 percent — start smoking by age 26.
For more information on tobacco in pop culture, read “5 ways tobacco is normalized in entertainment and pop culture” and “why is smoking still being glamorized in media and pop culture?”