Why videogames haven’t grown up yet: drugs

Harry continues his look at the immaturity of videogames, looking at the often simplistic way the medium handles the topic of drugs…

Videogames are at a difficult turning point, stuck between the rock of mainstream misunderstanding and the hard place of a creative malaise. Over the years, we’ve come to expect great strides in terms of graphics, sound and storage capability with each generation of consoles, but is now the time to be looking at the games themselves, rather than the hardware, for the progress the medium so sorely needs?

Last week, we took a look at how videogames were handling sex, and you can find the link for that down at the bottom. Here, though, we’re going to look at another of the key areas, in terms of content, where videogames have been getting it wrong. This time round, it’s the tabloid’s favourite, and probably the most culturally relevant of the topics we’re going to be dealing with: drugs.

How different media deal with the problems and consequences of drug culture speaks volumes about the gap between videogames and other forms of visual entertainment. Even mainstream comics, long considered the childish neighbour of literature, were dealing with addiction as far back as 1971.

Considered a landmark in comics’ history, the Denny O’Neil penned Snowbirds Don’t Fly arc tells of Green Arrow’s ward Roy “Speedy” Harper’s battle with heroin addiction. It tackles the theme in a measured and understanding way, painting the drug addict as the victim and the drug dealer who supplies them as the real criminal.

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Whether you agree or not with the overall tone of the story, it can’t be argued that the two issue run attempts to gloss over or sugar coat the experience of an addict, even going so far as to include a page long sequence where Speedy goes cold turkey in an attempt to break the habit. This was DC dealing with an issue that affected its readers, and doing so in a way that both entertained and informed.

Away from spandex-clad master archers, film has been tackling drug use and abuse for far longer than comics. From Easy Rider to Drugstore Cowboy, through exploitation films, the gangster epics of the 70s and 80s, and the gritty realism that flooded into the genre from the 90s, film has rarely shied away from showing drug use as an action with consequences.

Anyone who’s seen Darren Aronofsky’s harrowing adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr’s Requiem For A Dream will know that drug stories work so well because, at their heart, they are stories about people. The same can be said for HBO’s seminal TV show The Wire, which looked at the drug problem in urban America from the perspective of police, users and dealers.

Where, then, are the great videogame stories that focus on drugs? Where are the interactive narratives that not only put a smile on our gaming faces, but also make us think about the problems of society and how we should deal with addicts and dealers? Er, well, there’s Haze, I guess.

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As stories about drugs go, Haze‘s is about the heaviest handed out there. Super soldiers use a super drug to make them super, but it turns out the super drug is bad and addictive and probably makes them go a bit mental as well. Then I think it turns out the rebels are bad too. Basically, everyone’s bad and drugs are bad so don’t be a person and don’t take drugs.

Of course, there are other examples of drug taking in videogames, some of them doing better than Haze and some of them doing an awful lot worse. As per usual, Heavy Rain is our go-to game for a reasonably well played out sub plot about something mature.

One of the characters you play in Heavy Rain, an FBI agent by the name of Norman Jayden, suffers from an addiction to the fictional drug Triptocaine, a medicine prescribed to him to help combat overuse of the ARI system he uses to gather evidence.

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There is an ambiguity to the narrative, with the player left to make up their own mind about whether Jayden is an addict and what it is he is addicted to, but the choice is presented in a measured way, never forcing the player to condemn or judge the actions of the characters.

There are other notable mentions, such as Condemned 2‘s alcoholic protagonist Ethan Thomas and the forced overdose sequence in Max Payne, as well as some of GTA IV’s good work. But they are few and far between. More often than not, drugs are treated as little more than a plot device to get our protagonist from A to B, killing as many of C as he can on the way.

Otherwise, drugs are a numeric commodity, a part of an abstract strategy to fill up bars and progress to the next level of bar filling. That sort of strategy is at best childish and at worst a dangerous lesson to be teaching. Few games are dealing with the emotional and physical consequences of drug abuse, and fewer still the familial repercussions.

The problem games have is that, more often than not, their lead character exists in a vacuum, their actions resulting in a ‘Game Over. Try Again?’ screen, or a successful progression to the next section of the game. There’s rarely any suggestion of a life away from their on screen actions, save for a few throwaway lines and half a paragraph in the inlay booklet.

Characters aren’t so much built as dumped in front of us. Here is man Y, he wants X, go and get X. It sounds trivial and overly simplified, but there are so few narrative games out there that don’t fit squarely into that equation. So a drug addiction becomes a character hook, an identifying mark for a specific in-game person, rather than something that’s happening to a friend, to a colleague or to us.

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The interactive nature of videogames gives them something that other media don’t have, but it also poses a problem in terms of content. Requiem For A Dream would be a much easier experience to sit through if, to inject heroin into Jared Leto’s rotting arm, all you had to do was press A and down on the D-pad.

For videogames to reach the levels of television and film, a deftness of touch is going to be required. There have been good foundations laid, but these need to be built on carefully. Obviously I’m not advocating a junkie simulator, or an MMO where one side plays addicts and the others the cops. What’s needed here are strong reference points, and there are no stronger reference points that well-built characters who gamers can empathise with.

Speedy’s drug addiction was such a strong story because he was a teenager, talking to teenagers about drug abuse. Here was one of the mighty stricken by a disease that could affect any of us – a boy going through the troubles of growing up, lured by the temptation of an easy way out. If comic books could do this forty years ago, surely videogames, with all their gigabytes, can do it today.

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