Games play up drug culture

March 17, 2021
Globe and Mail (New York Times News Service)
By Stephen Totilo

In mid-2002, when the video game "Narc" was only six months into development, the most startling element in it may have been a barrel-throwing sumo wrestler. Or it may have been the inclusion of a villainous flamenco dancer named El Toro.

When the game is released for PlayStation 2 and the Xbox next week, however, the most arresting aspect will most likely be that players of "Narc" will — as part of the gameplay — be able to take drugs.

In an industry known for depicting violence, foray of "Narc" into substance abuse is a venture into a largely untracked frontier.

"This is something that nobody else has tackled," said Steve Allison, 37, chief of marketing for the publisher "Narc," Midway.

In "Narc," which is rated M, or Mature, for ages 17 and older, players control one of two narcotics officers, partners who were once separated after one became addicted to drugs.

The gameplay primarily involves arresting dealers, whose drugs can be confiscated and used.

A digital puff of marijuana, for example, temporarily slows the action of the game like a sports replay. Taking an Ecstasy tablet creates a mellow atmosphere that can pacify aggressive foes. The use of crack momentarily makes the player a marksman: a "crack" shot.

But using each drug also leads to addiction, which can lead to blackouts that cost the player inventory and to demotions or even expulsion from the police force, which halts progress in the game. In measured doses, the substances can make a tough challenge easier, but the makers of the game say it is possible to play without using the drugs at all.

"Should you be able to use them?" the game's producer, Wayne Cline, 31, said. "We decided, yeah, if they're part of the life of a cop. Just like in the movie 'Narc' and the movie 'Training Day,' sometimes they use."

More drug-related games are coming. Take Two Interactive, the publisher of the "Grand Theft Auto" series, recently announced a title to be released this year called "Snow." According to a company news release, the game "will challenge players to oversee every aspect of the drug trade."

Vivendi Universal is planning to release a game based on the film "Scarface," which featured extensive cocaine use. The company has also announced "Bulletproof," a game starring the likeness of 50 Cent, the rapper and acknowledged former crack dealer, in an adventure set upon "a bloody path through New York's drug underworld."

Representatives from Take Two and Vivendi declined to comment for this article. But game publishers increasingly seek to appeal to older players with provocative content. More than half of the regular players of home consoles like the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox are adults, according to the Electronics Software Association, a trade group. But while nearly 3,000 games have been cited for violence since 1994 by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the independent organization that rates games, only 40 have been tagged for drug references or for use of drugs. Most refer to drugs only peripherally.

Patricia Vance, president of the rating board, said the trend was not so much about drugs as it was a move toward greater realism. Games increasingly include more character development and deeper stories, she said, which lead to a broader range of topics.

But for some, the inclusion of drug use in "Narc" is a reality they feel is unwise for games to reflect. "'Narc' was a bad idea," said Michael Pachter, an analyst who follows Midway for Wedbush Morgan Securities. "Violence is embraced in our culture, which is why you see violence in video games. I don't believe society believes drugs are an appropriate thing. I think that alienates consumers."

Pachter said he had not seen the final version of the game but was familiar with its use of drugs as ability enhancers. He likened the game's drugs to steroids, and said that the recent scorn directed at baseball players suspected of using steroids indicated society's current mood about drugs.

Some gaming professionals think otherwise, suggesting that if movies, music and literature have drug-oriented cultural touchstones, so should games.

"If you can blow someone's head off, I don't see why you can't have drugs, as long as it fits the context," said Doug Walker, game designer for the Dutch developer Guerrilla Games.

One of the few prominent drug games in the last decade was "Dope Wars," a text-based business simulator popular on computers and organizers in the late 1990s. In that game, drugs were the commodity for what critics described as essentially a business simulation.

Another significant depiction of drugs appeared in the original version of "Narc" (1988) for the arcade. That first "Narc" did not include drug use but rather a one-man war on drugs in which players machine-gunned hordes of pushers, clowns and villains who threw syringes. The game's designer, Eugene Jarvis, 50, was not involved in the new "Narc," but he said he intended for the original to have an anti-drug message. The game's slogan was, "Say No or Die."

Jarvis remembered a Midway lawyer being horrified at the project, calling the development effort a surrealistic nightmare.

Portrayal of drug use in games has picked up in recent years. Of the 40 games labelled for drug content, more than two dozen were released in the last three years. Last year's top-selling game, "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," for example, was set amid the drug-related gang wars of early-'90s Los Angeles.

In a twist for a series notorious for allowing antisocial and criminal behaviour, the player-controlled lead character was programmed to reject the many offers he received to take drugs.

For designers, the issue of drugs in games has been less one of marketability than one of how to incorporate drugs into an actual game.

"It really was an interesting juggling act," said Cline, the producer of "Narc," discussing how "Narc" was conceived. His development team wanted drugs to be a prevalent feature, but Cline said they struggled to achieve balance, "not glorifying it, but handling it responsibly, but still making it fun."

Few games had allowed players to take drugs in the game, an option Cline's team was determined to pursue once they decided to jettison the sumo wrestler and the flamenco dancer and to abandon the idea of remaking the original "Narc."

The developers drew inspiration from the classic video game idea of powerups: bonus items that improve player abilities, like the mushrooms Mario and Luigi ate to grow larger in "Super Mario Bros." in 1985. Powerups were a video game staple, and some, like the adrenaline combat boosts in the 2000 game "Perfect Dark," seemed to wink at the possibility of drugs.

"There's always something you can use to enhance or alter the player-character's abilities," Cline said. "We were the first game to call them pot and coke and crack."

The powerups in "Narc" would have to exhibit negative side effects. An addiction meter would track drug use and lead to progress-dampening blackouts. "We started out with realistic debates," Cline said, on issues like whether marijuana is actually addictive. "But then we just decided we'll just make them all addictive."

Addictions would kick in at different levels. Crack addiction required two uses. Another drug would require six. To get clean, players would have to win a co-ordination challenge that involved steadying a moving icon while their character writhed in agony.

The challenge was to make these activities engaging as gameplay, something also faced by Walker, the designer of Guerrilla Games' "ShellShock: Nam '67," which was released in 2004.

Walker's team had intended to present a realistically graphic depiction of the Vietnam War. The game allowed players to purchase ability-enhancing doses of the amphetamine Dexedrine and the relaxant temazepam, but the team found that a video game version of the effects of LSD — distorted graphics and sound — made the game less fun to play. They relegated "psychedelic mode" to a hidden bonus rather than to a core aspect of the main game.

"There are only certain drugs that translate to gameplay use," said Alastair Burns, the project manager at Guerrilla Games. "We couldn't work a drug like heroin into 'ShellShock."'

Cline agrees, and draws a distinction between what he thinks games can do with drugs, as compared with other creative forms. "Would you want to see a 'Requiem for a Dream' game?" he said, referring to the 2000 film about people struggling with drug abuse. "I don't think so. I don't see how that's enjoyable. Even if you're going to tackle difficult subjects like drugs or something like that, a game is still a game and it's got to be fun for people."