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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Virtually Smoking: Exploring Player Perception of Tobacco Content in Video Games

  • Author(s): Forsyth, Susan Redman
  • Advisor(s): Malone, Ruth E.
  • et al.

Virtually Smoking: Exploring Player Perception of Tobacco Content in Video Games


Purpose: The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore the experience of play for adolescent and young adult video game players, perceptions of tobacco content in games, and to understand why game designers inserted tobacco content into the play experience.

Background: Viewing smoking in movies causes adolescents to start to smoke. Little research has been done examining whether tobacco content in video games may have similar effects. Teens play video games for an average of 1.4 hours a day, 83% of teens have a dedicated gaming console at home, and on any given day, 56% of teens play video games.

Methods: Four data collection strategies were used: interviews including in-person interviews with adolescents (n=20), online interviews with adults (n=41) in-person/video phone interviews with game designers (n=5), observation of gameplay (40 hours), watching movies made from gameplay (n=350 hours) and examining relevant artifacts, including: game ratings and commentary websites, game wikis, written material about video gaming and specific games. Data were collected and analyzed using an interpretive phenomenological approach.

Results: Game players valued playing because of the games’ ability to transport them into worlds where they experienced freedom, power, stress relief and relaxation. Far from being isolating, games also served as places to gather, make community and create, hone and extend identity. The Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) did not rate games with tobacco content accurately. Only 8% (9/118) of the games examined had received ESRB tobacco-related content descriptors, but 42% (50/118) contained such content. Participant recall of tobacco content increased when players were actively involved with the tobacco product. Players and designers implicitly understood that insertion of tobacco content allowed messages to be rapidly conveyed about characters, including tobacco-industry groomed tropes such as being cool, rebellious, world-weary, stressed, “badass”, masculine or feminine, tough and normal.

Conclusion: Tobacco content is present in games played by adolescents and imbued with meaning. Game companies are uniquely positioned to inculcate game-normative values among players, including continuing the normalization of smoking and its associated tropes.

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