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Are video games glamorizing tobacco use?

New Truth Initiative® research underscores concern about the glamorization of smoking in video games with a survey that shows tobacco use is rarely portrayed negatively in video games.

Participants in a Truth Initiative study of video game players said that they felt tobacco, or nicotine, was portrayed negatively in only 6.5 percent of games where tobacco use appeared. The survey respondents — 200 video game players aged 18 and over — reported that 93.5 percent of video games showing tobacco use portrayed it in a positive or neutral light.

This research supplements the annual Truth Initiative report “Played: Smoking and Video Games,” which details why smoking in video games is a public health problem.

played: youth and young adult exposure to images of smoking

Tobacco use is widespread in video games, but tobacco warnings are not.

Tobacco use can be found in many video games, including those rated appropriate for teenagers. (For example, see these six, popular teen-rated games that glamorize smoking.)

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 from the Entertainment Software Rating Board, the gaming industry’s self-regulatory organization that rates video games and apps. With video game content descriptors often failing to mention tobacco use, it can be difficult for parents to monitor games for tobacco imagery.

Exposure to smoking imagery causes youth smoking.

Teens rank playing video games as their second favorite media activity, and 56 percent of teens play video, computer or mobile games on any given day, according to the 2015 Common Sense Census.

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 seen in movies. Tobacco use in video games is likely to promote youth smoking in similar ways, and video games are much more popular with teens than going to the movies. Teens spend an average of 25 times more time playing video games, which are more active and intense experiences.

Smoking is often portrayed positively in video games.

In video interviews with 44 teen and young adult “gamers,” all 44 recalled seeing smoking in games on a regular basis, with some describing tobacco use as making a character “cooler,” “tougher” or “grittier.”

Participants in the recent Truth Initiative survey reported that they perceive most video game characters that use tobacco — 77 percent — as not experiencing any health effects from their tobacco use. Participants also said that characters can even be shown benefiting from tobacco use.

WWE screenshot
truth® partnered with WWE on the release of its WWE2K18 game, which contains no tobacco use.

Not all games include tobacco imagery. Earlier this year, truth® partnered with World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. on the release of the newest game in its popular wrestling series, WWE 2K18, which debuted on Twitch, a community gaming platform with three famous gamers.

"Anyone in the public eye, whether a Twitch streamer or a professional wrestler, needs to understand that people look up to them and that their actions have both consequences and influence,” said one of the gamers involved in the launch, who goes by the name Fairlight Excaliber. “It was great to work with truth in an atmosphere where we can show people that being as tough or as cool as a WWE superstar doesn't require smoking."