Are video games the tobacco of the 21st century?

Will gamers of the future become social pariahs like smokers? Resorting to hiding in corners and in their cars, just to get one quick fix?


I recently came across a couple of very interesting articles about video games and the relationship between behavioural science and game development. This got me thinking so I dug a little deeper and some of what I read was really quite disturbing.

So this got me wondering: Are video games going to end up being the tobacco of the 21st century?

I am using tobacco (as opposed to the ever-popular heroin or crack) for analogy purposes for a number of reasons:
1.    tobacco companies spent years and many millions of dollars denying claims that tobacco is

2.    tobacco isn’t illegal;
3.    while somewhat expensive (especially in countries that tax the heck out of it), it is fairly

4.    while perhaps not as common now, peer pressure can play a factor in getting hooked to begin

5.    it is frequently a social habit;
6.    it can be mood altering when withdrawn;
7.    the more nicotine you get, the more you want;
8.    it is a multibillion-dollar industry;
9.    there is a black market for tobacco; and

10.  people have died because of it.

Pretty compelling analogy, don’t you think?

As these things go, both tobacco companies and game companies have faced harsh criticism and indeed, expensive litigation, defending claims that each is responsible for the demise of its users who are the victims of addiction.

Experts have long been wagging their proverbial fingers and arguing that each is indeed addictive. Regardless of the numerous studies that have been and are being conducted, the link being made between neural and behavioural science and video game design is incredible. And scary.

The good news for women in all of this: men appear to be more likely to become game addicts than women. Well that’s a relief. I worked in-house for a game company and was starting to worry when every day the first thing I did when I arrived was log into its site so that I could hunt for gems and add new furniture to my pet’s home . . . scary.

Indeed, in a study conducted by Stanford University School of Medicine, it was found that the male participants were far more competitive and driven to gain territory than the female participants. Allan Reiss, who led the study, stated: “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out who historically are the conquerors and tyrants of our species — they’re the males.” There’s no denying it now.

While both tobacco and video games have certain age-related restrictions, technically, neither one is in and of itself illegal in Canada. Both are readily available through retail and online sites. You can buy e-cigarettes and even “green” cigarettes online.

And I’m sure there must be a “green” video game out there somewhere. Wait, there is. National Geographic’s Plan it Green game was released in 2009. Wouldn’t we all like to be the next mayor of “Greenville?”

Price points on tobacco and video games are such that they are reasonably accessible to anyone, assuming you aren’t buying black market or pirated products, which if you are, well, you pay the cheap price and take your chances.

Peer pressure might be less of a factor where smoking is concerned nowadays, but there are still statistics that show teenage girls are more likely to smoke than teenage boys (boys are clearly too busy playing video games to give up one hand to smoke). And anyone who has kids knows that teenagers are still all about peer pressure.

So what about video games? I don’t think it is a far stretch to suggest that having the latest and greatest game at home, available on the biggest flat screen imaginable, is probably going to make you the envy of your peers and the most popular kid in school. That is until dude down the street has a multi-console video game suite built into his bedroom. Just saying.

So now you have at your fingertips, the game to end all games. Take, World of Warcraft (also known as WoW) for instance. Endlessly entertaining, interactive, social, addictive. Sounds fun doesn’t it. It totally is — as long as you aren’t missing school, avoiding work, your family and friends, skipping meals, and sleeping (or not) in your chair.

So you take the game away because you suddenly realize that your kid has spent more hours online in the past week than doing pretty much anything else, and it has to stop.

Have you ever tried to quit smoking, or lived with someone who has? Not fun, either way. Your kid throws tantrums, spends more time with his friends who have unlimited access to games, and generally hates you.

You or your mate quits smoking and becomes a crazy, crabby, must-eat-everything-in-sight-to-stop-the-cravings person. Really, is there any difference? No one wants to live with either of these folks. Trust me.

According to researchers, and in particular a PhD researcher from Microsoft Corp., there is real science behind how to get gamers hooked. Remember learning about B.F. Skinner in Psych101 when you started university? He was the behavioural scientist who worked with rats and discovered the impact of stimuli and reward on behavioural processes.

“Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything.” Sort of brings to mind some large-headed, uber-geek cartoon figure thrumming his fingers on the table as he eyeballs his gamer prey. Or not.

Bottom line is: the more rewards you get and obstacles you overcome, the more you want to play.

Both the video game industry and the tobacco industry are global, multibillion-dollar industries, and like it or not, each is likely to be around for a while yet.

The good news is, games like Wii Fit and Wii Sports, developed by Nintendo are selling at an unprecedented rate. Just to give you an idea, Nintendo sold approximately 261,439 units of Wii Sports in week 172. WEEK 172! So there is hope after all. Maybe we’ll all get addicted to exercise video games. Right. Maybe if the joystick gave you a shock every time you stopped moving. Come on — there has to be a way to make exercise addictive!

According to TREND-News, onboard (aircraft) and duty-free sales of tobacco have dropped by over 25 per cent in the past year, but don’t get your tissues out yet, these guys are still making billions.

Enter the black market. Without getting into a long discussion about it here, contraband tobacco has been available from many sources including by way of First Nations reserves and through online retailers, but be careful — some unhappy smokers in the U.S. found out their contraband smokes were laced with fecal matter.

As for video games, as long as there are profits sailing in, there will be pirates. Copyright laws in Canada have been criticized for not keeping up with the times; however, apparently, in my lifetime, there might be changes to update the legislation. But we’ll save that discussion for another time.

Last but not least, “people have died because of it.” Sadly, I’m not kidding here. We all know about tobacco-related deaths. But who knew that people would get divorced because of video games (there is even a web site — apparently golf isn’t the only widow-maker these days) and squabble over who gets which virtual whatnot, marry a virtual character (in a real wedding no less — bride looking lovely online of course), kill another person over a virtual sword, or worse, allow their child to starve to death because they were too busy looking after their virtual child.

Seriously, it’s one thing to rip off virtual porn paraphernalia in Second Life, but it is another thing entirely to go out and kill someone for want of something that isn’t anything more than “virtual” property.

Sarah Dale-Harris is a lawyer in the intellectual property, technology & interactive entertainment groups at Davis LLP. Her practice focuses on the creation, development, management, commercialization, and enforcement of technology and life sciences-based portfolios and related intellectual property rights. Sarah can be reached at 416-365-3522 or at [email protected].

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