Games Can’t Portray Addiction Right

“This will be the last cigarette I ever smoke” is something I tell myself about once a week after I finish a pack. It doesn’t take more than a few hours before I have a new pack sitting in front of me. —  Going out for a cigarette has become a habit that I do without thinking. Whether it is after a meal, as a way to punctuate a job well done on a work task, or that one last cigarette at night, smoking has become part of my daily routine. It is as natural as eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom.

To describe the craving of a cigarette to someone to who doesn’t smoke is difficult. I suppose it may be different for everyone, but I get mildly anxious – like when you don’t remember if you turned the stove off before you left the house. No matter how much I try to put it in the back of my mind, after a while I find myself downstairs at the corner tobacco shop buying cigarettes and milk or something. The “or something” is more an excuse than anything, since I don’t want to tell myself that I came here just to buy cigarettes that I don’t want to smoke (but feel that I need to).

I do want to quit, really. I no longer feel cool doing it, and most of the time I don’t even enjoy it. Sitting in a cafe drinking fancy coffee and having a cigarette is nice, but sitting on my balcony in zero degree weather just because some part of my mind is telling me that I have to smoke is not. And since I have built up a tolerance, I sometimes smoke two cigarettes each smoke break rather than one. I don’t want to say that I struggle with tobacco addiction because I don’t want to compare myself to others who have more severe addictions to more dangerous substances. I know tobacco is dangerous but it is usually a slow burn to the grave rather than a gas fire. The negative effects tend to creep up on you and you don’t notice them until it feels too late. It has been on my mind a lot recently since I am trying to develop a habit of not smoking unless I enjoy it, and I have been failing spectacularly. I have been thinking about how, or if, videogames can portray the kind of boring, everyday addiction that I have to tobacco.

In videogames, drugs are usually presented as bad but useful things. Examples of this that I can think of are the plasmids in Bioshock or Jet (and the other chems) in Fallout. Plasmids give you superpowers that you use to mow down people, Splicers, who have become addicted and twisted by their use. There is dark irony behind using drugs to fight drug addicts, but the plasmids are just an excuse to fit super powers into the world they have created. Yet the player character does not become addicted, nor do they suffer from the use of the drug – at least not mechanically.

In Fallout, all of the drugs have a positive effect but if you take one enough you can become addicted. This results in  negative status effects if you go too long without the drug in your system. I suppose I can relate, as I get cranky or frustrated if I go too long without a cigarette. That nagging feeling that I need one always in the back of my head can get to me, yet I feel that Fallout does not do enough to really force the player to confront their addiction. Status effect penalties can be offset with good gear, for example, and the player is still always in control. What’s more, to get rid of an addiction in later Fallout games, you can just go to the doctor and give them some money. If that worked in real life, I would do that. I have tried chewing nicotine gum and it doesn’t work. From experience, if I have just enough money for lunch or for a pack of cigarettes, I will choose the cigarettes. Even if I am not smoking, I feel more comfortable knowing I have easy access to cigarettes. This makes it almost easier for me to not smoke if I have cigarettes than when I don’t. But Fallout doesn’t simulate this need for the player.

In “Magic and Mushrooms: What Happens When Video Games Take Drugs Seriously?“, Alex Epstein (Narrative Director of We Happy Few) says:

“It’s hard to do (realistic drug depiction) in games. Addiction represents losing control of yourself. Gamers hate that.”

If I could control my cravings, I wouldn’t be leaving my apartment at 1 in the morning to buy a pack of cigarettes just so I could have one smoke before I went to bed. For a game to really simulate addiction, it has to remove control from the player to make the character do things that someone who is addicted would do. This means having the game become harder or frustrating the more the player plays unless they perform the action. In Fallout, the character could be forced to spend money on the chem they are addicted to instead of what they wanted to buy or the player character could be forced to go find more chems instead of whatever quest they are on. The irony of Fallout 4’s addiction is that you can take a drug to cure your drug addiction.

In this light, I feel that Far Cry 2 and the player character’s malaria come pretty close to adequately depicting addiction. At somewhat random parts of the game you have to stop what you are doing and take a malaria pill. The screen goes kind of funky and you can’t run or jump or shoot back. If you don’t take medicine you fall over and pass out, only to wake up later in a church. To get medicine for the malaria, you have to do optional side-missions. They are not required but by not doing them, you will be even more inconvenienced by malarial attacks.

So we have a condition that you have to do something you don’t want to do (getting malaria pills) and if you don’t do it, your actual gaming experience will be worse. I imagine most players would make sure to go out of their way to always have the pills on hand. Much like how I go out of my way to ensure I have a pack of cigarettes on hand. It is not a superficial change like a gentle negative stat modifier which makes the compulsion stronger. The Far Cry wiki describes it pretty well:

“Malaria in Far Cry 2 was met with much criticism from players, as the random attacks frequently interrupted gameplay at bad times (such as during combat), and players felt forced to do the Underground side missions as the medicine prevents the character from passing out.”

The key to representing addiction is not just taking control away from the player but inconveniencing the player so much so that they will go out of the way to deal with it. It feels just like those times when I decide my route to work depending on whether it has a tobacconist along it or not. Of course, basing a whole game around this would be very challenging. Alex Epstein continues:

” I would love to see a game where your character is an alcoholic. Then, a certain number of times, when you go behind a bar, you wake up in a ditch with half your money gone. Then you say, ‘Oh, shit! I shouldn’t have gone by that bar.’ Now you’re thinking like an alcoholic.”

Games are pretty bad at displaying what it is like being addicted to something, of course, because there is that whole control thing. Drugs are either a stand-in for magic or included as something bad and “edgy”. They often portray addicts as junkies that are OK to kill or ignore which is problematic.

Most of us are addicted to something, whether it is cigarettes, coffee, certain foods, or videogames themselves. Stories tend to focus on extreme consequences of hardcore addiction but not so much on the day to day. Games, being the special medium they are, can probably do a better job of that but if we are all already addicted to something, is there a point?

I used to work in a liquor store in University and there was one regular that came in every day after work and bought a flask of vodka and a pack of Camels. Every single day. When I saw him enter the store, I prepped his things for him, thinking I was doing a good job at customer service. When my boss saw me to this he took me aside after the customer left. “You can’t do that. I know you think you are doing a good thing but you are acknowledging that he has a problem.”

Maybe having games accurately portray addiction would require us to look into the mirror just a little too much. My parents both used to get on my case about smoking. Cancer is almost a common thing in my family, as are heart problems. I know all these things but the knowledge doesn’t help. If a game portrayed addiction accurately, it wouldn’t affect me – I know I have a problem and I don’t need to be reminded of it. But, it might help those people who don’t smoke to feel, even just a little, how hard it is to stop.

Cigarettes smoked while writing this post: 5

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