on Mar 10, 2009
I don’t mind anti-drug messages in theory, although for the bulk of my life the anti-drug messages aimed at teens have been mostly incompetent and occasionally offensive. The awful 80’s and 90’s cartoons where Saturday morning characters would gather to warn kids that drugs were a great big monster was the most clumsy and obvious form of propaganda. Even in my early teens I could see that these spots were designed to scare, not inform. (Although I’m sure I wouldn’t have described it that way.) They were so bad that I wouldn’t be surprised if they made the problem worse.
Portraying drugs as a giant slobbering monster trying to eat the Ninja Turtles (yes there was really a special along those lines) doesn’t really give a kid any sort of knowledge or context they can use when the moment comes. When their chance to say no to drugs rolls around, it won’t be a huge flesh-eating monster. It won’t be Satan beckoning from an alley, or even a strange kid offering friendship in exchange for you doing some of his drugs. (Hint: People don’t go around offering their expensive and illegal drugs to strangers.) These images were far more illustrative of how adults viewed the world of teenage drugs. Which is to say: At a great distance and with not much clarity. No, when a teenager is offered drugs it’s usually by a perfectly normal friend. He’s there. He’s your friend and you’ve known him for years. He helped you out that one time someone swiped your pants out of your locker in gym class. He looks like he’s having a good time, and he wants you to have a good time too. If those cartoons were so far off about what drugs looked like, then maybe they were also wrong about drugs being bad for you in the first place. He’s not turned into a mindless flesh-eating zombie like the cartoon said he would be, anyway.
But the big problem with teenagers is that they have terrible long-term risk assessment, and to them anything further than a month away is “long term”. I agree that it’s really important to equip kids so that they can make wise decisions, but you can’t teach with lies, even if they’re well-intentioned lies aimed at keeping kids out of danger. Part of the problem is the way anti-drug ads talk about smoking weed, but then point towards the effects of (say) heroin. I understand the concept of gateway drugs, but the chain of bad decisions that leads from lowering your inhibitions via smoke or alcohol to trying and becoming addicted to hard drugs to a life of ruin is a little too complicated for a twenty-second spot, and shortening it to, “Weed will turn you into a crackwhore” is obviously false in a way that will cause the audience to tune you out.
But the recent Above the Influence ads are taking a different approach: They warn kids that smoking pot will make them terrible gamers. These really bugged me when I first saw them, although for different reasons than those awful 80’s anti-drug cartoons which, now that I think of it, are probably really funny to watch when you’re high.
|A screenshot from the ad. This is how all gamers drink: I stare piercingly into the bottom of my undersized can as it floats in my open hand, and then I pour it down the front of my ninja mask.|
- It makes it sound like these kids only like their friend because of his (now impaired) skill at videogames. They’re not concerned that their friend is putting himself in danger. They’re upset that he’s not pulling his weight on their raid into Karazhan or whatever. What the hell kind of friends are these? I don’t want my kid doing drugs. I also wouldn’t want my kid making friends with these idiots. Smoking weed aside – this sells the notion that people aren’t good playmates unless they’re awesome at playing. One character says, “I used to have a good time playing with Lyle. We made a good team.” So… you don’t have fun with people that don’t meet your skill prerequisites? I think you’re gaming for the wrong reasons.
- Like my examples above, it’s likely to ring false for many gamers. You run into baked players all the time online. Not in high-speed twitch games, but in the slower-paced stuff. MMO games in particular seem to have more than their share of players named “Megatoker” and “Captain420”. I’ve played with people that were high. They might not have brought their a-game, but they weren’t a massive liability, either. Playing while high is probably not unlike playing while making dinner and settling fights between the kids, performance-wise. Once again, teenagers are not stupid. They will see that you were wrong about weed making you suck at videogames, and will file the rest of your advice under “stupid crap adults said to me when they didn’t know what they were talking about.” And it’s really important they not do that, because they need that knowledge before they do something dangerous.
- What is up with those visuals? If you’re going after the teenage gamer crowd, then using footage that looks like (bad) mid-90’s prerendered jRPG cutscenes is not the way to go. These kids were in diapers when that stuff came out.
- It’s so obviously fake. If you want to talk to these kids, then log the crap in for an evening and figure out what they’re doing before you pretend you have some insight on the subject. These characters do not talk like gamers. If you talk about headshots, or rushing, or DPS, or grinding, or something that conveys a basic familiarity with gamer culture it will go a long way to getting them to listen. Before you start writing dialog, ask yourself if you would survive an eight second conversation with one of the people you’re trying to talk to:
Hello. I enjoy this game. I have been playing a long time. I'm good at it because I don't do drugs.
O rly? What's your fav class?
Your fav character class is shooting?
Just so nobody accuses me of – I dunno – being “pro teenage drug use” or something insane, I offer my own anti-drug message that I’d aim at young gamers if I thought they were interested in what I have to say:
Nobody has ever looked back on their teenage years and thought, “Oh, if only I’d tried drugs as a teenager!” I certainly haven’t. My friend Mark – assuming he’s still capable of introspection – has something to regret every single day he wakes up alone and poor. Not everyone winds up like Mark, but some people do. It’s not worth the risk, the expense, or the hassle. You won’t miss it.
I don’t know if that message would do any better at influencing kids, but it doesn’t look like the intro to a Playstation One game that failed quality control and it doesn’t portray the “cool gamers” as vapid skillbots with no concept of fun or friendship.
And most importantly, it’s the truth.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.