When was the last time a gamer thought long and hard about alcohol being in a video game?
The presence of booze in a game used to incite moral panics the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the advent of Dungeons & Dragons and video games themselves; now, players can uncover a stash of Alto Wine or Los Santos-brand lager and barely bat an eyelash. How did the perception of alcohol in video games change so markedly, and where is it headed from here?
The presence of alcohol in video games used to be taboo for the same reasons that violence, gore, and everything else considered “controversial” was taboo: the audience. In gaming’s early days, video games were almost exclusively the province of children.
It was considered weird for people to continue gaming even into their mere teen years, and so the content of most games was usually pretty innocent. There were exceptions to that rule, of course, but most games played it safe.
The first big-name game that seriously toyed with the idea of booze in video games was 1983’s Tapper, which challenged players to distribute “root” beer to customers in an arcade-style dash for points.
The game proved a smash hit and was able to get away with itself by insisting that it really was root beer (wink, wink), not that Satanic alcoholic fluid. Tapper was the first big-name marriage between alcohol and video games, and it remains a fun title to this day.
After Tapper, booze began cautiously cropping up in other titles, but the market for mature video game content was quite niche at the time. Alcohol got one of its big mainstream breaks with the advent of the Grand Theft Auto series, whose installments often allowed players to make their characters alcoholics.
It used to be unthinkable that a game would portray such activity, much less allow players to go out and buy beer at in-game stores. Grand Theft Auto inspired a moral panic for many reasons, but the presence of alcohol was one of the most prominent.
As the 2000’s wore on, developers became emboldened to keep putting alcohol in their games. Pretty soon everything from high fantasy RPGs to first-person shooters had at least references to alcohol. These portrayals were met with fierce resistance at first, but the outcry eventually died down.
Now, that outcry is virtually silent. The last big firestorm over alcohol in video games was players’ ability to drive drunk in Grand Theft Auto IV. That feature was unprecedented in 2008 but is a common feature of many open-world games these days.
What happened? Why did alcohol go from being on the fringes of gaming culture to all but an inexorable element of it? The answer is simple: video games aged along with their audiences. The best way to destroy an audience is to wait for it to grow old, but video games had no such intentions.
As customers matured, so too did games. Mature-rated games used to be pretty rare, but these days, it’s much more difficult to find a title that’s not rated M. Most gamers who play M-rated games now played E-rated games when they were kids. Video games have grown up alongside their players, and that’s why very few gamers suffer a moral epileptic seizure when a bottle of beer appears in-game.
None of this is to say that children aren’t playing games or that there aren’t any E-rated video games being produced anymore; there are more kid gamers and kid-friendly games than ever before. It is fascinating, though, that more mature video games got produced as gamers themselves matured.
Most adults consume alcohol or see violence in other kinds of media, so their presence in video games is rendered nonchalant. The age of the average gamer is also 35 years old; much higher than it was in the era of Tapper. Most of these folks have also been playing games for a long time.
As for alcohol, it’s in gaming to stay. Suburban moms swore that booze in games would bring about the apocalypse just as they predicted for heavy metal and Dungeons & Dragons, but such an Armageddon hasn’t occurred. Alcohol became less taboo in video games because video games grew up with their audience, helping booze to break into mainstream gaming just as it did any other kind of media.
Cheers to that!