10 Video Games That Are Secretly About Addiction

10 Video Games That Are Secretly About Addiction

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10 Video Games That Are Secretly About Addiction

This post was originally published on May 16, 2016.

I have a really complicated, love-hate relationship with video games. I enjoy them in the exact same way TRON fetishized arcades: I like the idea of video games way more than video games themselves. (I’m convinced no one who’s seen the original TRON actually enjoys TRON, by the way.) Every time I’ve bought a Nintendo or PlayStation, I almost immediately feel a part of my brain kick in: “Oh, this is why you got rid of your last video game system.” It’s kind of like reconnecting with an ex-girlfriend—after the initial endorphin rush, I suddenly remember all the reasons why we broke up in the first place. I can easily throw countless hours down the drain playing video games and then wonder where my entire weekend went.

There are thousands of stories and studies about video game addiction. Entire academic careers have been built on the subject. But no matter how elaborate the graphics get, no matter how many high-priced actors they get to do voiceovers, they’re all tapping into the exact same part of the brain Pong did back in the 1970s. To me, what’s more compelling is to think about how many video games can actually speak about addiction itself—passing themselves off as one thing, but being something else altogether. Here are some games that, in my opinion, turn the struggles of chasing a high, getting lost, and risking everything into playable worlds.

1) Tapper

Part of me wonders if this is where my drinking problems began. I vividly remember seeing this game in the arcade way back in 1983. The game was actually co-produced by Budweiser, if the enormous banner on the wall wasn’t enough to tell you that. The cabinet fascinated me: it was made of polished faux wood, complete with brass rails and beer cup holders. The controllers were goddamn tap handles. I’m not joking. The game puts you in control of a bartender, slinging beers to one barfly after another. Watching it decades later, I still get anxious every time a drunken patron stumbles through the doors, but I’m far more anxious that Tapper turns a barroom into a playground.

2) Pac-Man

This isn’t a stretch but, as Pac-Man, you work your way through a maze of increasing complexity, consuming dot after dot after dot. Multi-colored ghosts chase you for no reason. The game, however, goes on without an ending. (Well, sort of.) That’s how I felt: racing around the same walls, endlessly consuming drinks, and trying to outrun inevitability.

3) Conker’s Bad Fur Day

Just another game about a hard-drinking red squirrel who loses everything, including the girlfriend he pursues for the entire game. By the end, she’s dead and Conker, addled by alcohol, realizes way too late that he could’ve implored the game’s programmers to bring her back to life. Instead, the time you spend playing it is for naught. He’s right back to where he was at the beginning: drinking and alone. All the creativity and off-the-wall innovation feels like a distraction from the fact that no matter how insane your story is, as addicts, all of our stories can end in the exact same place.

4) Missile Command

Yes, this is the classic Atari game about preventing nuclear holocaust. Yes, this is about defending civilization and life as we know it. Yes, this is what passed for grand entertainment in the 1980s. The dirty little secret? There is no winning this game. In the end, it just gets progressively worse and out of control. Like addiction, the threat is always out there, looming and determined to rain down on you. It won’t stop and it will always win.

5) Fallout 4

This isn’t just your run-of-the-mill post-apocalyptic video game. No, in this game, you can actually get addicted to alcohol and chemicals while you’re playing. In fact, one blogger took every drug imaginable in the game—chemicals named Mentats, Psycho Jet, Buffout—and chronicled the, er, fallout from the drugs. The gameplay responds as you ingest each drug by blurring, hazing and throbbing. One drug slows down time, another increases strength, and so on. Still, as the writer notes, just because drugs exist in Fallout 4, it doesn’t mean he needs to take them: “I like being the ultimate good guy, and getting drunk and high all the time just didn’t seem to me like something a hero would do.”

6) Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim

Not to be outdone by Fallout 4, the game Skyrim extolls its own open-ended fantasy world—one rife with magic, swords, dwarves and skooma. “Skooma,” you ask? It’s a narcotic “made from refined moon sugar,” has no negative side effects and restores your stamina. Interestingly, it’s also a “highly addictive narcotic and its users pass through bouts of euphoria followed by protracted lethargy.” This sounds a lot like any given Saturday night to me. (This is your Skyrim avatar on drugs.)

7) Dr. Mario

If you step back for a second and study this Tetris ripoff for what it is, it’s—well, it’s completely batshit insane. The whole game is about a plumber who’s now prescribing medicine (whether or not he actually went to medical school following the events of Super Mario Bros 3 is its own dark question), not to mention the entire game takes place within a giant pill bottle. Sure, “Dr. Mario” is supposedly combating animated viruses with medicine, but the underlying message for kids is that you can just throw pills (literally) at your problems.

8) Limbo

This is the most unusual game on the list. It’s minimalist, black-and-white, and pops with film grain. The child protagonist’s eyes glow in the dark as he solves puzzle after puzzle, not to mention squaring off with a giant spider in the woods. It’s very much like being in the throes of addiction: solving problems that don’t have any weight, constantly scrabbling around in the dark, running through a hazy landscape. It’s also pretty telling that when the game ends, it does so abruptly—which is probably its own metaphor. Then again, maybe it’s all in the title: as an addict or alcoholic, this is where you are.

9) Grand Theft Auto 4

There’s nothing quite like running down an old woman with a Ferrari and then peeling out with no consequences—only to turn and see your wife staring, horrified, as you play the game. (True story.) GTA4 didn’t just glamorize violence—it reveled in it. This is an open-world game that’s as startling in its complexity as it is in its lack of morality. (You can stumble into a virtual bar and actually play the arcade games inside that bar. If it wasn’t so depressing, I’d be impressed.) If you’re like me and occasionally forget what it’s like to be drunk, look no further than the 3:20 mark. If you can. In the end, Grand Theft Auto is the ultimate expression of addiction: there’s an entire world out there, but it’s all about how you choose to engage it.

10) E.T., The Extra Terrestrial

Sometimes deemed the “worst video game of all time,” this game is so infamously terrible that it reportedly bankrupted Atari and helped collapse the video game market in 1983. There’s even a documentary on the game. As a kid, I remember trying to enjoy E.T., but after about two minutes of wandering around, I couldn’t make any sense of it. I still can’t. As E.T., I just kept falling into a pit, rising out of it, then falling back in. If this isn’t about addiction, I don’t know what is. The graphics and gameplay are also a garish fever dream—and not unlike any night of heavy drinking I’ve had.

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Pollard via Flickr [CC0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/] (resized and cropped)

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  1. Marc Ferris on

    I would nominate “Postal II” as a game that allows a player to experience the decent from being a normal person to someone whose strategy is how to become destructive in every way a person can be awful.

    The game starts with simple “Chores” like going to the bank. At each task point you are rewarded for bad behavior, like when you get to the bank they tell you it’s closing time and you have to come back…so you kill the teller and rob the bank.

    The game at first tries to instill a cause & effect sense of morality. The cops are always nearby, but at the game progresses you become good at being bad, and the cops are less of a problem.

    Postal II is meant to be satire of violence, you learn that your chores are coming from a voice in your head, you are compelled as part of game play to empty your bladder (which can draw the cops to you), at some point your main enemy is a marching band, and the final battle is a face-off at a convenience store with a heavily armed Gary Coleman (played by Gary Coleman). The game’s violence setting can be adjusted, with the most graphic being labeled “Heston World”.

    For me the game mirrored my willing loss of control with alcohol. You know, that “Hey, it didn’t kill me!” feeling you get when adding a new bad habit to your list.

    I don’t recommend the game.

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About Author

Paul Fuhr is an addiction recovery writer whose work has appeared in The Literary Review, The Live Oak Review, The Sobriety Collective and InRecovery Magazine, among others. He is the author of the alcoholism memoir “Bottleneck.” He's also the creator and co-host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and recovery. Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and their cats, Dr. No and Goldeneye.