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Tobacco imagery in video games: ratings and gamer recall


Objective To assess whether tobacco content found in video games was appropriately labelled for tobacco-related content by the Entertainment and Software Ratings Board (ESRB).

Methods Sixty-five gamer participants (self-identified age range 13–50) were interviewed in-person (n=25) or online (n=40) and asked (A) to list favourite games and (B) to name games that they could recall containing tobacco content. The ESRB database was searched for all games mentioned to ascertain whether they had been assigned tobacco-related content descriptors. Games were independently assessed for tobacco content by examining user-created game wiki sites and watching YouTube videos of gameplay. Games with tobacco-related ESRB content descriptors and/or with tobacco imagery verified by researchers were considered to contain tobacco content. Games identified by participants as including tobacco but lacking verifiable tobacco content were treated as not containing tobacco content.

Results Participants recalled playing 140 unique games, of which 118 were listed in the ESRB database. Participants explicitly recalled tobacco content in 31% (37/118) of the games, of which 94% (35/37) included independently verified tobacco content. Only 8% (9/118) of the games had received ESRB tobacco-related content descriptors, but researchers verified that 42% (50/118) contained such content; 42% (49/118) of games were rated ‘M’ for mature (content deemed appropriate for ages 17+). Of these, 76% (37/49) contained verified tobacco content; however, only 4% (2/49) received ESRB tobacco-related content descriptors.

Conclusions Gamers are exposed to tobacco imagery in many video games. The ESRB is not a reliable source for determining whether video games contain tobacco imagery.

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