BIRTH OF THE JGAME
There’s a good chance you’re reading this article after a long session of late-night gaming over the warm glow of a dimly lit joint. Good for you -- and now let me tell you how you got to your current stage in life.
The truth is that your favorite games have been slowly evolving to align with your stoned tendencies—but you probably already knew that. The shocking thing, though, is that the companies that sell you those games don’t want to admit it. HIGH TIMES found out the hard way.
It all goes back to 1984, when John E. Dell decided to illustrate the world’s economy for a high school project by making a functional model of international drug smuggling. He named the project Drugwars, and since then thousands of kids have sat in the back of class with their TI-83 calculators in hand, ignoring entire lesson plans just to build virtual marijuana empires. For those of you who weren’t slackers in high school, Drugwars (later renamed Dopewars) was essentially the world’s first drug-trafficking game, in which players would receive a virtual loan and have one month not only to pay it back, but to earn a profit through the distribution of illegal drugs. Since its inception, Dopewars has traversed nearly every conceivable electronic device, cementing its legacy as the first offering from the gaming industry that openly used marijuana as the basis of its interaction with players.
It wasn’t long until the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 became the law of the land in America, which was (not coincidentally) also the same year that the arcade classic Narc came out. Back in the day, we all went through innumerable piles of quarters trying to beat that game. Frontlined by developer Eugene Jarvis, Narc threw players into a futuristic world in which Washington, DC, has authorized agents Max Force and Hit Man to apprehend various drug traffickers and junkies, taking aggressive measures if necessary. The word aggressive is being used a little lightly here: Players were equipped with either a rocket launcher or an automatic weapon and instructed to transform waves of enemies into gelatinous mountains of limbs and organs. Narc was the world’s first ultra-violent game, and it paved the way for bloodfests like the Mortal Kombat franchise -- because, let’s face it, all those joint-toting potheads just needed to be killed in the most horrific way possible. The agents simply had no choice.
When the game was ported over to Nintendo in 1990, all game-play references to drugs were stripped from it, leaving Narc fully intact with the same level of blood and gore, but rendering its already convoluted storyline even more incoherent -- and essentially psychotic. After all, if you’re not slay- ing people in the name of ending the scourge of drugs, why are you slaying them at all?
In 2005, the game was relaunched with somewhat of the same premise; however, instead of Daft Punk helmet– wielding cops from the future, players took the role of pseudo-corrupt officers that occasionally used drugs confiscated from criminals as “in-game power-ups.” Cocaine would grant you increased gun accuracy and a damage bonus. LSD would instantly turn all of the characters on the map into jesters or demons based on their criminal alignment in the game.
When a character was on Ecstasy, enemies ceased to be aggressive -- you’re basically that guy in the middle of the dance floor spinning around with your shirt off. Marijuana, on the other hand, caused the entire world to slow down, similar to “bullet time” in The Matrix. Labored movements would be accompanied by streaks of colors and visionary spirals. (Ten years later, I’m still trying to locate that strain of herb.)
Naturally, the game generated an incredible amount of media controversy; however, in a CNN Money interview, Midway spokesman Reilly Brennan opined that society should be used to these risqué subjects by now. “Entertainment is growing up,” he said. “I know this is a sensitive topic these days, but this is what people want to see. Look at TV: People love The Sopranos, The Shield, Nip/Tuck. That’s what people are watching .... We’re not trying to glamorize drugs in any way and we’re not trying to promote the use of them.”
ROCKSTARS IN DENIAL
Of course, it was clear that the world was not ready for recreational drug use in games. The sale of 2005’s Narc was banned in Australia before the game was even released, with authorities ruling it “unsuitable for a minor to see or play.”
By this time, however, marijuana in gaming was in full swing, and nowhere was this more apparent than in Rock- star Games’ infamous Grand Theft Auto franchise.
Any gaming company that accumulates $1 billion in lawsuits (even drawing legal heat from Lindsay Lohan) has clearly perfected the science of ruffling a few feathers. Granted, most of those lawsuits were from former attorney Jack Thompson, a guy so aggressive in his persecution of Rockstar Games that he was actually disbarred by the Florida Bar Association and fined $100,000. Oh, and he’s lost every single lawsuit that he launched against the gaming company.
Rockstar definitely earned its name with the reinvention of the GTA franchise in Grand Theft Auto 3, released in 2001. It was undoubtedly the world’s first adult “sandbox” game, which gave its players access to an unprecedented amount of criminal activity in a fictitious version of New York appropriately dubbed “Liberty City.” The game featured an imaginary white powdery substance known as “spank,” and it didn’t take a Harvard-trained research chemist to surmise that it was likely derived from cocaine. In GTA’s Vice City sequel, we saw lead character Tommy Vercetti (voiced by Ray Liotta) get caught up in a very archetypical ’80s lifestyle filled with exorbitant amounts of coke, grotesquely constructed Hawaiian shirts, machete-armed Cuban gangsters -- oh, and did I mention exorbitant amounts of coke? In fact, the game even begins with an international drug deal gone wrong when Vercetti is ambushed in a blitzkrieg of bullets, killing all but him in the fray. Vice City was also the first Grand Theft Auto installment in which a player could sell and deliver drugs through the use of a not-so-covert ice-cream truck.
Needless to say, the game’s success led Rockstar to push the envelope even further with its follow-up, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which takes place in the ’90s in a place eerily similar to Los Angeles (although most of the game is set in Southern Cali, “San Andreas” refers to an area that also encompasses San Francisco and Las Vegas). Shortly after it was released, Rockstar ended up in the metaphorical dog house when it turned out that code for a hidden sexual mini-game titled Hot Coffee (which the company had decided to scrap in production) was mistakenly left in San Andreas and could be accessed through the use of certain modifications on the PC and console version of the game. While this caused the predictable uproar in conservative communities across the land (the game was temporarily pulled off the shelves and received an “Adult” rating), a relatively unknown feature that was successfully deleted enabled the main character to smoke pot, causing the camera to wobble sporadically. Unlike the Hot Coffee hack, this feature was nowhere to be found in any variation of the game, although that hasn’t stopped modders from creating their very own home-brewed versions of virtual smokeathons within GTA: SA.
With the release of Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar basically poured every conceivable reference to heroin, crack, marijuana, cocaine, steroids and methamphetamines into the game and then hired a battalion of attorneys to deal with the repercussions. The company approached the fourth installment of the franchise as if it had a bullshit-proof force field surrounding every creative director, coder, graphic artist, dialogue writer, PR rep and janitor in the company. That ballsiness paid off on April 29, 2008, when Grand Theft Auto IV sold $310 million worth of units on its first day of release, breaking the Guinness World Record for “highest-grossing video game in 24 hours.” In fact, GTA IV even grabbed the record for “highest revenue generated by an entertainment prod- uct in 24 hours,” raking in more cash in a one-day period than any Hollywood blockbuster ever released.
Grand Theft Auto IV’s triumph was eclipsed only by the fifth installment of the franchise, which shattered every record established by a single unit of entertainment, essentially rewriting the paradigm for the entire gaming industry. Instead of $310 million, Grand Theft Auto V earned a jaw-dropping $800 mil- lion in its first 24 hours, and within just six weeks, 29 million copies of the game had been shipped -- more than GTA IV sold in its entire lifetime.
The monumental commercial success of Grand Theft Auto V was matched by a level of in-game drug integration that the industry had never seen before. Not only could players purchase an entire marijuana dispensary (for the bargain price of $204,000) on Vespucci Beach and run relevant “pick-up” missions to keep their loyal customers happy, but each of the three playable characters smoked weed throughout the storyline, which occasionally led to some pretty entertaining outcomes. Heck, in the online offering of GTA V, high-end luxury apartments available for purchase all came with a pre-installed bong on the table that could be lit up and shared among your gaming buddies.
With such an elaborate history of drug use in the Grand Theft Auto franchise (and since the company’s New York digs are within a 3.5-mile radius of HIGH TIMES), we thought it would only be appropriate if we contacted Rockstar Games NYC to hear firsthand why the company had made the decision to incorporate such a truly exponential level of drugs in the GTA games.
CODERS OF SILENCE
This is the part of the story that gets strange, if not downright bizarre.
Our requests were generally met with silence, sometimes with a vague demurral that was usually accompanied by a statement along the lines of “Oh, we can’t do that -- absolutely not.” We tried multiple avenues with Rockstar; we even contacted its parent company, Take-Two Interactive, and were placed on hold and eventually disconnected for upwards of an entire week. No one in the company was ready to discuss the inclusion of all that drug-related content in the Grand Theft Auto series -- we couldn’t even get them to admit that drugs were actually in the games, despite the abundant evidence. However, this wasn’t a phenomenon localized to Rockstar Games. Not at all. Folks, this code of silence seemed to be global.
Take, for example, Infinity Ward, the creators of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, who chose to include a special “Cannabis Leaf Emblem,” along with in-game titles like “Blunt Trauma,” “High Command” and “Joint Ops” -- the kind of pot puns that High Times readers will immediately recognize. Plus the company’s most recent game release, Call of Duty: Ghosts, offers a selection of gun camouflages, among them a bundle of fresh marijuana leaves. Infinity Ward even decided to place cannabis plants within the foliage of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. It’s as if the Call of Duty developers were sewn together from pieces of lesser potheads to form some supreme Frankensteinian weed monster that breathes fireballs of THC and pees out hash oil. But Infinity Ward declined to make any statement. Our entire worldview on the gaming industry and marijuana was slowly col- lapsing before our eyes.
Luckily, we got in touch with Nick Robertson, former associate producer of THQ (makers of the Darksiders, UFC Undisputed and Red Faction series), and he shed some light on our predicament, which turned out to be a sadly predictable one. “I think, even though teams, developers and studios have a really cool creative vibe, it comes down to [the fact that] they’re owned by a bigger company, and it’s still a very corporate-structured world,” Robertson said. “It’s a very Office Space type of environment for such a creative and fun industry. The weird thing about it is, a majority of the US is cool with [marijuana], but the media applies a certain stigma to it. It’s something that could be portrayed negatively—Rockstar coming out and talking about weed just gives the Fox Newses and Jack Thompsons more ammo.”
Nick went on to say that our previous suspicions concerning the gaming industry are spot-on: In short, the people making your favorite games are serious potheads. “From my experience in the gaming industry, almost everybody I’ve worked with smokes weed,” he said. “It’s so common -- a lot of guys just sit around at work and code all day, then go home and play video games all night while smoking. They just go hand in hand.”
Since we weren’t having much luck with American gaming companies, we thought we’d take our chances overseas -- specifically in Europe, starting with Jagex (the makers of Runescape), a company that I briefly worked for while living in Cambridge, England. As we might have expected by that point, we got nothing. Then we reached out to Norway- based Funcom for some clarity. These are the makers of the mass multiplayer online RPG Age of Conan, a game filled with enough nudity to even make a mid-’90s “Skinemax” connoisseur blush. After a brief conversation with a receptionist, I was told that someone would get back to me regarding an interview. Several days and various follow-ups later, they hadn’t.
We did, however, get in touch with the Czech Republic’s Bohemia Interactive, whose hottest property, DayZ, was spawned as a user-created mod of the company’s ARMA franchise, which was manifested by Dean Hall, a former commissioned officer in the New Zealand Army. The success of the mod caught the eyes of Bohemia Interactive, and Hall was hired by the company to develop a full stand-alone DayZ game. I’d met Hall before (at the E3 2013 expo, just days after he traveled to Nepal to climb Mount Everest), so I knew we’d at least get some kind of reply. And so we did, albeit a rather brief one from brand and PR manager Korneel van’t Land: “Thanks Zeus, but I’m afraid we can’t really help you with this. Marijuana is just not some- thing we pay attention to: there are no company policies, and there are also no plans to place marijuana in a Bohemia Interactive game.”
Now that’s a very European response.
As a last-ditch effort, I tried the only contact I had left: Clint Ourso, studio production manager of Deep Silver Volition, creators of the Saints Row franchise.
When Saints Row hit the scene in 2006, it was viewed as a game that took the Grand Theft Auto sandbox formula and added a major “over the top” quality. Players could use tanks to traffic drugs, and marijuana was readily available for purchase in liquor stores throughout the town. The creators of Saints Row knew they were up against some stiff competition, which probably explains why each installment of the franchise got a tad more flamboyant. With Saints Row 2, we saw a continuation of the drug integration within the game, along with developers modeling the storyline from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. They even had porn star Tera Patrick in their marketing campaign.
Boldness in the face of adversity seemed built into the Saints Row franchise, and within minutes of our reach- ing out to Ourso, he eagerly called back to inform us that he had passed the idea on to Deep Silver Volition’s marketing team, and that being featured in HIGH TIMES would be a stellar way to promote the Saints Row brand. We brainstormed some ideas -- including the developers going in depth to discuss the meaning behind certain marijuana elements in the game.
Later that day, I got another email from Clint conveying his excitement for the piece, even thanking me for the “awe- some opportunity to be featured in HIGH TIMES.” It was literally the equivalent of finding an oasis in a desert of corporate conformity and cowardice. Surely the marijuana gods were smiling on me.
The next day, I sent over a few sample questions that were meant to give the people at Deep Silver Volition a chance to really open up about their product and make it clear to the world that not only are they a badass company that has been going head to head with the most successful gaming franchise on the planet, but that they will continue to do so and have a blast doing it. The questions were met with approval, the photos for the feature were secured -- it was undoubtedly the most prepared I’ve been for anything all year. But on the day that the in-depth interview was scheduled to take place, I received a call from Clint telling me that the CEO of Deep Silver Volition had had a sudden change of heart, and that he’d effectively pulled the plug on his company discussing marijuana with HIGH TIMES.
Yes, that actually happened. My quest had come to an abrupt and unexpected end.
So the next time you’re preparing for a weekend-long binge of gaming while enjoying the flavor and aroma of your most exquisite cannabis, keep in mind that the vast majority of your favorite games have been designed not only to appeal to, but essentially exploit, the recreational drug culture -- that although these companies are happy to take your dollars, they don’t necessarily want to be seen with you. Let’s face it, every gaming company wants to be perceived as edgy, to cultivate some rebel image that they’re sticking it to this nefarious thing known as “corporate” -- that’s one of the quintessential elements that induces gamers to show loyalty toward publishers. These companies want you to believe that, deep down, they really are just like you—but after my labyrinthine voyage through
the land of gaming industry PR, I know that’s not exactly the whole truth.