Weed In Games: How Pot Stopped Being A Video Games Bogeyman
You can be a virtual weed kingpin in video games today, but it wasn't always so.
Looking back at the past 35 years, cannabis has long had a strained relationship with the video game industry. Because games were often targeting youth, cannabis was seen as taboo, a drug not worth mentioning unless it was to warn kids to refrain from trying, as with the FBI's messages of “Winners Don’t Do Drugs” running on screens of most arcade games of the era, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Wrestlefest.
But today, tolerance of cannabis is at an all-time high, and game developers have taken notice: An entirely new gaming segment has sprouted, such as running cannabis empires and becoming a fast-moving drug kingpin. From the early BBS days to the weed-tycoon games you can jump into today, this story of cannabis in video games has changed drastically over the years. We spoke to gaming experts and developers to reveal the history and challenges of bringing cannabis into video game culture.
When looking at drugs in video games as a whole, cannabis might seem unattractive to developers to include in gameplay, as video game theorist Jesper Juul said. “Big-budget video games tend to operate at two steps removed from the player’s life: you don’t just control a somewhat talented basketball player slightly better than yourself--you control the best basketball player in the world; you don’t just drive a car slightly better than the one you have, you drive a Ferrari,” he notes. “Cannabis is the most popular recreational drug, and generally perceived as somewhat harmless, so video games tend to refer to drugs that are less widespread, but more dangerous in order to show that the game world has been cranked to 11. For that reason, I think cannabis gets comparatively little exposure in video games.”
But most gamers would be surprised to learn cannabis gets mentioned in games as far back as 1984, when programmers were developing BBS door games and dial-up modems gave players this rudimentary software to share content. Slick graphics weren't expected, but instead, users clamored for off-filter premises you couldn't find at arcades or on Atari cartridges. A title of the era, Drugwars, is a game that lets you play a New York City drug dealer trying to unload cannabis, coke, speed, ludes, and much more, went viral quickly at the time. The goal of the game is to accumulate the most money you can from selling drugs in one month.
More mainstream titles took a, well, more mainstream approach. Four years later, one of the most popular arcade shoot-em-ups of the time also included a focus on drugs --but cast you not as a dealer, but as a police officer. Narc let you control a narcotics officer to arrest or shoot dealers and kingpins and even drug users. Like a lot of games that cast players as police, it painted drugs, including cannabis, and their users as villains and enemies.
The 1990s were largely devoid of any major marijuana references in games, perhaps due to the chilling effect of the War on Drugs and the threat of stringent ESRB ratings on a game that included any drug usage. While it was a lay-low period for cannabis in gaming, the 2000s were about to usher in a new era of drug-friendly gaming culture.
Some publishers saw value in bringing back the arcade classic with a 21st-century sheen. Narc's 2005 remake wanted to amp up the drug use. Steve Allison, chief of marketing for Narc's publisher, Midway, told the New York Times about its foray into depicting drugs such as cannabis, crack and cocaine: “This is something that nobody else has tackled.” In this iteration, the narcotics officers you play can not only confiscate drugs, but also smoke them. Puffing a joint will slow down the game's action, while taking crack makes you a sharpshooter, for some reason.
As depictions of cannabis in video games started to shift, they began to mirror opinions of weed in the rest of the world, as well. Back on terra firma, American policy-makers and cannabis enthusiasts saw a shift in how cannabis was viewed. In 2006, Colorado introduced Amendment 44 to legalize cannabis but the measure was defeated in the polls by a 60-40 margin. Still, that 40% figure gave hope to Americans who wanted to see the old drug laws shift hard left to reflect the rising acceptance of cannabis. That same year, Volition brought cannabis into its open-world game, Saints Row, letting you fill bong bowls or blunt papers with the bud. As you can see in this video of the joint-smoking in Saints Row, you cough and blow smoke, eventually clouding your vision momentarily.
As cannabis became less taboo and the smoke cleared from the hysteria sparked by the War on Drugs, more developers devoted entire games to running cannabis enterprises. In 2010, another iteration of the tycoon-type cannabis game launched. Pot Farm was a huge hit on Facebook, because it didn't sway too far from the core appeal of the extremely popular Farmville--you were growing cannabis plants rather than corn. By finding such a massive and engaged audience on Facebook, cannabis-empire games slid into a new space they never occupied before: enjoying word-of-mouth marketing courtesy Facebook’s connected users, who loved to show off their latest fad with a quick post or “Share” click.
By some estimates, Pot Farm was raking in, at its height, $140,000 a month for its developer Brain Warp Studios. Most importantly, it laid the foundation for a new genre of cannabis-focused games devoted to running farms or dispensaries and cultivating strains for users to buy. Currently, it doesn’t seem to be available as a mobile or Facebook app.
As Pot Farm took off, American views of cannabis softened, most notably on the political level, state-by-state. Washington was the first state to legalize cannabis for recreational use in 2012, closely followed by Colorado. California, Michigan, Oregon, and Maine also legalized cannabis in that decade, and New York legalized recreational use of the drug in March. The country’s perception of the drug liberalized as the 2010s wore on: In 1988, only 24 percent of Americans supported legalization but by 2018, 66 percent of U.S. residents voiced their approval. Why? One theory floated by several sociologists and criminologists believe “support for legalization began to increase shortly after the news media began to frame marijuana as a medical issue.”
No longer viewing cannabis as dangerous and harmful as cocaine and heroin, despite its continued status as a Schedule 1 narcotic along with those drugs, Americans didn’t have a problem seeing cannabis in their movies and in their video games. The 2010s gave publishers the legroom to liberally throw in some cannabis references, devoting entire plotlines to the plant, such as in LA Noire's Reefer Madness case. Far Cry 3 has protagonist Jason setting fields of cannabis plants ablaze with a flamethrower, and Jason can also get high from the smoke. Call of Duty: Ghosts got in the game with cannabis-themed camouflage skins to lay over your weapons, which you could purchase with microtransactions. Infinity Ward couldn't resist throwing a few puns in the product description: "Deliver chronic lethality when you customize with the new Blunt Force Personalization Pack."
And in Battlefield Hardline, a massive underground cannabis grow-up made its way into one of the game's multiplayer maps.
One of the most well-known games to feature cannabis is Grand Theft Auto V. While San Andreas mentioned cannabis in missions, in V, player characters Michael and Franklin can hit the bong like they're in a Cypress Hill music video. We're also introduced to Smoke on the Water, a medical marijuana pharmacy that Franklin can buy.
In Grand Theft Auto Online, you can smoke so much cannabis you eventually die. In an update to Online, you also have the chance to buy a cannabis farm to get you more leaf to sell.
"Thing is, with GTA, I'm not sure if they spoke to the cannabis community in a real way," said Solon Bucholtz, creator of the Hempire tycoon-genre game. "But it definitely did push the boundaries of what's acceptable in gaming."
It only seems fitting that the past two years have created a boom in cannabis-focused games, perhaps inspired by the middle finger Rockstar threw up in the air any chance they got. But centering a game's premise around cannabis probably has more to do with the political tides shifting: Today, 11 states and Washington D.C. have legalized cannabis for recreational use and 33 states have legalized medical cannabis.
With more Americans interested in the beneficial effects of cannabis, more Americans, especially in areas such as Humboldt County in California, began to grow cannabis crops. A new job sector opened up, as well as a now-legal gardening hobby in states where personal grow-ops were allowed. Economic incentives and new technologies in cannabis grows opened the door to other peripheral companies excited to ride this green wave.
In the late 2010s, more cannabis business-sim games popped up, such as Hempire, Weed Farm, and Weed Shop 2, each trying to sway gamers away from other sims and get them breaking bad and winning the weed wars.
Bucholtz said Hempire has just surpassed 10 million installs after celebrating its two-year anniversary on the market. Cultivating strains, learning about the science of THC, and entering your bud into the "Hempire Cup" are some of the ways the game corrals this budding community of players.
"One of the reasons why the gaming and cannabis scenes work so well together is because both are social activities," Bucholtz said, "and a lot of us grew up enjoying cannabis and playing games like Goldeneye with friends."
After Hempire came Wiz Khalifa's Weed Farm mobile game, where the rapper stays on-brand by showing you how to grow and sell cannabis. And Weed Shop 2 made a bigger splash than its predecessor with a premise as on-the-nose as its name.
Another sim called Weedcraft Inc. arrived in early 2019, bearing similarities to Hempire, but also featuring a mode where you can play a middle-aged man who has just been released from prison and needs to start to build his cannabusiness from scratch.
While public sentiment over cannabis has softened over the past few decades, the tight regulations surrounding cannabis-focused games remained unyielding. The challenges Weedcraft faced made global headlines just months after its launch.
"Marketing the game turned out to be problematic due to platforms' rules and perception of ethics," Vile Monarch Studios game director Grzegorz Mazur said. "This included Facebook temporarily blocking our ads, which they lifted once the situation got covered in media, and YouTube demonetized videos featuring the game, which discouraged some YouTubers from featuring Weedcraft."
On the minds of many developers adding cannabis to gameplay is what rating their game will get from the ESRB, which could determine how accessible that game can be for youth. ESRB spokesperson Max Jay clarified how the board makes its ruling on games featuring cannabis. “The mere presence of cannabis as a crop may not result in a more restrictive rating assignment, but if it is actively being smoked or consumed, it's possible that the game in question could receive a more restrictive rating,” Jay said.
"Growing cannabis on an industrial scale shifts with the legislation, from being an absurd hypothetical (like fighting aliens) to being something that one might actually do under the right circumstances," said game theorist Jesper Juul, the author of the upcoming book on indie games Handmade Pixels. “For example, it's no longer a fantasy, but a somewhat achievable daydream. Paradoxically, this probably makes the actual video game less exciting for most."
If you want your cannabis game to join Apple's platform, you might face the kind of headache Justin Woodward of Interrobang is enduring. He's the lead developer on the Kevin Smith-licensed Jay & Silent Bob: Chronic Blunt Punch, a Double Dragon-esque beat-'em-up starring the two stoner mainstays of Smith's iconic films. Only available to those who pledged to the project on Kickstarter, the game hasn't yet made it through Apple's gates.
“Because Apple is trying to launch Apple Arcade to a wide family-friendly audience, Jay and Silent Bob: Chronic Blunt Punch was denied for being on the platform at launch. due to the rated-R nature of the content, as well as cannabis usage,” Woodward said.
When the smoke clears on this cannabis games scene surging in the past few years, it's clear to see two types of genres: the ones that take themselves seriously, like Weedcraft, and games veering into more tongue-in-cheek territory, such as Stone. In this indie game, you play a joint-loving koala detective named Stone who needs to find his missing boyfriend, but he's also jonesing for spliffs every few minutes. It feels like an Australian gamer's fever dream, with a large set of mysteries that unbraid themselves along each step.
As you'd expect from a country that legalized medical cannabis in 2002, Canada is home to several cannabis-focused publishers, including LBC Studios, who created Hempire. If you've played a Bud Farm or Pot Farm game, you've likely played an East Side Games title, based out of Vancouver. "ESG has always made their mark by doing something different and that's where the idea for cannabis-themed games was born. We wanted to build this community out of nothing. It was a great business opportunity because there wasn't a market for it, and very few other games in that space," a company rep told Canadian media recently.
So what makes an engaging cannabis video game? Weedcraft's Mazur said, "I think it generally needs honesty, a sense that it's portraying not only the plant but the culture around it. It needs to feel like it's part of their [cannabis users'] world, not just a heartless product trying to monetize an emerging trend."
He also recognized a game's limitation in how it can incorporate cannabis into gameplay. "I hope there will be more games portraying different aspects of cannabis and the culture around it, but I don't expect it to be a huge wave," he said. "There's only so many ways you can use it that will be appealing to players. But I do think that the rapid law changes and general increase of public acceptance will make it featured more often in games that are not primarily focused on cannabis."