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Psychoactive censorship? Drug use in films, games and other publications

Posted on 16 May 2014 by Henry

Depictions of drug use, and the effects and ramifications of drug use, can be powerful subject matter for films and other media. The impact of this material can be high, and there are a number of things to consider during the classification process. For example, is drug use glamorised, encouraged or normalised? Are young people shown using drugs? How realistic are the depictions? If a substance is harmful, does the film, game or book as a whole make this clear to the audience or reader?

The public's views about drug use are important to us, as is evidence of any harms from psychoactive substances (or harms from media depictions of substance use and abuse). Our survey of young New Zealanders (PDF, 1.43MB) found a high level of concern about the depiction of 'hard drugs' in films, with 73% of 16-18 year olds saying that the use of hard drugs in films could be harmful for people their age to see in movies or games.

Young people were more likely to consider this harmful than, for example, 'explicit sex' (57%) or 'realistic violence' (46%). The survey also showed that 38% of participants thought films showing people using hard drugs should be given an R16 or RP16 restriction, 31% thinking they should be R18, and 8% thinking it was never ok to show this material in films.

Reasons given for why things like sex, violence or drug use in films and games could be harmful included:

  • They can put ideas in people's heads or encourage people
  • They can normalise the activity
  • They can set bad examples or teach inappropriate behaviour
  • It can give a false impression of real life.

High impact depictions of drug use in video games is rare compared with films. We've classified around 1000 games in total and only 11 games have been given a descriptive note including 'drug use'. Games where drugs are central to the narrative or gameplay are even rarer, an example being NARC (classified R18 in 2005).

Our written classification decision for the game says:

In order to proceed through the game the player must commit criminal acts, such as dealing in drugs and using them, [however] the publication does not promote or encourage criminal acts. NARC presents police officers engaging in criminal behaviour such as drug taking and dealing, and criminal violence including the ability to kill civilians and police with an array of weapons. While the player has the freedom to commit such crimes however, there are often serious repercussions for doing so, such as losing 'respect', being arrested by police, and failing missions.

In the end the ability for characters to consume drugs can be seen as an outrageous game feature to set this game apart from other games aimed at an adult audience. There is also the risk of children and young persons becoming desensitised or inured over the long term to this kind of criminal and violent behaviour, and trivialising it through presenting this behaviour as amusing or exciting. The Classification Office considers that adults are more able to put this kind of material in the context of an entertaining but violent console game.

Depictions of drug use often lead to films, games or other publications being age-restricted. In general, for something to be banned it would have to clearly promote or encourage criminal acts in an instructional way. For example, by showing how to prepare, produce or supply an illicit substance. A number of books have been banned because of this, relating to drugs such as cannabis or methamphetamine.

This is a brief overview of how depictions of criminal activities in relation to drugs are considered in our classification decisions - and we're happy to provide more information if you have any questions. You can also learn how we considered sex, violence, drug use and other content in summaries of some recent classification decisions.

Henry works in the Information Unit at the NZ Office of Film and Literature Classification. His views do not represent those of the Chief Censor or of the Classification Office. The Information Unit provides information to other staff, to the public, and to industry members - they are not involved in assigning classifications. Keep up with our blog posts by following us on Facebook and Twitter.

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