July 9, 2008 -- JV Games has cleaned up its new Nintendo Wii version of the college drinking game "Beer Pong" by removing references to booze and renaming the title, but authorities and mental health experts fear that it will only reinforce an alcohol culture on teens.
"Pong Toss," as it's now called, still gives gamers the ability to practice the tossing skills required for Beer Pong, a popular drinking game involving ping pong balls aimed into cups of beer. Beer-guzzling is the goal of the real Beer Pong game in many college settings.
The game earned a rating of "T" for teen — ages 13 and up — from the independent Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), and that has caused parents, educators and even one state's attorney general to react with dismay.
"When a behavior is modeled or practiced in any form, it becomes more likely to be practiced in the future," said New York psychologist Eva Levine. "Kids are very susceptible to this type of media. I see it all the time with young kids and adolescents. It's definitely true that children that are exposed to alcohol use are much more likely to engage in alcohol behavior."
On Monday, Conn. Attorney General Richard Blumenthal expressed concern about the game, and about the future games that will be released under JV's Frat Party Games line.
Blumenthal believes that a game like "Pong Toss" has more worrisome consequences than other types of violent or dangerous video games.
"My strong concern is the ratings, which fail to reflect the potential dangers," said Blumenthal. "It promotes alcohol use and even abuse and binge drinking, which certainly seems a more realistic prospect than someone driving a car dangerously after playing 'Grand Theft Auto,' although obviously, that's a problem as well. But what the beer pong game does is much more immediate for teenagers than what happens in 'Grand Theft Auto'."
The worry about teen drinking is real and rising. On Monday, an Associated Press analysis of federal records found that 157 college-age people, 18 to 23, drank themselves to death from 1999 through 2005, the most recent year for which figures are available. The number of alcohol-poisoning deaths per year nearly doubled over that span, from 18 in 1999 to a peak of 35 in 2005, though the total went up and down from year to year and dropped to 14 in 2001.
Blumenthal thinks that playing the game may greatly increase the chances of engaging in real Beer Pong. He says that since the game and equipment are simple and basic, that will encourage people to play the game in real life.
Alan Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University, says video games are a powerful teaching tool. "In science we recently learned about mirror neurons. We've known for years that learning is helped by active involvement. If you actively involve rather than observe, it is even more effective."
But Kazdin also says that he does not think that games like "Pong Toss" will necessarily have an effect on the likelihood of a player's alcoholism or engagement in Beer Pong in the future.
"It depends on all sorts of other influences in the child's life," Kazdin explained. "If a child is susceptible to being influenced, the video game could have an effect. But there's never one influence because there are so many other factors. From the perspective of educators and mental health professionals, we want people to play videogames that keep people healthy and happy."
The ESRB sees the game much more simply. "Despite being premised on a drinking game, the game's content involves essentially nothing more than tossing ping-pong balls into plastic cups," Patricia Vance, president of ESRB, wrote in a letter to Blumenthal. "We are thus unsure of the basis for the statement in your letter suggesting that this content 'glorifies alcohol abuse and binge drinking.' "
The states have no authority to regulate video game content or ratings, beyond extreme material that may fall under obscenity laws. "Grand Theft Auto," which has sold over 70 million copies, lets players take on the role of an urban criminal, including carjacking, pimping and assassinations such as killing police. Numerous lawsuits have been filed against Rockstar Games, alleging damage from actions by gamers who may have been influenced by the title.
The Nintendo Wii game was originally titled "Beer Pong," but JV Games renamed it to "Pong Toss."
"We changed the name on our own accord," JV Games Co-Founder Jag Jaegers said. "It was something we were discussing before Attorney General Richard Blumenthal even got involved. It's for the most part the same game. But any alcoholic reference we simply removed. If the ball gets in the cup, you get points. In the game we never focused on anybody drinking or getting drunk. We were primarily focusing on the sport of the game itself."
Nintendo, which produces the popular Wii console, said it was satisfied after alcohol references were removed from the game.
"Nintendo supports JV Games' decision to change the name of its WiiWare title to Pong Toss," Nintendo of America said in a statement. "WiiWare is designed to be a forum for creative new ideas that are widely appealing to all consumers, and eliminating alcohol references in the game's title and content allow it to be enjoyed by a wider audience."