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To Some Critics, N2O's
Not A Gas Ads for Video GameFeaturing
Nitrous Oxide Evoke Drug Culture

By Michael Colton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 18, 1998

  Style Showcase

    N20 Central ad for the N20 video game, complete with gas mask.
"Get ready to go higher, faster than you've ever gone before," tease the producers of a new video game, N2O: Nitrous Oxide – also the name of a dangerous intoxicating inhalant used at parties and rock concerts by many of the same young people who play video games. "The ultimate rush. . . . Give speed freaks the fix they need."

Game designers have long used the music and images of the drug-infused rave scene to appeal to hip consumers, but the marketing of N2O – produced by Fox Interactive, a division of Twentieth Century Fox, for the Sony PlayStation – may be the most blatant in evoking that culture.

"If they're using drug references, it's pretty disgusting, because a lot of kids do play games," says Chris Charla, editor of the video gaming magazine Next Generation. "A company will use any terrible marketing gimmick to sell their product."

Ginna Marston, executive vice president of Partnership for a Drug-Free America, called the game's advertising campaign "just one example of the kind of stuff that we see all over now, especially on the Internet – information that glamorizes drugs and exploits the language and imagery of drug culture."

A spokesman for Fox Interactive, which shipped more than 100,000 copies of the game this month, says the game and its marketing do not glamorize drug use, and he notes that the company has not received any complaints. "The graphics are unbelievably exciting and tend to remind people of rave culture, but the whole premise of the game is that the speeder-craft is fueled by nitrous oxide," says Christopher Kingry. Indeed, nitrous oxide can be used as a fuel enhancer for racing cars.

But the game's advertisements in Spin, Swing, the Source and other magazines seem to refer to another of nitrous oxide's uses – as a popular drug at raves. "Never trip alone," it reads, "always use 2 player mode." The ad's central icon is a figure wearing what appears to be a gas mask, a longtime rave accouterment. The game's music comes from the Crystal Method, an electronica band whose name is a pun on another popular rave drug, "crystal meth."

The ad doesn't bother Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, the trade association that represents the nation's video and PC game publishers. "The ad encourages you to play the game, it doesn't encourage you to use drugs," he says. "I don't think the game has any problematic content in it. There are perfectly conventional uses for nitrous oxide."

The game itself does not contain any drug use or drug references: It's rated as suitable for teens by the industry's Entertainment Software Rating Board. The game's packaging includes a label for "animated violence," but not one for "use of drugs."

Charla describes the game as a "fun, old-school shooter." In a galaxy at war, players must kill aliens who use nitrous oxide, a pollutant byproduct emitted inside the tunnels of an interplanetary freeway circuit, to breed. The more aliens killed, the more nitrous oxide is released, and the faster the players' ships can move.

Nitrous oxide is perhaps most commonly known as the "laughing gas" dentists use for anesthesia, but it is also an inhalant drug popular among young people. It is used as the aerosol propellant in some brands of whipped cream and also is available in dispensers known in head-shop parlance as "whippets." Often sucked out of balloons, it makes the user giddy and lightheaded. According to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 5.9 percent of adolescents in 1996 reported using inhalants – a category that also includes paint thinner, gasoline, butane, propane, hairspray, ether and nitrites – at least once in their lives.

According to Charles Sharp of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, inhaling nitrous oxide may deplete the body's oxygen, resulting in an immediate anoxia death, and prolonged use can lead to peripheral nerve damage. The band Phish recently cracked down on nitrous oxide use by its fans, confiscating tanks in parking lots outside concerts and passing out educational fliers.

There have been several video games that allude to drugs and European rave culture, according to Next Generation's Charla. However, he adds, "that's perfectly legitimate; just because something's related to rave culture doesn't mean it's related to drug culture."

Many video games borrow from the popular graphic design that rave culture has spawned, with explosive colors enhanced by hypnotic music. For instance, Designers Republic, a European rave-influenced firm, helped design Wipeout XL, a racing video game. The game's techno soundtrack also became a successful album in Europe.

Video games emphasize speed, energy and sensory excitement – the same qualities that draw people to drugs. Charla says that several years ago his magazine rejected a game featuring a person with his nose bleeding. "It looked like he had OD'd," Charla says, and the ad was changed.

In February, Sony Corp. withdrew a multimillion-dollar advertisement campaign in Britain for the PlayStation snowboarding video game "Cool Boarders 2" following complaints that it extolled drug use. "Powder, my body yells, aches for powder," read one ad, which Sony said was written in snowboarder parlance. "I need the rush, the buzz. I have to get higher than the last time."

Partnership for a Drug-Free America's Marston warns of the dangers in advertisements that employ such strategies. "We're not trying to imply that anything that goes on in pop culture is going to cause drug trends to change single-handedly," she says, "but we have to all recognize the huge influence that pop culture has on kids and on attitudes towards drugs."

Charla sees any drug references in N2O's ads as just a marketing gimmick. "They're probably hoping and praying [for criticism] to get them free press and get Senator Lieberman excited," he says, referring to Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), who campaigned for a rating system for violent video games like Mortal Kombat in Congress five years ago, leading to the establishment of the industry's rating system.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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