"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.
"It's pretty disgusting, because a lot of kids do play games," says Chris Charla, editor of 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 Assn., 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% of adolescents in 1996 reported using inhalants--a category including paint thinner, gasoline, propane, hair spray and ether--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.