Through a Shot Glass, Darkly: The Study of Games in the Light of Drinking Games

Although the earliest surviving mentions of drinking games date to ancient Greece, they have received little attention in game studies. Olli Sotamaa and Jaakko Stenros shine a ludological light on the topic. While studies of drinking games do exist, most of these are attempts at classifying and cataloguing the games or studies of their health effects, with the implication that drinking games are a problem that should be eliminated.

However, drinking games are interesting to ludologists for several reasons. They are related to a number of hot topics in the field of game studies at the moment. One of these is the digital fallacy, the tendency of game studies to assume digital games as the baseline. This tends to ignore the body of the player, which could be described as the very arena of drinking games. In this, they are relevant to the material turn in game studies, the focus on the elements of uncertainty that a player’s body brings to the table.

Though drinking games can be used to practice drinking and for searching one’s limits, their primary function is social. They provide a social lubricant and a structure for interaction, as well as an alibi for behaviour that would ordinarily be inappropriate. Alcohol and play are also inherently connected in that both stand apart from the quotidian, in the realm of leisure, and drinking that is done for its own sake (as opposed to being goal-oriented) is strongly related to play.

While nearly any game can be played while drinking, the introduction of alcohol into a gaming situation does not necessarily make it a drinking game, or any game would really be just a crack of a can away from being a drinking game. However, pretty much any drinking game can theoretically be played without alcohol. They just may not work very well. An interesting edge case are “party games”, games like SingStar or spin the bottle, whose rules contain no mention of alcohol and which can easily be played sober, but whose social context in the party implies drinking. An example is given in the game Fuck You, It’s Art!, which felt “awkwardly forced” when played outside the social context of a party.

In student populations, athletes engage in drinking games more often than non-athletes. Drinking games can be seen as akin to sport, in that they are bodily games, the body sets the limits of play and the game is about pushing the body to its limit. Pushing beyond that limit terminates play. Some players even practice or prepare for drinking games.

A drinking game, it is suggested, is a game where there is something personal at stake, often the embarrassment or bodily control of the player. The drinking game cannot be divorced from the body of the player, which is modified through play as intoxication mounts.

Historically, drinking games are a type of folk game, in that the rules are not formal and the games are very resistant to commodification. Though there are such things as books of drinking games, their rules are usually transmitted through word of mouth among player populations and are in a state of flux as players change, modify, and misremember them. This also works the other way – through building intoxication, the game modifiers the players, making very explicit Hans-Georg Gadamer’s suggestion that “the game masters the players”, and Espen Aarseth’s argument that as we agree to be subjected to a rules-based system, we no longer have full power to decide what happens next.

There is eminent potential for bad play in drinking games. The researchers Green and Gridell even see drinking games as having victims, where the aim is to cause someone’s embarrassment as they lose control of their own body. In America, the even darker tendency to seek intoxication of female players to lower their inhibitions has been observed. Not all play is nice and shared, and can in fact be non-consensual, disruptive, and self-destructive. This type of play has received less attention in game studies. However, the higher stakes involved in such bad play can make it more pleasurable to its participants. The danger and transgressive nature of such play can make it more exciting. This may not be smart or in line with the common rhetoric of play as a positive, but it remains play.

Drinking games are just one example of a ludic phenomenon mostly disregarded by game studies that could be rewarding to investigate further. They are an enduring expression of the folk cultures of adult play. They have no institutions associated with them save perhaps student organizations, and have not been successfully commercialized, have no health benefits or star players, and are often devalued. Yet they not only endure but thrive, in myriad and ever-changing forms.

Original Article:
Authors: Olli Sotamaa and Jaakko Stenros
Published in: Games and Culture OnlineFirst, 29 Nov 2016