Marijuana and Gaming

How does marijuana consumption affect video gaming abilities and what stance do professional gaming organizations take?
Last Modified: February 24, 2019

Cannabis and video gaming have quite a bit in common. People turn to both activities as a way to unwind after a stressful day. They both help people relax and pass their free time. Consuming marijuana and gaming are both hobbies about which people have passionate opinions, debating which classic strains and classic games are the best and which strategies work best for rolling the ideal joint or beating that very last level.

As much as marijuana and video games go hand in hand, there is quite a bit of debate over whether marijuana consumption improves or impedes gaming ability. After all, cannabis is known to interfere with memory, focus, and reflexes – all factors that are integral to a stellar gaming performance. According to some in the gaming world, however, marijuana is largely becoming viewed as a performance enhancer rather than an inhibitor.

Stereotypes About Cannabis and Gaming

Typical stoner stereotypes don’t lend themselves to images of high-scoring gaming champions. For years, the public has been barraged with messaging that presents cannabis consumers as unmotivated, clumsily intoxicated, and incapable of achievement – let alone having the focus and coordination needed to excel at video games. A “Stoner Sloth” series of ads and an anti-drug PSA titled “Pete’s Couch” helped cement the stereotype of the slow, mentally-unfocused stoner.

Lack of Motivation

The lazy stoner caricature fits well with studies such as one out of Imperial College London, UCL, and King’s College London. Researchers looking into cannabis use and motivation levels found that long-term cannabis consumption reduces dopamine levels in the brain. This “feel-good” chemical is responsible for reward-driven behavior, which is why researchers believe that lower levels of it may cause a lack of motivation among cannabis consumers. While someone under the influence of marijuana may play video games for kicks or to pass the time while high, it’s impossible for many people to imagine them having the discipline or motivation to practice and learn to excel at a specific game – especially at a professional level.

Poor Coordination

Another assumption about consuming marijuana while gaming is that players can’t possibly be coordinated enough to reign supreme in a game. This is likely due to some of the reports that have been released on marijuana and driving in which some experts warn that marijuana can significantly impair motor coordination, judgement, and reaction time. If marijuana creates a deficit in someone’s ability to operate a motor vehicle, it seems reasonable that it would affect their reflexes and decision-making abilities during the heat of combat in God of War or to strategically rescue hostages in a heated game of Counter-Strike.


How Cannabis Affects Performance

Could it be that the truth about cannabis and gaming is the exact opposite of the stoner stereotypes that have long existed? Other studies not only counteract the absent-minded, sloth-stoner persona; they actually indicate that in some sports (including gaming), cannabis may actually be considered a performance-enhancing drug.

Memory Retention

In 2007, the Groningen Mental Enhancement Department (based in the Netherlands) released the results of a one-year study on Alzheimer’s patients, video game skills, and marijuana. The participants were given seven video game challenges, each one increasingly more challenging than the last, both with and without consuming medical marijuana. Researchers found that the group given the medical marijuana scored 43 percent higher in terms of memory retention.

Brain Inflammation

Dr. Gary Wenk, professor of psychology & neuroscience & molecular virology, immunology and medical genetics at the Ohio State University and Medical Center gave a 2012 TED Talk in which he discussed yet another positive connection between marijuana and brain health. In his lecture, he said that just one puff of marijuana a day helps reduce inflammation in the brains of elderly people, slowing down degeneration in aging brains. While Wenk’s comments specifically pertain to older people, this is yet one more assertion that flies in the face of the idea of marijuana as a brain inhibitor rather than a brain booster.

Athletics

A report entitled Cannabis in Sport suggests that marijuana could be a performance-enhancing drug in certain sports. Among its findings are that cannabis:

  • may enhance the performance of athletes who require greater concentration
  • improves vision
  • relaxes muscles
  • reduces anxiety and removes pressure from athletes

The study also reported that athletes who smoked marijuana claimed it improved their ability to focus and boosted their self-confidence.

Overall Gaming Performance

While there haven’t been any serious research studies into marijuana consumption and gaming, Motherboard video game writer Jagger Gravning and some friends did hold an informal marijuana gaming experiment to see if toking up hurt or boosted their performance. At the end of their not-particularly-scientific research study in which they tested out a variety of games from Spelunky to Tetris DS and Pac-Man Championship Edition CX+, the group concluded that they played just as well stoned as they did sober – and perhaps even a bit better.


Substance Testing and Professional Gaming

All professional sports work hard to prevent their athletes from using any sort of performance-enhancing drugs. For football or Olympic events, these include substances such as steroids. While ripped muscles may not be helpful to gamers, other substances may be.

One such substance is Adderall. Often prescribed for attention deficit disorder (ADHD), drugs like Adderall are reportedly frequently used by athletes from gamers to race car drivers. It allegedly gives them an edge, sharpening their focus, making their reflexes lightning fast, and allowing them to maintain focus for greater periods of time.

After professional Counter-Strike: Global Offensive player Kory “SEMPHIS” Friesen said in an interview that he and other members of his team had competed in a major tournament while on Adderall, the Electronic Sports League (ESL) announced that it would begin drug testing players before competitions.

Some people who compete in professional gaming events genuinely do have ADHD, however, and require Adderall to control it. In order to avoid disqualification from gaming events, these individuals must present a letter from a doctor or some sort of proof of their need for the medication.

Gaming Organizations That Have Banned Cannabis

Many people speculate that the level of relaxation and immersion created by marijuana may give an unfair advantage to gamers under its influence. Otherwise, they say, why would top gaming organizations ban marijuana from their events? Most organizations say they are simply complying with the requirements of larger governing bodies such as the World Doping Agency. Cannabis is among the substances banned by the following organizations and events:

Electronic Sports League

The Electronic Sports League (ESL) performs random drug tests on all of its professional gamers. Cannabis is included on their banned substances list. The saliva tests aren’t used to disqualify players for cannabis use in the days and weeks prior to any events, however; they simply test to make sure participants aren’t under the influence of cannabis during competitions.

Although many people speculate that the inclusion of cannabis is due to its rumored ability to improve gamers’ abilities, ESL head of communications insists that the organization must ban cannabis during events in order to adhere to World Anti-Doping Agency guidelines, as well as rules put in place by Germany’s Nationale Anti-Doping Agentur.

FIFA eWorld Cup

FIFA football players are among some of the world’s elite athletes who must undergo strict drug testing in order to qualify to compete. FIFA follows World Doping Agency guidelines and test for everything from stimulants and narcotics to human growth hormones.

Football players aren’t the only FIFA competitors who must undergo strict substance testing before a match; the organization has also put drug testing in place for participants in the video game version of its annual World Cup. After players finish their virtual soccer matches, a random draw chooses the participants who must submit urine samples to ensure they didn’t compete while under the influence. Those who are chosen must submit to a urine screening in front of one of the organization’s testers; there is also a FIFA officer monitoring the results from the location of the World Cup.

While many of the substances banned by FIFA aren’t of any particular benefit to gamers, the list includes potentially helpful stimulants such as Adderall. Cannabis is also included on FIFA’s prohibited substance list. As with the rules put in place by the ESL, FIFA rules are intended to screen out competitors who have consumed marijuana on the day of the event. The threshold put in place is 150 nanograms per milliliter, but this raises concerns among regular users of cannabis, as THC is stored in body fat and can be released into the bloodstream even when no consumption has taken place.

World Cyber Games

The World Cyber Games, an international tournament, was initially slow to adopt drug testing, perhaps due to the smaller size of the organization. In a 2008 interview with Gameplayer.com, Australian World Cyber Games Tournament director Alex Walker said, “Nobody has the budget to bring in any form of anti-doping agency, let alone keep it afloat or professional enough to adhere to standards that would make it reliable.” He also said that he’s seen a number of players arrive at national tournaments under the influence of marijuana so they could play better. After the organization shut down in 2014, it was reborn as the World Electronic Sports Games (WESG) in 2016. One year later, WESG announced its first anti-doping initiative, adopting the concept of “Fair Play” from traditional sports.

Major League Gaming

While U.S.-based Major League Gaming prohibits the use of performance-enhancing substances amongst its competitors, it does not use any sort of drug testing to prevent it. Participants in MLG events simply sign an appearance/participation release that states they will not take any drugs that are prohibited by the WADA in connection with MLG events.


Cannabis and Gaming: Help or Hindrance?

While the stereotype of the sleepy stoner struggling to guide a Pac-Man around on screen may be slow to fade away, studies offer mixed results on how marijuana affects gaming capability. While some research shows that it impairs coordination and reaction time, other studies suggest that it improves brain health, sharpens vision, and reduces overall performance anxiety.

Regardless of what the studies say, many professional gamers feel that the inclusion of marijuana on the list of prohibited substances at top e-game tournaments is telling. Even if science hasn’t yet pegged cannabis as a performance-enhancing drug in gaming, officials and many gamers themselves believe it is…and that’s enough to make marijuana and gaming an extremely controversial combination.


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