Drinking Games

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Drinking games are defined as "an activity played for fun where the primary purpose is to drink a lot or get someone from the group drunk" (Stiefvater, p. 76A). Willy Pederson defines them as "situations in which alcohol is consumed and where the interaction is linked with definite standardized and previously agreed rules" (p. 1484). Drinking games involve a set of rules defining when and how much alcohol participants will consume. These rules ensure the consumption of large amounts of alcohol in a short time.

Drinking games are as old as games and alcohol themselves. The ancient Sumerians were accomplished brewers more than 5,500 years ago. Coincidently, the oldest known game was also found with the Sumerians. Known as the Royal Game of Ur, the game dates to 3000 b.c.. The ancient Greeks played a drinking game called katava in which the dregs of wine at the bottom of the drinking cup (kylix) were thrown against the wall in competition, after the wine had first been consumed. Early drinking games were ones of speed and endurance, and lacked complexity. Participants would gamble for the drink itself by either consuming it the quickest, (chugging), being the last member standing, or the last to relieve himself after consuming a large quantity over a period of time.

Norse mythology holds its heroes in great esteem for being able to withstand the effects of drink the longest. Washington Irving, in Picturesque Views on the Avon, wrote of seventeenth century village teams of topers who challenged one another to drinking contests. Drinking contests were standard fare throughout the Middle Ages and in Germany until the seventeenth century, while in the early 2000s these competitions were found in only a few social settings, such as Oktoberfest. Schivelbusch notes that drinking contests were a normal part of life in preindustrial society. In the New World, to the disdain of its Puritan founders, drinking contests were common in most taverns. In the eighteenth century, wagering and imbibing alcohol were the lubricants of most adult male leisure. Up to and through the turn of the twentieth century, "playing for drinks" was an integral part of saloon games. Two world wars and Prohibition did little to slow the play of drinking contests in the United States.

While drinking contests in America may have gotten their start in taverns and beer halls, in the early twenty-first century they were predominantly played on college campuses, where they underwent a metamorphosis in the 1940s. No longer were they simple contests of speed and endurance, or payment of a lost wager, but rather complex games with specific names of their own and rules that governed their play. The motive was simple, to consume a large amount of alcohol in short order. The first known drinking game with complex rules was invented by Yale students in the 1940s and was called "Tang." Teams of ten men and eight women would compete by lining up along opposite sides of a long table. Team members would then chug beers in rapid succession, and the first team to finish all its beers was the winner.

Studies suggest that drinking games are a popular social activity that provide a focus for social interaction. Douglas reported that 81 percent of college students had participated in drinking games at some point in their lives. Crawford and Nellis conducted a study in which they found that 40 percent of students had played drinking games during the previous month.

Drinking games appear to contribute to high-risk behavior, including heavy drinking and risky sexual practices, and death due to alcohol overdose can occur. Newman et al. suggest that drinking games trivialize the dangers of heavy rapid consumption, glorify those who can "hold their liquor," reinforce peer pressures to drink heavily, generally encourage favorable attitudes toward the immoderate use of alcohol, and may lead to a diversity of negative consequences. Engs and Hanson found that college students who played drinking games had an increase in various alcohol problems (such as hangover, nausea, vomiting, driving under the influence, trouble with the law and school, job loss, lower grades, missed class and work, violence, and vandalism). Wechsler and Isaac; Williams, Kirkman-Liff, and Szivek; and McCarty and Kaye all found that increased college student alcohol use is positively related to an increase in alcohol related problems. In fact, a particularly acute problem on college campuses is binge-drinking, typically defined as drinking five or more alcoholic beverages on a single occasion. Studies generally estimate that somewhat more than 40 percent of the nation's college students can be described as binge-drinkers.

As few as three to five persons normally play a drinking game, but sometimes as many as sixteen to eighteen participate in games. Smaller groups allow for more skillful manipulation, or collusion, of the group against one member who is forced to drink larger quantities or drink more often. Whether the resultant drunkenness is a reward or a punishment in the game is generally ambiguous. Equally ambiguous is the question of competence. Whereas in conventional games the most competent player is the winner, in drinking games the least competent player (the one who has to drink the most) is often considered the winner.

Drinking games can involve physical skills (bouncing a quarter into a glass) or verbal skills (repeating tongue-twisting phrases), or drinking may occur on some agreed upon signal (for example, everybody drinks when a TV character says a name of another character). Errors are "punished" by the offender being required to take a

Types of drinking games
SOURCE: Green and Grider, 1990; Crawford, Newman and Nellis, 1991
Chug-a-lugsCompetitions, usually races.
Consumption GamesThe purpose is to consume as much alcohol without appearing drunk or "buzzed."
Gambling ActionsDice or cards and some game parodies are used to determine which player must take a drink.
IQ GamesInvolves players in intellectually challenging activities.
Mathematical SkillsA sequence of numbers is repeated by players who must substitute a prescribed word for multiples of particular numbers.
Media InteractionA particular word or phrase from a specific text calls for all players to take a drink.
Motor SkillA certain task must be performed.
Skill GamesA certain task must be performed.
Team GamesResembling relays, these pit one group against another.
Unity GamesNoncompetitive games that require all to drink at certain "cues."
Verbal SkillsA long sequence of nonsense names or phrases must be repeated.

drink, or those who succeed may designate another player to drink.

There are a number of reasons why people play drinking games. Research has shown that 64 percent of college students played drinking games to socialize more easily with other students while 92 percent reported playing drinking games simply to get drunk. Students seem to play drinking games mainly to obtain positive reinforcement. Johnson et al. identified four primary reasons that students played drinking games: relaxation and disinhibition, fun and celebration, conformity, and sexual manipulation.

Drinking games remain a popular diversion among many Americans, particularly college students, and there is an ever-growing number of books and Web sites devoted to drinking games. While alcohol abuse and binge-drinking as a result of drinking game participation has beenshown to be a problem for many participants, drinking games appear to be firmly entrenched in American culture.

See also: Bars, Drinking, Teenage Leisure Trends


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Robert Steifvater