Pre-game, pre-party, pre-funk ... how to pre-vent?
Call “pre-gaming” by any of its other names and it still translates the same for substance abuse specialists seeking strategies to control the ubiquitous “pre-party,” generally defined as a small group of students drinking together in a dorm room or other private space prior to an actual party or social event.
New research presented Friday at the U.S. Department of Education’s conference on creating safe and healthy campuses  suggests that students are strategic in their approach to the pre-game, measuring their shots to obtain the bull's-eye perfect buzz, the gathering often serving not one, but multiple purposes.
An “exploratory study” of Pennsylvania students’ pre-gaming habits found that college students use pre-parties as a mechanism for getting buzzed while enjoying a safe environment, cutting costs, and short-circuiting law enforcement, bouncers and a need for a valid I.D. The students are also seeking to bond with friends and set themselves up for a sexual experience later on – two particularly telling objectives given what researchers found to be a profound sense of social anxiety and loneliness among focus group participants.
“The game is all about hooking up, having a sexual experience,” Beth DeRicco, associate director of the Center for College Health and Safety, said Friday at the conference, held in Arlington. DeRicco teamed with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to host focus groups at 10 of the state’s colleges this winter to study students’ nighttime rituals and their attitudes toward what DeRicco called “a real embedded culture from campus to campus about pre-gaming.”
A total of 114 students, including student leaders, students who had been punished for alcohol use, students attending to satisfy a class requirement and volunteers, participated in the 10 groups. At the beginning of each session, DeRicco explained that the focus group was voluntary, and offered students there to fulfill a requirement the opportunity to leave. Some of them did.
The focus groups were scattered geographically throughout the state, the participating colleges representing public and private institutions, large and small -- host schools were Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania , Bucknell University, Cabrini College, Gettysburg College, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University at Altoona, Rosemont College, St. Francis University, Villanova University and York College.
Students completed a paper and pencil survey about their alcohol use before attending the focus group meeting. About 12 percent of students reported “none” as their average number of drinks per week, 13 percent reported 1 to 3, 14 percent 4 to 6, 21 percent 7 to 10, 16 percent 11 to 15, 12 percent 16 to 20 and 11 percent 20 or more. DeRicco said the numbers skewed a bit high, probably due to the participation of punished students, but are fairly representative of drinking habits among Pennsylvania college students.
What is striking about the findings is the fundamentally strategic nature of student attitudes toward the pre-gaming festivities. According to DeRicco, women and men alike seek a certain “buzz” so they can save money at a bar or enjoy an event where they would not easily be able to obtain alcohol. Women, who more frequently pre-game with clear alcohol like vodka (“fewer calories,” DeRicco said), cite a desire to drink in a safe environment as a key reason to pre-party in a small group, and are more likely to view their pre-gaming activities as an exercise in pacing -- more now, when it’s safe and it’s cheap, and less later.
Meanwhile, men are more likely to drink beer, strive for high levels of consumption, try to match their peers swill for swill and depend on the intensity of the intoxicating experience as a necessary condition for making friends.
Oftentimes, students plan to stop drinking, or dramatically cut back, after the pre-party, DeRicco said, but by then they’re drunk and their judgment is cloudy. Despite students’ stated intentions, pre-gaming can often lead to more drinking, not less, helping to fuel potential consequences of heavy drinking that include blacking out, alcohol poisoning, driving drunk, taking sexual risks, being sexually victimized and getting injured.
“It’s a strategic decision to get to a high BAC (blood alcohol content) quickly. But once they go out, they don’t make good decisions, they drink more, they come back with alcohol poisoning and they end up in the E.R.,” DeRicco said.
Underage drinking at pre-gaming activities is notoriously difficult to enforce, as small groups typically drink in dorm rooms, not generating the types of noise and crowds that can attract uninvited inquiries. In addition, students are often resistant to any administrative crackdown on the tradition: One student told DeRicco that the best way administrators could become involved would be to put student activity fees toward room rentals for the purpose.
DeRicco described a need to attack what she considers to be the underlying problems: a lack of social skills and deep sense of anxiety, an inability for many students to socialize with one another in unstructured spaces without a drink in hand. DeRicco said colleges need to offer more social, structured activities that don’t involve drinking, citing Pennsylvania State University’s alcohol-free LateNight-PennState  program as a model.
On-campus prevention specialists said that the trend of pre-gaming may not be new, but it has perhaps never been so pervasive.
“I don’t think it’s that new of a problem,” said John Steiner, a health educator at the University of New Mexico in attendance at the conference Friday. “I think small groups of people have for a long time gathered at one another’s house to save some bucks and arrive a little buzzed ... but it wasn’t that frequent.”
“There appears to be a new level of intensity.”
At Illinois State University, Kathy O’Connell, an alcohol and drug intervention specialist, said she has had to prompt students punished for their alcohol use to report their pre-gaming indulgences on weekly reports of their drinking habits. She doesn’t think that students are deliberately discounting the two, three or four drinks they might have had before the party started, as they’ll list the drinks they had after it began. It’s just that they don’t register the pre-gaming activities as anything unusual or noteworthy.
“It’s become just such a routine part of their weekend socialization that sometimes they overlook it when they’re reporting their drinking,” O’Connell said.
“They just don’t think about it.”