Students – lots of them -- are suffering far worse consequences from a game of beer pong than just serious threats to their immune systems. And while students of all demographics play drinking games, participants classified as high-risk – white, male, Greek – are often drawn to the most dangerous ones, new research suggests.
“This is something that still – 35 years after "Animal House " – is an issue that we don’t understand fully its impact,” said Joseph LaBrie, a psychology professor at Loyola Marymount University and co-author of a study  published this month in the journal Addictive Behaviors. “Administrators and public health personnel ought to be concerned with addressing the drinking game situation. It’s not enough just to talk about drinking, you’ve got to talk about the kinds of activities that lead to the most problematic drinking.”
The study – which doubles as an encyclopedia of drinking games (more on that below) – analyzes participation in different types of games by demographic, examining which ones are most popular and lead to the most consumption. Seven in 10 students LaBrie surveyed reported playing at least one drinking game in the past 30 days.
Drinking games are a much higher-risk activity than other forms of alcohol consumption, LaBrie said. In addition to inducing feelings of shame and embarrassment in some, they lead to enough consumption of alcohol that there is memory loss in about 30 percent of students, according to a previous study by LaBrie on the their consequences.
“Consistent research confirms that drinking games encourage rapid and heavy alcohol consumption that is strongly associated with negative alcohol-related consequences such as poor grades, unplanned sexual activity, and interpersonal conflicts,” the authors write in their new study.
“Students are basically close to objective observers at rating the level of severity of various activities,” LaBrie said. “But the reality is, the environmental cues in the moment…. are so much on having a good time and the role that alcohol will play that they don’t differentiate.”
Drinking Game Categories
Targeted and Skill: Has a single loser who has to drink or a winner who picks who drinks. Usually involve some sort of skill or strategy to avoid personal drinking or target certain players. (Ex. Apples to Apples , truth or dare)
Communal: Has no official winner or losers. Everyone participates simultaneously following an agreed upon set of rules dictating how much and when to drink. (Ex. movie or TV games , spin the bottle)
Chance: Involves no or very little skill or strategy and each person drinks in turn. (Ex. poker, king's cup )
Extreme Consumption: Involves extreme isolated chugging episodes. Rules are simply and rarely progress beyond drinking a lot, drinking fast, or finishing your drink. (Ex. beer pong, keg stand)
LaBrie, along with psychology research assistant Phillip J. Ehret and associate psychology professor Justin F. Hummer, also at Loyola Marymount, analyzed the survey results from 3,421 college students (average age of 20; about 56 percent female) at two colleges on the West Coast – one midsize private and one large state university – about their alcohol consumption and participation in drinking games. Based on their responses and subsequent focus group feedback, the researchers identified 100 games and sorted them into five categories: targeted and skill games, communal games, chance games, extreme consumption games, and even-competition games.
LaBrie, Ehret and Hummer then zeroed in on characteristics of the games in each category, such as player demographics, how often the games were played, differences in peak drinking (defined as the game in which students reported drinking more than any other game) and frequency of specific alcohol consequences.
Only 2.2 percent of students reported peak drinking while playing communal drinking games, so the researchers didn’t analyze that category further.
However, 72.8 percent of participants played an even-competition game in the past 30 days, and 54.4 percent said they typically drink the most while playing those types of games. (The authors speculate that this category’s dominance is probably attributable to the extreme popularity of beer pong, which is classified as both an even-competition game and an extreme consumption game.)
Just over 26 percent played a targeted skill game and 9.6 percent said that was when they drank the most. About 56 percent played a chance game, when 30 percent drank the most. Lastly, 7 percent played an extreme consumption game but (seemingly ironically) only 4.2 percent of them drank the most during that time.
The research found significant differences in who played what sort of games, and a rift in behavior between high-risk and non-high-risk drinkers emerged. White, male and Greek students play more of the competitive games, and drink more when they do. Nonwhite, female and non-Greek students, on the other hand, play more chance games, and do so to be social rather than to fuel their competitive energy, LaBrie said.
While the proportion of students reporting peak drinking during a targeted and skill game did not vary by gender, significantly more female than male students (37 vs. 22 percent) reported peak drinking during chance games. On the other hand, a greater proportion of males reported peak drinking during extreme consumption (53 vs. 40 percent) – the most dangerous category – and even competition (62 vs. 50 percent) games.
The researchers also broke down peak drinking by race and Greek affiliation. In both demographics, only two categories showed significant differences.
More nonwhite than white students reported peak drinking during chance games (35 vs. 27 percent), while the opposite was true for even-competition games (50 vs. 59 percent). And while more non-Greeks than Greeks reported peak drinking during chance games (32 vs. 27 percent), more Greeks than non-Greeks reached peak drinking during even competition games (60 vs. 54 percent).
LaBrie suggested that understanding who plays what types of games – and how much they drink when they do – could help educators execute more effective, targeted prevention efforts.
He also noted that because the survey was self-reporting, the numbers are probably even higher than the research indicates. Not only could memory be an issue, but students tend to count drinks differently.
“They put a beer into a big red cup and that’s really the equivalent of almost two drinks, but they think it’s one drink,” LaBrie said. “I would say this is even more risky than we think it is.”