Students celebrate the end of high school in Copenhagen. Photograph: Niels Quist/Alamy
So you’re 16 and at a schoolfriend’s party. You’ve had three or four drinks already, and are just starting to feel it. The most popular guy in the class comes up and demands you have another. And then another. What happens next?
Rather than finding out in real life, researchers in Denmark, who are trying to cure Europe’s worst teenage binge-drinking problem, hope the likely consequences can be shown virtually in a game due to launch later this year.
“Virtual reality can provide a really intense experience, the feeling of actually being there, but without the real-life harm of getting drunk and blacking out,” said Gunver Majgaard, a robotics and learning specialist at Southern Denmark University.
“You can tell teenagers two beers is enough: they know the facts. But facts are not the same as experience. We hope that presenting them with a simulated situation, where they have to make decisions about alcohol, will help them cope better with real parties.”
Danish 15- to 17-year-olds are the heaviest drinkers for their age in Europe. The latest 35-country Espad[European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs] report on alcohol and drug use by schoolchildren found 73% had had alcohol in the previous month, compared with 48% across the EU, while nearly one in three had been drunk during the same period – three times the European average.
“There’s been a very slight improvement recently,” said Peter Dalum, head of a national youth alcohol campaign run jointly by the Danish Cancer Society and TrygFonden public health foundation. “But as a teen in Denmark, you’re basically considered strange if you don’t drink alcohol. And getting it is very easy.”
Students taking part in filming the background scenes for the virtual-reality app. Photograph: University of Southern Denmark
The game, played on a mobile phone using a simple cardboard VR headset, aims to give teenagers a “unique tool to investigate the social mechanisms surrounding parties and drinking,” said Majgaard, whose team have just finished filming 125 videos using a 360-degree camera and are editing them into a VR package.
Set at a teenager’s home before a party, and at the party itself, with 35 real pupils as the guests, it gives players options including accepting a beer (and another, and another) or resisting peer pressure by heading for the dance floor, getting food, going to the toilet or chatting to a friend.
Guardian graphic | Source: European school survey project on alcohol and other drugs
With every drink, your virtual blood-alcohol level – displayed on the screen – rises, and the game’s universe becomes more blurred. “So we have a realistic scenario, where eventually people will start to fall over chairs, or end up being sick,” Majgaard said. “It lasts up to 15 minutes – shorter if you drink too much, because you black out, and longer if you go back and make different choices.” Dalum said the £240,000 project, which will be trialled and assessed in schools before being uploaded to app stores later this year, could help because “by making risks realistic, you also make them relevant. Often with prevention, the difficulty is in making people see a relevance to them. This project achieves that.”
Moderate-strength alcoholic drinks, such as beer, can be bought legally by 16-year-olds in Denmark from supermarkets, convenience stores and kiosks. “Beer even gets served at school parties – on school premises – to 15-year-olds,” said Dalum. “That sends a very strong signal.”
Guardian graphic | Source: European school survey project on alcohol and other drugs. Note: Top and bottom ranked countries shown
A 2017 World Health Organisation alcohol accessibility report showed that Sweden, Norway and Finland –where strictly controlled, government-owned off-licences are the only retail outlets allowed to sell alcohol stronger than 3.5% by volume – have less of a problem than Denmark. Dalum is calling for a minimum age of 18 for consumption, a higher minimum price per unit, a nationwide programme of local authority and parental action and a ban on the sale of alcohol in schools.
“But the politicians aren’t interested,” he said. “In fact they’ve just reduced the duty on alcohol – not by much, but again it sends a signal. They say it should be up to parents; we can’t be a nanny state; other problems are more important. Generally, the idea is that you can’t do much about this, it’s not a huge problem anyway, yet concerted action really can make a big difference: over the course of several years, Iceland has managed to cut alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use by young people massively, to single [percentage] figures.”