What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor? There’s an App for That
The Navy’s answer to binge drinking is a lame video game
The Navy knows it has a drinking problem. There are too many sailors guzzling rum in alleys. Fleet Week means vomit in the streets and evenings that sailors best not remember.
Now the Navy thinks it has the solution … in the form of a mobile-phone app.
The official Pier Pressure app combines a game with a suite of educational tools. The tools, which address alcohol abuse and how to avoid it, are actually pretty useful. But the game half is damned awful.
Imagine your day job distilled to its most basic and boring elements—then turned into a video game. That’s Pier Pressure. A game where players spend hours doing repetitive tasks for little to no reward.
The real tragedy is that the basic idea behind Pier Pressure is actually quite sound.
Failure to execute
As the game begins, the player creates an avatar before being dumped into a dormitory. From there, the only real option is to go to work. Work consists of a banal three minutes spent loading crates onto ships and submarines. You place cranes, helipads and slow-down signs to aid in the job of loading the passing boats.
The game is simple, easy and dull.
After a hard day of work, the player must call one of four friends to hang out with. This involves a night at the bar playing shufflepuck and drinking. You hurl a puck down a table to knock off bottle caps, while spending your pay on pizza and booze.
Get stinking drunk at the bar if you want, but know that your actions have consequences.
Every drink at the bar makes the game at the loading dock the next day that much harder. If the player gets so drunk that he passes out, the loading game the next day is impossible. If you fail the loading dock game too many days in a row, you get separated from the Navy.
Play it safe and get promoted.
But even then, the game doesn’t change. I played through several promotions. Pressure to drink didn’t increase or decrease. The loading dock game’s difficulty remained the same. There were no different types of ships or upgrades. Nothing to hold the player’s interest.
The hours I played Pier Pressure passed in a boring wash of routine—an admittedly accurate simulation of military life.
The tool portion of the app is far more interesting and useful. The Navy included an BAC calculator, allowing a drinker to get a rough estimation of the alcohol level in his blood. There’s a screen dedicated to finding and calling a taxi cab for a safe ride home, plus information about seeking help with alcoholism.
This tools portion is well done. The game feels tacked on. It didn’t have to be that way.
Keep what you’ve earned
A year ago, the Navy Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Office launched the “Keep What You’ve Earned” campaign. KWYE marked a departure from traditional military alcohol and drug campaigns, which preached abstinence and punishment. After years of research and interviews with sailors, the Navy decided to treat its people like adults.
“Keep What You’ve Earned” focuses on education and support and encourages responsible drinking, not abstinence. NADAP has called the campaign a success, pointing to a 51-percent decrease in alcohol-related incidents involving sailors over the Labor Day and Memorial Day weekends from 2012 to 2013.
Believe it or not, Pier Pressure is consistent with the sailing branch’s new grown-up approach to addressing alcoholism. It fails not in concept, but in execution.
The anti-booze app is an example of “gamification,” the application of game design elements—like experience points, rules and competition—to non-game aspects of life.
Fitocracy, for example, is a popular workout program that gamifies exercise. Users track their progress, compete with other players and level up. A college professor gamified his grading rubric. He modeled the grading structure after a traditional role-playing game, complete with experience points and levels.
Various companies use gamification to create customer engagement. How many more Foursquare check-ins do you need before you get free Starbucks?
The studies on the subject are overwhelmingly positive, showing that gamification can be an effective method of engaging and teaching. It’s obvious why the Navy decided to tackle alcohol abuse with a video game
Alcohol abuse in the military is a real problem that demands real solutions, even ones that seem ridiculous. We should applaud the Navy for taking a risk with Pier Pressure. But we should be honest—the game actually sucks.
Let’s hope the Navy makes Pier Pressure 2. And that it’s no less informative than the original game—and way more fun.