Duke’s alcohol policy concerning undergraduates, both on and off campus, bans “participating in or facilitating drinking games” as “unsafe/irresponsible behavior.” After my friends’ recent fight, and subsequent defeat, with their RA over a beer pong tournament, I decided to look into the assumption that drinking games are unsafe and irresponsible. I found research that I’d generously call “limited.” I realize generalizations, especially about alcohol, are dangerous. However, three studies I found might point toward allowing beer pong as a safer alternative to our current umbrella ban on all drinking games.
I examined a dissertation submitted to Auburn University in 2010 that reviewed three of the more rigorous explorations into drinking games and their associated risks. The first study concluded that the majority of college students have played drinking games and the most popular were team and skill games (think flip cup and beer pong, respectively). The study also found that “frequency of drinking game participation was no longer predictive of alcohol-related problems when typical weekly consumption and frequency of binge drinking was entered into the model.” In other words, the study’s regression showed no immediate link between playing drinking games and alcohol-related problems.
The second study stated, “Participation in beer pong leads to rapid, elevated alcohol consumption and an associated spike in BAC.” And the data certainly support this position, showing a BAC of 0.08 for males and 0.14 for females after just 20 minutes of play of certain games. However, the simulated games cited for these data used 40 ounces of beer per side (over three beers) and either one or two players per side. For me, this invalidates the study. I play (and I don’t necessarily speak for everyone), with 10 cups on each side, two beers per side and two people per team on a “regulation” (ping pong length) table. Under these conditions, depending on my opponent’s skill, I’m lucky to drink one beer in 20 minutes. Oftentimes I get thirsty enough to crack open a side beer. But maybe I’m an exception, I am after all, getting bigger (read: fatter), as I move toward graduation.
The third study was the most interesting, as it provided a side-by-side consumption comparison of three different drinking games: “Three Man,” a dice game; “Memory,” a memory based card game; and “Beer Pong,” the stereotypical drinking game. Researchers found that, of the three games, beer pong and memory had the lowest consumption rates and measures of BAC.
To me, these studies demonstrate the following: First, drinking games are popular (and thus hard to effectively ban); second, participants in the second study were extremely good at beer pong; and third, beer pong is the “safest” of the three games studied. How can these studies inform Duke’s alcohol policy, a policy that I’d argue moves drinking games into private rooms rather than preventing them altogether?
Tables laden with slightly filled cups in various geometric formations accompanied by white balls are an extremely visible violation. Thus, “skill [drinking] games” are sometimes substituted for “team [drinking] games,” such as flip cup. Flip cup is easy to join, includes large numbers of people and concentrates attention on the students currently drinking, flipping or re-flipping. Fast and aggressive drinking by anyone who can find a partner is the result. Now consider “power hours,” which focus solely on drinking, and “kings,” which allows for targeting certain players. (One 2004 study concluded that males may play games to get others drunk and increase the chances of having a sexual encounter with another player, among other motivations.) When you look at it this way, beer pong actually starts to look like the safest option, aside from abstinence obviously.
Or maybe not so obviously. These studies contained no recent observations of a “normal” party situation, nor compared “drinking game BAC” to “normal party BAC.” In light of this, we probably need further research into why drinking games are popular to effectively treat the root cause of this “dangerous” behavior. Drinking games in large parties among strangers can be a crutch. As an outsider, I might throw my card down on a Beer Pong table in order to integrate myself with others. By getting in line, I have the right to occupy the designated space at the end of the table and force others to interact with me, if only superficially. Faced with a room full of strangers and no drinking games, I might find myself applying more of the good ole “social lubricant,” and becoming much drunker as a result.
Maybe beer pong is “unsafe/irresponsible,” but maybe it isn’t. Current research is inconclusive. An ineffective across-the-board ban on drinking games may not be the most effective way to curb unsafe drinking practices, especially considering the differences between various drinking games. An alcohol policy allowing—or dare I say, promoting—beer pong over other drinking games may be more effective. Besides increasing student freedom (like we need more privilege) and promoting safe drinking practices through mutual respect, encouraging the use of ping pong balls and regulation length tables may actually promote safer, more moderate drinking practices. After all, “losing” and being “forced” to drink all the cups on your side only gets you one beer drunker and sent to the back of the line. It may even encourage leaving the table and, ya know, socializing.
I encourage you to search Auburn University’s theses and dissertations for Jennifer Cameron’s paper to review it for yourself.
Travis Smith is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Tuesday. You can follow Travis on Twitter @jtsmith317.