As colleges crack down on happy hours, frat parties, and underage drinking, the number of students showing up drunk at campus-sponsored and other events may still be on the rise. In a practice known as “pre-gaming,” students evade new restrictions on drinking by loading up on alcohol in private settings before heading out for the night.
How does “pre-gaming” differ from the partying college students have done for generations? “It’s more strategic,” explains EDC’s Beth DeRicco, co-author with William DeJong of a first-ever study of the phenomenon. “In the past kids would hang out together and get a buzz. But the kind of drinking we are talking about is more planful and intense,” DeRicco says-and arguably more dangerous. In focus groups conducted by DeRicco, students emphasized that pre-gaming involves fast-paced, high-volume drinking with the sole intention of getting very drunk. As one participant explained, “No matter what the quantity, if it gets the job done, the intent is to get wasted.”
For this exploratory study, DeRicco tapped a diverse sample of 112 college students from 10 colleges and universities across the state of Pennsylvania . Participants completed a questionnaire and participated in small focus group discussions about their drinking habits in the two weeks prior to the study.
Results suggest that pre-gaming is a widespread and entrenched feature of campus drinking culture. Two-thirds of participants reported that they had “pre-gamed” in the last two weeks, while eighty percent had consumed five or more drinks at a sitting in the same time period.
Students provided many reasons for pre-gaming including saving money at bars and avoiding restrictions on drinking at campus events. But perhaps the most common reasons cited for pre-gaming involved alleviating social anxiety. Many respondents noted that pre-gaming helped them “loosen up,” or become more “outgoing and free-spirited.” Students also indicated that heavy drinking before a social event would make it easier for them to “hook up” with someone sexually later. As one student explained, “there might be a girl you want to talk to, and you might talk to her then, rather than if you were sober and you feel like an idiot.”
Many students reported that if they suspected drinks might be expensive or hard to come by at the next event they would be sure to load up in advance. According to one student, “[Pre-gaming] is just getting drunk before you go somewhere else so you don’t have to purchase as much alcohol.” Others described calibrating the number of drinks they consumed depending on where they were headed later. If they were going to a campus-sponsored event, for instance, they would drink less so they wouldn’t appear out of control or get sick in front of faculty; if they were headed to a student-sponsored event they would likely drink more.
Students have an overwhelmingly positive view of pre-gaming. Women reported feeling safer getting drunk among a small group of close friends rather than in a larger setting where they might not know what was being poured and become vulnerable to sexual assault. Men described activities like “pounding shots,” playing drinking games, “keeping pace” with each other, even getting sick or blacking out as positive bonding experiences.
But the practice is risky, according to DeRicco, “There are serious health risks and levels of impairment that go along with this quantity of consumption, including alcohol poisoning.” Several participants noted these risks as well: “You may drink more than you expected and then still feel pressure to drink where you’re going [later], especially if they’re playing drinking games.” Another student acknowledged, “You can kind of get confused about how many drinks you had.”
“I was saddened by the level of social anxiety I heard expressed between men and women in this study,” says DeRicco. “Many of these young people don’t really know how to talk to each other or how to be alone together without alcohol. They view drunkenness as a positive bonding activity and many can’t imagine being sexual without alcohol.”
Implications from the report suggest that broader policy and stricter enforcement of drinking laws might not be the answer, as students quickly devise ways around regulations and may even engage in more risky drinking behaviors to avoid detection or compensate for stricter rules. “My thinking about what are and are not effective prevention strategies to target this particular behavior has really changed,” says DRicco. “Initially, I thought that preventing pre-gaming was a policy and enforcement issue.” Instead, she recommends individual approaches that identify high risk drinkers early and intervene directly with them. One such model, known as BASICS, has shown results in reducing alcohol consumption among 18-24 year olds who drink and has been designated a model program by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. At the broader level, she recommends social norms marketing campaigns that address student misperceptions about drinking and may reduce peer pressure to drink in excess.
Originally published on November 1, 2006