In a world where “gaming supplements” are available for those obsessed with video games, could radiologists be the next target for snake oil “energy” concoctions of sugar and caffeine?
A few days ago, a headline caught my attention during routine browsing of the news. It was something to the tune of “Gaming supplements might be harmful to children.”
I didn’t bother clicking on it because it seemed stupidly obvious. The line between nutritional supplements and pharmaceuticals is vanishingly thin, poorly defined, and mutable. If you can keep your product in the former category, you are pretty much doing business in the Wild West. Of course, supplements might be dangerous, especially to kids.
Hours later, I had a delayed double take. Wait a second. What the heck are “gaming supplements?” I get the point of supplements for athletes, who can have substantially greater needs than the average person. I also understand how other folks might see value in self medicating or preventing conditions real and imagined, but supplements to help you play video games? That couldn’t be what the piece was about.
A quick online search confirmed it. Yes, that is exactly what this stuff is for. There is apparently enough widespread use to prompt news items, even medical concerns. I would have guessed these supplements are various concoctions of sugar and caffeine. This could be akin to someone guzzling energy drinks to stay awake, alert, and twitchy as they play for hours on end.
It seems those raking in the bucks knew they had to go above and beyond what was already available though. Glancing through some of the offerings, I also saw ingredients like ginkgo biloba, omega-3 fatty acids, L-theanine, ginseng, rhodiola, taurine, all things you could easily get with a normal diet, or as stand-alone products already available.
A key of the supplement-game is to hype how your product has just the right amounts of each of the valuable ingredients, leaves out pointless stuff, and tastes good. Customers are buying the illusion that the sugar-water they are drinking somehow has good stuff they wouldn’t otherwise get. Call it a happy coincidence if it makes them a little euphoric in the process or recognize it as a business strategy. Either way, it’s positive reinforcement to keep buying and ingesting more.
Still, I wondered who contemplated gamers and thought, “now there isan untapped revenue stream.” True, there are some folks who manage to game for a living, or like it enough to avidly play long after they’ve become adults and have disposable income to bankroll expensive habits. Surely, the majority are kids begging Mom and Dad to buy them their toys. How much of a goldmine could that be?
Evidently, a rich one.
Far from the first time, I found myself dwelling on the numerous similarities between diagnostic radiology and video gaming. I am far from the only one, and surely not the first. For instance, one of the hardware-peripherals that vRad used as part of their teleradiology workstation was the Grip, a device to be used with your non-mouse hand. It had buttons for each of your digits, so you wouldn’t waste time with keyboard shortcuts. The Grip had originally been developed as an ancillary video gaming input.
It would take someone far more into research and number crunching than I to intelligently comment which industry poses a juicier financial target — video games or radiology —but at the very least, it's safe to say they are both eminently worthwhile. That being the case, I have to wonder why gaming supplements are a hot item, while nobody is trying to make a buck by marketing similar stuff for rads.
One might argue that there are far fewer radiologists out there than video game players. However, an average rad puts in a lot more hours at work than the typical gamer. That has got to balance the scales somewhat. One might also imagine that rads are savvier about health-related matters and less readily enticed to guzzle snake oil supplements. But think for a moment about the rads you have seen. How many of them really look like they know or care about how to take care of themselves?
It seems that pretty much any competitive environment lends itself to peddling supplements. Anybody looking to perform better or have some sort of edge over the competition is a prospective buyer. Powerful as the placebo effect is, even if your supplement doesn't actually accomplish anything, a decent number of users will believe it does, and thus become repeat customers. If you get a team leader or employer on your side, that is even better. They can stockpile their break rooms for any number of underlings, and maybe even pave the way for sponsorships.
I can just imagine a rad group with some name recognition and financial backing, throwing their hat into the ring. Perhaps there would be Duke University Rad Juice, or Mallinckrodt Institute's RVU Tonic. If the best rads claim to be doing their best work when swilling their version of a leading energy drink or supplement, how could "me too" purchases fail to follow?
Lest you wonder why any outfit with a decent reputation might risk cheapening it this way, just think of how our radiological bread gets buttered. Most of us have one source of funding: reimbursements for imaging studies. See how many folks in our field are optimistic about where those reimbursements are trending. An alternate stream of revenue would be awfully reassuring to a lot of people.