Some general considerations on gambling, and on line gambling, as ludic behaviors

Questo paper di Peppino Ortoleva è stato condiviso con i ricercatori di <ahref dall'autore. Il testo è stato redatto nell'ambito di un progetto europeo sull'addiction in cui Ortoleva e altri studiosi curano la parte relativa al gioco d'azzardo on line. Nella letteratura dominante sul tema il gambling, on line e no, è trattato soprattutto come una dipendenza. In questo testo Ortoleva mette invece in evidenza il ruolo rilevante che viene assunto dalla componente ludica nella corretta interpretazione del fenomeno.

di Peppino Ortoleva, University of Torino


Preliminary note. These considerations are a reaction to some of the dominant trends in the current literature on gambling and particularly on online gambling. I have decided, to keep their preliminary character, not to quote single essays or books (excepting only some classics); I shall do it in later and most specific interventions.

It may be useful for the reader to be informed that these considerations are strictly connected to a more general (and still quite initial) effort for a systematic study of the evolution of ludicity in the last three-four decades. A synthesis in English of my main theses on this subject may be found in

from which I shall liberally use in the following pages some ideas and excerpts.

1. Gambling as a form of playing

If we think of gambling, online or offline, exclusively in terms of addiction, and if we think of the person who gambles exclusively as “a gambler” (that is, conditioned by this activity in all aspects of personality), we risk forgetting

-that many persons gamble who are not compulsive gamblers, and for shorter or longer periods may gamble from time to time, answering to desires that may not be defined as compulsive, but that may be nonetheless very influential, desires connected to an expectation of pleasure;

-that also the persons who may be defined as addicted to gambling have been, earlier in life, moved by impulses which could not yet be ascribed  to the compulsion typical of dependency, in other words dependency never explains the whole gambling history of a person;

-that one implication of the features most typical of the most recent phase of gambling (particularly, but not only, of online gambling) is the multiplication of what we may call “border line gamblers”, definable as those for whom gambling is a habit, not a full-fledged addiction; or those who oscillate between the two.

We should in other words understand gambling as a not necessarily addictive behavior, as a possible border line phenomenon, and first and foremost as a source of pleasure that is not necessarily connected with dependency. In order to do so can we have to recognize the ludic aspect of this behavior, to acknowledge the fact that it is one of the forms of human playing, and that the pleasures/desires connected to it, however peculiar, are comparable to those connected to other forms of playing, infantile and adult, such as roller coasters and non gambling card games, masquerading and chess, video-games and merry go round. Without forgetting that in all forms of human play pleasure often borders on suffering.

This perspective may be developed in the form of questions to be answered. We shall number four questions:

I. which kind of play is gambling, what makes it similar and what makes it different from other forms of play, and which are the specific forms of ludic pleasure (and/or suffering, pleasure being in many forms of play inseparable from suffering) associated with it?

II. are different forms of gambling (e.g. social gambling like poker as opposed to “pure luck” gambling like slot machines) connected to different and specific forms of ludic desire and ludic pleasure; and are these different forms undergoing specific historical processes of change?

III. is on line gambling a type of gambling that we must differentiate from the others? if so, which are its specificities not only in terms of the media used, but also in terms of the ludic paradigms employed?  in which ways is it influenced by phenomena typical, more in general, of contemporary (and particularly on line) ludicity?

IV. does the ludic impulse disappear with the growing dependency? or does a ludic component remain also in the behavior of the addicted gambler? and is the representation of gambling as a pathology influenced by the social judgment of gambling per se , in all its forms, as an anti-social behavior?

2. The pleasures (and suffering) of gambling

If gambling is a form of playing, what differentiates it from other forms of human ludicity, and which are the specifically ludic pleasures connected to it?

2.1. A ludic paradigm: Roger Caillois and the socio-historical role of gambling

The obvious reference here is Roger Caillois' Les jeux et les hommes (1958). As many, possibly all of my readers know, in this book, to date the most systematic classification of human ludic behaviors, the French essayist defines alea (from the Latin word for dice), that includes all the games based on luck, as one of the four basic forms of human playing, and more specifically as one of the two forms typical of modernity, the other being agon(from the Greek word for competition), that includes those games in which players confront each other in a position of parity to decide who wins and who loses.

Following Caillois' analysis, alea and agon are, in the modern world (in which other forms of play based on vertigo and on masking are generally relegated to children's plays) (1), the complement and the opposite of each other. In a society in which competition is the vital and merciless principle of organized life, luck may be invoked as a possible way out; it may have the role that sovereign mercy has in a system based on the inflexible process of law: an apparent violation of the rules but also an allusion to a “superior” justice. Playing “against luck” may be the solace (however deceptive) of the loser, the last hope in an hopeless situation.

On the other hand,  Caillois goes on to explain, in some societies where competition has not yet become the founding principle of social life but the systems based on older rituals have already become obsolete, gambling may be seen as a transition principle to modernity: this explains the special role recognized to mass forms of gambling (great lotteries,  organized systems of sport pronostication) in societies from Africa to Latin America, but we may add also in   Mediterranean Europe, as the example of Lotto in Naples in the XIXth and early XXth Century, or the role of card-playing in male sociability from Spain to Sicily to Greece, demonstrate. Card playing in these areas, we should remember, goes almost seamlessly from almost pure competition, where no money is at stake and the hability of the players is considered more important, on the long run, than the luck in the distribution of cards, to card gambling, including “foreign” games such as poker, where money, in some cases very much money is at stake, and there may be also some intermediate situations, such as Southern Italian “passatella” or “padrone e sotto”, which follows the rules of gambling but where not money is at stake, but drinking or not drinking: a playful form of gambling that does not exclude moments of intense and even violent conflicts . (We should keep this in mind when we shall speak of the social forms of gambling based on cards, dice, and similar vehicles).

Two aspects at least of Caillois' interpretation of gambling are very important for our considerations: a. his historical picture of the role of gambling, which we should keep in mind if we want to understand the specific changes of gambling in the last decades (before Caillois, the very few authors who took it seriously including Huizinga, tended to compress ludicity to a a-historical dimension, the dominant conviction being that play among children is a sort of programmed part of growth, among adults is an area of human behavior tending to ritualized repetition) ; b. the inclusion of gambling among the four most basic patterns of human ludicity, even more, the definition of gambling as a paradigm of playing, and particularly of modern playing. A paradigm, not a marginal or a deviant behavior.

We are here in front of a contradiction we should never forget: on the one hand, Caillois reminds us that the idea itself of winning wealth by pure luck is in itself the object of a widespread negative judgment: “it is accused of fostering laziness, fatalism, superstition”.  A similar concept was expressed in the same period (1964), by Marshall McLuhan: in an individualistic society, he wrote, “ gambling games and sweepstakes seem to threaten the whole social order. Gambling pushes individual initiative to the point of mocking the individualist

social structure”.  On the other hand, there is no modern society where gambling does not occupy a role, more, an institutional role (Caillois pointedly emphasizes the role of lotteries in a society which supposedly had an absolute representation of social justice); if it is a pathology, it is impossible to completely do without it. And gambling as a form of play is, potentially at least, universal: something that is part if not of daily life, at list of what we may call “the horizon” of everybody.

2.2. The pleasure of gambling

But beside these strategic insights, does Caillois help us in understanding the specific pleasure of gambling? Not much: his explanations are too sociological to help us penetrate the individual mind involved in gambling. We must then try to go (also with his help...) beyond his analysis; and to do so we may move in two directions.

First, let us consider one of the other playing categories defined by the French sociologist: ilinx, from the Greek word for vertigo. It is possible to contend that vertigo-based forms of play, challenging the ability of standing on one's feet, are among the earliest, if not the earliest, manifestations of human ludicity, that they appear even before the child has learned to name his/her activities; and that they accompany the stages of childhood in various forms, from seesaw to roller coaster (which is, by the way, one of the few forms of vertigo plays explicitly accepted by and for adults also before the recent revival of “extreme sports”). Which is the pleasure (or the pleasure-cum-suffering) proper of vertigo? If standing on our feet is the very first ability that distinguishes humans from the majority of animal species, if learning this ability is one of the most important and difficult tasks the child has to confront with, forms of spontaneous playing like turning around rapidly up to losing one's control, or of organized playing like carousels or merry-go-round, renew the challenge and at the same time the pleasure of winning it. The shivering feeling of being on the point of falling, the relief for not falling (2) and also the more subtle pleasure/suffering, once having fallen, to try again and again, are the emotional bases for this type of play.

With growth, vertigo games become more challenging, and more dangerous, from plunging to bungee jumping, the uncertainty and risk adding to the pleasure (and pleasure/suffering) of challenge. The relief for standing as such becomes less and less important, while the shivering emotion at the challenge to our balance becomes more and more the object of desire. But while, with a few exceptions, vertigo games, particularly in the modern world, have been confined to children's amusements, another form of playing based on risk, gambling, is a pleasure for grownups . So much so, that kids generally consider the access to it a sign of having gone beyond childhood; that in many situations “the first poker game” is one of the many sub-rites of passage that accompany the years between late elementary school and teen age. Gambling as the evolution of vertigo: this is an hypothesis at the moment, which has to be tested empirically, but can be taken as a point of departure in our interpretation of gambling as play.

In gambling, first of all in those forms where the gambler consciously risks relevant sums, we may see a metaphorical form of vertigo, in which the economic stability, an aspect of modern life strictly interdependent with the principle of individual responsibility, possibly the adult equivalent of standing on one's own feet, is jeopardized in exchange for a dream of permanent stability, of a wealth beyond any need for further work(3): an exquisite association of fear (psychoanalist Réné Laforgue spoke of an eroticization of fear, of an AngstLust, pleasure deriving from anguish), expectation -and imagination. This is confirmed also by the sense of nausea that accompanies the situations in which gamblers indulge to their passion without limits: something that Dosto'evskij short novel set in Baden Baden communicates with extraordinary power. A sense of nausea, an exquisite suffering, that we tend to associate to gambling as an addiction (in close similarity to what happens with over-comsumption of alcohol), but that may be felt also by persons who have had only marginal experiences with excessive gambling, excessive in terms of time, not only and not necessarily of the money at stake.

This takes us to the second direction of our interpretation of gambling pleasure. The imaginative aspects of gambling are in fact as important to the vertigo-associated ones. If it is true that human playing in general involves the use of imagination (child play, as philosopher G.H. Mead wrote, is strictly tied to imagery, which implies an “adjustment to an environment which is not there”) few types of play can be defined as “dream machines” as we can do for gambling: particularly but not only for those types of gambling in which the investment is small (better, is small every single time) and the winning may be great, and in which the imaginary prize is literally “stuff dreams are made of”, in Prospero's (or Sam Spade's) words.

2.3. Living in Fantasyland

By the way, this connection between gambling and fantasy may help us to understand the subtle link that exists between two events so seemingly different but so associated in time and space as the birth between 1946 and the 1950s of the gambling city of Las Vegas and that in 1955 of Disneyland, two places born out of the dreams and the myths, on the one hand of adult (including erotic) culture where children are excluded, on the other hand of mass infantile culture where adults find their place only as parents, and/or as long as they accept to become again children. Las Vegas and Disneyland are in fact two opposite and complementary sides of one big continent of mass culture, of one larger Fantasyland. Las Vegas hotels-cum-casinos, in particular, are not only places for gambling but are among of the most ritualized places of our culture, an over-ritualization which on the one hand has the function of correcting the bad image of the institution, with its Mafia association and in general with the negative values generally tied to gambling, but on the other hand has that of directing the imagination of the guests toward a whole mythology of wealth, luxury, high life.

A dream machine: not only (like all games) gambling creates imaginary situations, like all games do, but beyond that, while waiting for the results, the gambler may indulge to the pleasure of “spending” the money he/she almost certainly will never win, of living in a world which is not there but could be, “should” be there, in the imaginary “justice” that every gambler pursues. The gambler, after all, is the actor of an action which has some, however minimal, probability of having tamed the most elusive (and one of the few remaining) of deities, the goddess Luck. In other words, gambling attributes to the gambler a power, however imaginary, of agency, exactly the power which life denies him/her.

Living in Fantasyland: if on the one hand this imaginary power, and in general this imaginary world, may become one of the signs of the addictive power of gambling, and if one of the symptoms of addiction is exactly the inability of the gambler to distinguish it from his/her reality, to “de-frame” themselves, on the other hand this fantasy world exerts a powerful attraction also on many people who are not (and who may never become) pathological gamblers, an attraction we have to understand before judging in moral terms, or diagnosing in medical terms.

If we look at it from this point of view, also superstition that is so strictly associated to all forms of gambling, is not to be simply dismissed as a degeneration of play in Caillois' terms, or as an evidence that “Wisdom, knowledge, and experience are limited assets” as a sociologist puts it. Superstition may very well be one more reason for the social disapproving of gambling, a symptom of the deformation of reality which is part of the pathology of gambling, but it is strictly associated to the pleasures that gambling as a playing activity provokes. Superstition gives the gambler (or whoever else believes it) an illusion of agency, the impression of exerting a form of power on circumstances that are in fact totally out of his/her control. Superstition is part of another world, with its own rules: which are simply stupid if considered as an object of faith, absurd if considered as the basis for actual behaviors, but may become convincing as the “northwest passage” to that other continent where the gambler is sure to beat the casino, or to always have “the good number”. A dream of power, not just a dream of richess.

Superstition gives the gambler the pleasure of having power over chance, which complements and subverts the pleasure of letting him/herself be dominated by chance. This is an example of a more general truth: the pleasures of play are, in general, not mutually exclusive, rather tied to each other by relations of integration also among opposites.

3. Forms of gambling and historical change

In general, the world of gambling is a world of rules. In general all gambling is based that part of human playing which in English is called “games”, that is, regulated by rules all players accept.

3.1. The rules of the game

This does not mean that all gambling games, as opposed to competitive games, are regulated in a way that puts all participants on the same foot: in casino games as well in lotteries and lottery-like games (the state, or the “bank”) there generally is a subject which is destined, by sheer probabilities, to win more than any single player. On the other hand, where gambling assumes the form of a competitive and socialized game, like in poker or betting, the participants are by no means “equal in front of Fortune” because in this type of games ability also has a role and in the long run in many cases tend to weigh even more than pure luck. More: in general players tend to consider winning as the fruit of hability and competence, even though immediately after losing a loser may inculpate mostly, or only, bad luck. In these and in all other forms of gambling there are rules that, as is typical of Caillois' agon, are conceived to avoid any initial advantage for any of the players, and the disrespect of these rules, in private situations, leads to the expulsion of the cheater, in public ones to scandals: having one probability of winning on 1.600.000 is one thing, seeing one's probabilities artificially restricted in comparison to another player is totally different.

As any serious study of human ludicity may demonstrate, each game has not only its own rules but also its set of symbols and its “imaginary situation”, as Russian psychologist Lev Vygotskij wrote;  or its “significant patterns” in Marshall McLuhan's words: “games are situations contrived to permit simultaneous participation of many people in some significant pattern”. From one game to another not only the level of risk and the probabilities of winning may change; we may literally move from one world to a different one, in terms of  the “situation” evoked.

As Caillois, again, wrote, there is no such thing as “play” (jeu) as a general, abstract reality, but a variety of plays and games. In point of principle, we should similarly say that there is not such thing as “gambling” but a variety of gambling games; and one of the directions that gambling studies should pursue is exactly that, studying and comparing single games in what makes them similar and different. Even if we do not (or cannot, at least in the case of these “general considerations”) go all the way to an in-depth analysis game by game, it is necessary at least to define and distinguish some general categories of games, in order to understand the different kinds of desires, pleasures and also historical changes that move the players of the various categories.

3.2. Two main categories and their evolution

In very general terms it may seem obvious to distinguish two main types of game, based on who/what is the other , the antagonist in the game:

- gambling/competitive forms in which the gambler confronts other gamblers, and hopes to win with the help of luck but also of ability: from betting (no bettor will ever admit his/her chances depend on pure luck) to dice and card games;

- gambling in which the gambler hopes to win by pure chance; his/her open antagonist is Luck, even though a second antagonist is not only an actor but generally The Actor, the promoter of the game, the rule-maker and the referee. This Actor is the state in the majority of official lotteries, a private promoter in casinos and other private outfits and in many on line sites, and more and more, both on and off line, a combination of the two: private promoters under a public concession. One of the effects of on line gambling, by the way, is the growing pluralism in this type of activity.

May we speak of modern tendencies that influence this great partition of gambling games? Yes: one is the already mentioned growth of a border line area, with which I shall deal later; others are these:

a. Among the main innovations of on line gambling there has been the partial convergence of these forms. As to the competitive gambler,  particularly the card gambler, while earlier it had been necessary for him/her to find possible competitors and a place to play, it is now possible to find a “virtual” place to play all the time, and competitors he/she has never met. So, games like poker may be played in circumstances in fact very similar to those typical of lotteries. And viceversa. On the other hand, it is interesting to note that many of these games (and others including slot machine playing) are proliferating in social networks: Facebook in particular is the site of a growing variety of Texas Hold'Em “tables” and betting propositions. We may so speak of two opposite and complementary trends: one toward de-socialization of once typically social games, the other toward the formation of new social and socializing frames, that give a meaning to situations which otherwise would lose much of their specificity. The choice of the word “frame” is not casual: as Gregory Bateson and later Erving Goffman have made clear, human ludicity (at least after the very early years of childhood when play is life) always requires the creation of a border, conventionally recognized, that distinguishes the in-game area from the other, that of “ordinary” life. The tendency to a generalized de-framing (another example are on line casinos, where much if not all of the ritual so typical of Montecarlo or Las Vegas is lost)  may seem obvious in a situation where spaces are virtual and timing is arbitrary. But an opposite role is played by what we may call “social reframing”, which is one of the deepest current of on line behaviors, and which gives the social networks much of their meaning. The web favors both a de-socializing which reduces many different types of game to what we could call a “zero degree” pattern, that equates all forms of gambling; but it also has its own forms of socialization, partially ludic in themselves (as we shall see later) and involving since the beginning the imagination of participants.

b. Another phenomenon that may be noticed in modern competitive gambling is the growing tendency to favor spectacular varieties of game as opposed to more private ones. Thus Texas Hold'Em, which has been for some decades one among so many possible varieties of poker, has become in the last few years the most popular variety, as some films have shown, and as a variety of popular TV shows confirm. The pleasure of gambling is in this type of game shared also by spectators, like it happens, in a different playing paradigm, for mass sports; on the other hand, the player is invited to behave not only as a gambler but in some ways as an actor. It is another form of social re-framing, and a possible added pleasure, a narcissistic one, for the gambler. (The relation of gambling to narcissism, as more in general the relation of vertigo to narcissism, deserves a deeper analysis, but we should beware of a too direct psychoanalytic interpretation: such as the assimilation of gambling to masturbation that goes back to Sigmund Freud).

c. As to the “pure luck” games, data seems to demonstrate a growth in money spent in the last few years. Many observers associate this growth to the present economic crisis: but is there really a connection between the two phenomena? The often repeated provers according to which lotteries of all kinds are not just “a tax on stupidity” but also “a tax on poverty” postulates a reverse correlation between the levels of income and the tendency to invest in gambling, particularly in gambling “against luck”. This is not confirmed, though, by the data we have: gambling is not an exclusive of the poorest, on the contrary it is widespread in all social strata.

3.3 The place of gambling in the economy

Should we then say that there is no connection between the state of the economy and the growth of this type gambling, both on and off line? A different explanation is possible. More than a reduction of real incomes, the principal effect present crisis has been a reduction of expectations, particularly for two-three generations who see now their future as much more uncertain and less prosperous than their parents had at their age. Gambling is, in a climate of reduced expectations and of growing (if the word does not sound too strong, but it should not) desperation, a sort of imagined revenge against luck. It is not, or not only, the behavior of the poor who dream richness, but of those who want to hope for a future, against hope itself. The case of the “win for life” gambling propositions in Italy and of their unexpected success is, from this point of view, almost symbolic: in a situation in which a regular job and a regular income are a mirage, the dream moving the gambler is not “becoming a millionaire”, but getting a regular salary, not enormous but above average. Not having to work for it is an additional luxury.

If we follow Caillois' example and widen our visual toward a socio-historical interpretation, we may see a deeper connection between the tendencies of contemporary economy and the growing attraction exerted by lotteries and other games “against luck”. In a post-industrial society, the highest levels of financial life are less and less tied to the materiality of production and appear more and more connected to the fluidity, and arbitrariness, of the movements of the Stock Exchange and other possible investments. The connection between this type of financial behavior and gambling is made evident by the vocabulary itself of many languages: “jouer à la bourse” in French, “giocare in borsa” in Italian, “gambling on the Stock Exchange” in English, etc. And is not at all a new phenomenon: as French historian Fernand Braudel has demonstrated, capitalism, that predates industrialization by many centuries, has been for a long period centered much more on forms of organized (and often ritualized) risking and betting than on supposedly objective investment/rewards calculation. Today, in a general picture where money is less and less the fruit of labor and production and more and more the product of money itself, gambling is in all classes of society a way of conforming to a model that is again hegemonic.

4. On line gambling and the homo ludicus

Up to this point  we have only tangentially referred to on line gambling as a specific behavior, distinguishable as such from older forms of gambling; it is now possible to discuss the subject more directly and in depth. It is my conviction that we cannot understand gambling on line and more in general all the forms of ludic behaviors involving  the use of the web, if we do not consider what in a different work I have defined “new ludicity”, or the advent of homo ludicus as a prosecution but also an evolution of Johan Huizinga's homo ludens.

The main differences between the newer form of ludicity and the older ones are in my opinion

-the implications of the technological environment;

-the birth of a large and growing “grey area” taking the place of the rigid borders (or “frames”) once separating the play arena with its own time/space from the rest of life;

-the delegitimization of the barrier between forms of play once considered typical of children (in Caillois' terms, those centered on masquerading or mimicry and on vertigo or ilinx) and forms proper of the adults: which, as we know, are agon and alea.

4.1. The implications of the technological environment

Even though, obviously, the use of computers is, in the majority of cases, “serious”, that is, has no direct ludic implications, we should always keep in mind that that the interaction between humans and “intelligent” machines is based on an “as if” situation, or an implicit message that the user sends to the machine “let's pretend you are a mind that works like mine and that my mind looks like yours”, and a reciprocate message “let's pretend I can speak like you, and understand what you tell me”. After all, the classical Turing test which measured computers' “intelligence” was based on simulation and deception.An excerpt from Giambattista Vico's Scienza nuova seems fitting: «it is typical of children to handle inanimate things and, while playing, talk to them as if they were alive»; in this way, according to Vico, they act as poets, for «the most sublime task of poetry is to give meaning and passion to meaningless things». In the frame of play it can be normal to have a dialogue with things, and through imagination – the common ground between play and poetry – it is possible to give “senso e passione” to objects: including objects disguising as minds, like computers.

To use a metaphor, we may say that a person interacting with a computer has, however unconsciously, always a foot in what Vygotskij called “an imaginary situation”. This helps us to understand the proliferation of technological games, from computer to video games up to the most recent phenomenon of “casual” games: in which players play “alone against the machine”. Playing alone: a form of ludicity relatively rare before the 1980s (the main exception being “solitary” card games generally stigmatized as typical of extremely boring situations). The “intelligence” of the computer is not sufficient to explain why so many people are accepting this relatively new form of playing; to understand it we must add the recognition of a “playmate” role, the pre-existence of a frame that includes the player and his/her machine. Playing with/against a machine is never playing “alone” in the old meaning of the world, even though neither it is playing “in company of others”. One of the implications of this tendency is what we may call the lowering of the threshold that separates the playing situation proper from “ordinary” life: if being in front of a computer is always being in a frame that be defined, if not properly playful, at list simulative, moving to and fro playing proper is something that can happen many times a day; and, more important, which is not even perceived as a passage.

With the advent of the web, another important change has occurred. Technical advancements in communication during the industrial era had been focused on one-to-many communication or, more specifically, from one broadcaster to a mass of receivers. Newspapers, cinema and, later, television were good examples of this dynamic. In the same period, one-to-one communication was also pursued with the invention of the telegraph and the telephone, up to the era of the mobile telephone. The Internet has not only enhanced both types of communication, but also laid the foundations for another model: technologically based many-to-many communication. In this model a variety of subjects are 'on the scene' at the same time as issuers and receivers, as “participants”.

The opposition of many-to-many communication to one-to-many has been the focus of some classics of critical theory: both Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Letter to d'Alembert on Spectacles and (following almost literally his path) Guy Debord in The Society of Spectacle have extolled the merits of the most typical of many-to-many events, the feast, against the “alienating” power of the theatre and other forms of spectacle. But beside feasts, the most typical of many-to-many forms of communication are found exactly in playing, and in many different forms of plays and games: from team sports to carnivalesque masquerades, to card games and other forms of gambling based on collective participation. The development of on line collective games, and in particular of collective gambling games would not be understandable without this innovation, and has two main implications: the first is, again, lowering the threshold from “real life” to gambling (and viceversa), a “social” context being available all the time to the individual who desires to play; the second is the availability of simulated play fields, in which players participate in a fictional environment that is at the same time the platform for gambling.

These remarks may help us better to understand what already stated about the opposite and complementary tendencies to de-socialization, up to the transformation of typically “social” games into solitary games where the social environment is totally simulated; and to re-socialization, in which the growing tendency of the web to create and activate social networks may become the choice environment for all kinds of games, and specifically of gambling.

4.2. The grey area and border line gambling

What we have said about the lowering of thresholds is crucial to two other aspects. One is the emergency and growing of a “grey area”, not properly play not really “serious”, where ludic attitudes may be employed in all kind of relations, and  real behaviors may always be framed by playful patterns. In fact, much of what happens on the web in terms of interpersonal relations is part of this grey area, as some studies of dating sites have demonstrated for the erotic exchanges; and we may also emphasize a complementary phenomenon, the birth of shared environments in which all participants hide under masks: Second Life has been a big, and partially failed, attempt in this direction, and the use of the term avatar instead of mask is a way of, well, masking its reality. Also the web pornography, which has gone beyond the simple download of film and video pornography, to a form of specific pornographic communication, based on the “inclusion” of the viewer partially based on the videogame rhetorics, is part of this general panorama. How is the growing web Fantasyland tied to the one so typical as we have seen of many habitual, and more of the addicted, gamblers? This is a question for empirical research.

A second important aspect concerns what we may call “border line” gamblers. Many studies have expressed the worry that on line gambling, with its anonymity, with its availability in private and domestic situations, with the possibility it offers of abandon oneself to the “vice” without even the hint of embarrassment that may be connected to the possible disapproval of people one may meet in real life situations, may suppress many possible dams to pathological behavior. Fair enough. But as it happens for other forms of addiction, thresholds operate also in the opposite sense: if they may inspire fear in many who feel otherwise attracted by the addictive behavior, they may be felt by others as a condemnation they have to accept, a door that can only be passed in one direction, and has been passed. The sense of irreversibility of the “forbidden” behavior, in other words, is a part of the process that leads to addiction. The thresholds for on line playing are not only lower, they are also more immaterial than the traditional ones, they lose much of their symbolic meaning, and also of their irreversibility: they make it easier to gamble for a person who does not feel “a gambler”, and at the same time they make it easier, for a person who gambles, not to feel imprisoned.

My hypothesis is that on line gambling favors the growing of the numbers of “border line gamblers”. These may be considered, from the point of view of the study of gambling as dependency, as persons on the verge of becoming addicts, and this is a sensible attitude in terms of therapy; but they can also be viewed as a different stratum of population, moving from a generic habit to forms of addiction but also viceversa; a stratum in between.

It is also important to notice that a tendency to lower the threshold to the access to gambling behavior is  growingly present, and visible, in many forms of off line gambling too, such as the multiplication of lottery and lottery-like propositions in all kinds of shopping places all over the industrialized world. Gambling for such a little sum that it does not seem an investment, not even an expenditure (as is typical of what is often defined a “what-the-hell model of business”, based on a very large collection of very small sums); gambling in every possible place where one may go through in daily life, from supermarkets to fast food eaters; gambling in every possible moment, including, or mostly, in waiting time, as it happens while one is waiting in a queue. The marketing choices practised by both public and private operators tend on purpose to favor gambling behaviors on the border between a habit and an addiction. On the border between the pleasure (with its complex emotional undertones) of playing and a compulsive need to satisfy.

5. Final questions

The considerations I have hitherto exposed obviously leave a lot of problems open, which could be the subject of another large paper. I shall limit myself to a few questions, those most directly tied to my dominant theme, the ludic implications of gambling.

First. As we have seen, gambling has been in the industrial age both one of the two dominant paradigms of play in Roger Caillois' analysis; at the same time it has always carried a stigma, as being a dangerous and an antisocial behavior. Is the tendency to dismiss gambling as one of the normal forms of human ludicity influenced by this stigma? Is the representation of gambling as a pathology, including the idea of a gambling addiction, also conditioned by it?

There is a second question, strictly connected. While in the industrial period gambling might seem opposed to an hegemonic work ethic (even though in no single society, including the most “industrialist” of them all, was gambling totally suppressed, and in all forms of institutional gambling persisted and were in many ways encouraged) in contemporary economy as we have seen the highest levels of finance seem to prize risk-taking and open gambling as the behaviors of “winners”, and to condemn prudence as the virtue of “losers”. Will this imply a growing legitimation of gambling, as opposed to the stigma that has accompanied it for centuries? And if this happens will there be consequences for our representation of gambling as an addictive behavior?

A third question. If, as I presume, the place of gambling in our culture is tied to the relegation of vertigo to childplay, what happens if adult vertigo sports and plays are open to a new process of legitimation? This in fact has been happening in the last thirty to fifty years, not only with “extreme” sports but also with innovative and not clearly understood phenomena such as the explosion of surf and its derivates (snowbord, skateboard and the like). This is in my opinion part of a more general change in the whole opposition that Caillois theorized between “modern” adult games and older ones. In this new picture, will the gambling behaviors be influenced, for instance becoming more intermixed with different forms of play (and forms of pleasure)?

A fourth and last question: in this paper I have drawn the attention of readers to the ludic aspects of gambling, and to their relevance for people who are not, or not yet, “gamblers” in a pathological sense of the word. What happens when a full-fledged addiction takes place? Is the pleasure connected to gambling-as-play totally marginalized in favor of different impulses and needs? Or is the gambler addict still a player? And if so, how important is this in his/her treatment?



(1) Are the four paradigms defined by Caillois really drawing a complete picture of human play? In general scholars however critical of the French sociologist tend to accept is partition as adequate. This is not a place for a serious discussion of the subjecte. Elsewhere I have suggested the possibility of at least three others great paradigms, starting in childplay, and not reducible to Caillois'partition: construction and distruction-deconstruction (including collage and montage); hiding and seeking (including riddles and enigmas); and the “this is not a game” play.

(2) This pleasure is the basis for the satisfaction the spectator, and particularly the child-spectator, gets from acrobatic shows; and it is subtly connected to another, non strictly ludic, pleasure, that expressed by laughter at seeing other people, particularly adult (and the better when particularly arrogant, or pompous) fall. The roots of comicity and those of vertigo are probably interdependent. Erik Erickson also notices that children in front of clowns jumping and mimicking the acrobats are ambivalent, between laughter for seeing them falling and the suffering for the possible consequences. An ambivalence that is quite significant of our basic attitude toward standing and falling.

(3) It may be interesting to note that one of the recent booms in the system of Italian lotteries is “Win for life”, in which one may win, not a large sum but a regular income of 4.000 euros for 20 years. A salary for not working.

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