What’s in a name? Quite a lot if your business is gambling.
No, better make that gaming.
Or that’s the advice implied by a new study due out in December in the U.S.-based Journal of Consumer Research that found that people are more likely to place a bet on the Internet depending on how Internet gambling, or “gaming” rather, is presented.
“Changing an industry label from ‘gambling’ to ‘gaming’ affects what consumers, especially non-users, think of betting online,” say the authors, Ashlee Humphreys and Kathryn A. LaTour, who reached their findings through an analysis of media coverage, personal interviews and a bit of psychological profiling.
“A label like ‘gaming’ prompts all sorts of implicit associations like entertainment and fun,” they say, “while a label like ‘gambling’ can prompt seedier implicit associations like crime.”
And implicit associations are what it’s all about, as any advertising executive will tell you.
When the Internet grew to be a force the same approach was taken up by agencies like the Government of Gibraltar Gaming Division and the Lotteries and Gaming Authority of Malta—and it continues in the land-based sector as new jurisdictions need to be legitimized—the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, the Gaming Board of Hungary, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission and so on.
Of course, there are plenty that don’t quibble—the UK Gambling Commission springs to mind, the California and Washington State Gambling commissions, Belgium’s Commission Des Jeux De Hasard, the Alderney Gambling Control Commission, Montenegro’s Uprava za Ígre na Sreću, the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Regulation, the Buenos Aires-based trade group Asociación Latinoamerica de Juegos de Azar.
In their research into The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, among other media outlets, Humphreys and LaTour keyed on coverage of the April 2011 “Black Friday” indictments, when the U.S. government all but shut down three of the world’s largest poker sites. Newspapers shifted the way they described online gambling, framing it more as a crime, and they discovered this led to a shift in consumer judgments about the legitimacy of online casinos, especially among non-users.
Exploring what causes individuals to make such judgments, they found that “rags-to-riches” or “get-rich-quick” pitches prompted both favorable and unfavorable associations. But when they changed only the words “gambling” or “gaming” in those narratives they found “gaming” caused non-gamblers to view them as more legitimate.
As for Ho’s clientele, then and now, no euphemisms have been necessary because “games of fortune” have always been embraced unabashedly by the Chinese as just that.
To put it another way, how would a lobby calling itself the “American Gambling Association” ever have fared on Capitol Hill?
Actually, the AGA defends its choice of nomenclature by arguing that “gaming” is the term honored by time and usage, citing for support the Oxford English Dictionary, which dates it to the early 16th century. “Gambling,” on the other hand, an 18th century upstart, originated as pejorative slang. Not all sources agree on this, though.
At any rate, our common understanding of “gambling” as an activity defined by material risk on chance outcomes, or at least uncertain ones, a hazardous enterprise resulting in the likelihood of material loss, and tainted as this is with images of avarice, recklessness, the fecklessness of fate and possible ruin, is too ingrained to admit “gaming” on an equal footing. One may go to a casino to “gamble” or to “play,” but to say one goes to “game” would indeed sound as archaic as the AGA inadvertently suggests.
This is enshrined in the very word “hazard,” which has come down to us to mean “a chance of being injured or harmed; risk or danger; a possible source of danger” (AHD, 5th edition) but started life as a medieval dice game, its name likely derived from the Arabic word for die: az-zahr. The association with sport survives on the golf course, where it’s often used to describe a sand trap or other obstacle.
In light of which, looking back to when Las Vegas took off after the Second World War and became attractive as a source of tax revenue, it’s not surprising that the powers that be in Carson City found it expedient to distance gambling as a business from gambling as a pursuit. In 1959 the Nevada Gaming Control Board was followed by the Nevada Gaming Commission. A generation later, the distinction was picked up by the University of Nevada’s renowned Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming, which was founded right around the time the industry was plowing full-bore into the mainstream of American culture with the opening of The Mirage and beginning to spread nationwide.
“Over time, industries gain or lose legitimacy through a complex process involving both cultural representations and individual responses to those representations,” write Humphreys and LaTour. “For example, marijuana seems illegitimate when grouped with so called ‘hard drugs’ like heroin in public service announcements, yet it begins to seem legitimate when associated with medical treatments in news coverage. When a product like Botox is framed as a poison on a television show … its legitimacy is called into question, yet it begins to seem legitimate when classified as a cosmetic procedure like a skin peel on reality television.”
With online gambling, though, fraught as it is with unique hazards, the forces of legitimation could find themselves facing an entirely less tractable beast. Yet the need to tame it in its largest prospective market is tremendous, and it will grow more urgent as more U.S. states endorse online “gaming”—which, as Humphreys’ and LaTour’s research suggests, they surely will.