Online gambling: A computer player’s perspective
Originally published in August 2000.
Historical note: After some changes to U.S. Federal law, you can no longer use a credit card to establish an online casino account.
Despite what your personal moral convictions may be, gambling is very big business in the United States. According to Hospitality Real Estate Counselors' 1999 Annual Casino Development Survey, 14 casino projects costing an estimated $6.7 billion are under construction or slated for development in the US. The Washington Post reports that Americans wager more than $600 billion annually in legal gambling operations. This is at least $100 billion more than they spend for food, according to industry figures and data from the U.S. Department of Commerce. In 1997, the gambling industry's gross revenues totaled nearly $51 billion, up from $10.4 billion just 15 years before.
With the now ubiquitous Internet, the industry is poised to expand again with the advent of online gambling. Using the border-less nature of the Internet to set up international online casinos and off-track betting facilities, gambling is now available via computer from the comfort of your own home. Without considering the moral or the legal implications, I decided to look at online gambling from the perspective of a computer game player.
Now, the industry pundits tell us that online gambling is a multibillion industry that will continue to grow for many years to come. However, the computer game player in me is not so sure about the veracity of that claim. Several obstacles seem to be blocking the establishment of the online gambling utopia envisioned by the industry.
There are well-over 600 different online casino operations listed on Yahoo. I tried a few and they all seem to be about the same. Most require the player to download some gaming software that handles the interface into the casino through an Internet connection. Some of the casinos only require a browser that supports Java to reach the friendly confines of their online establishment. All of the casinos I tried allow, and even encourage, players to try playing the games using “play” money before trying their hand with real U.S. dollars.
Using the fake money on Casino.net, I won $250 playing blackjack over the course of about 30 minutes. I was curious if my luck would change using real money. So I bit the bullet and allowed the software to extract $50 from my credit card and place it in my personal casino account. The transaction was frighteningly easy. Unfortunately, the best I could do over the next few days playing for real stakes was to break even. I suspect the difference was a reflection of my psychological aversion to risking my own money and not because the online casino had adjusted the odds through their software program.
On the other hand, the prospect of such shenanigans is not out of the question. In competition with the real-world casinos, the online variety, in their offshore protected universe, will have to work very hard to prevent any public perception of hanky-panky. To its credit, Casino.net went to great extremes to assure me that it was on the up-and-up. Claiming to follow the stringent regulations of Antigua and parading the assurances of the Ernst & Young accounting firm, the casino management guaranteed fair play. They even went so far as to show me a history of my winning and losing hands in both the “real-money” mode and the “play-money” mode, the results of which indicated little difference in winning percentage.
However, from the computer game standpoint, I was extremely disappointed. Cheap middle-school project graphics, nasal voice acting, and simplistic animation were comparable to computer games available in the 1980s. And I’m not talking about the good games from that decade either, I’m talking about the bad ones. This is supposed to compete with the neon lights and gaudy atmosphere of casinos? I think Solitaire and Minesweeper offer more fun and at much less expense than any of the casino games I played online. If you listen closely, you just might be able to hear the sound of that predicted multi-billion dollar industry bubble deflating.
While online casino gambling straddles a gray area of the law, in Kentucky off-track thoroughbred horse racing is a legislatively sanctioned activity. Using the TVG Television Network web site, I was able to establish an account and start losing hard-earned wages in less than 24 hours. This was again frighteningly easy using my well-worn credit card to make the transaction. After establishing an account, patrons can use their Web browser to connect to the site and bet a race at one of the participating racetracks throughout the country.
However, once again, the game player in me was gravely disappointed in the experience. No attempt was even made to make interface anything more than an efficient and antiseptic machine to make your bets and take your money. I am a great horse racing fan. I visit Churchill Downs several times a meet. The thrill of the stretch run, the sound of thundering hoofs, the majestic beauty of a thoroughbred, are all part of a unique experience. To treat such a thrilling sport so blandly should be a crime in this country, and probably is in the state of Kentucky. The concept of a multi-billion dollar industry presenting itself in such a lackluster fashion again shakes my faith in the industry-pundits’ rosy predictions. Horse racing on a computer, even with the ability to wager, just doesn’t compete with being there.
Breaking the Bank
Games are an integral part of our human existence. We use games to learn and grow by exercising our minds and extending our imaginations. Betting on the outcome of these games adds another factor into the mix, intensifying the play. This increased intensity can result in a gambling addiction in some individuals. There can be no question that gambling addiction destroys lives. The availability and ease of online gambling at home only exacerbates the problem.
Regrettably, the design of these online casino and horse racing games from the computer gamers standpoint lead me to believe that they are designed for gamblers not for game players. I find the lack of sophisticated production values in any of these online experiences disturbing because it indicates to me that their purpose is not to entertain but to facilitate and exploit gambling in the most efficient manner possible.
It boils down to your motivation. If you are a gambler, if the thrill of wagering on wining and losing is your motivation, you will find the online gambling experience unreservedly efficient. No bells or whistles will come between you and your wager. If you are looking for entertainment; if you frequent casinos to enjoy the energy, the lights, the food, and the atmosphere, then you will be sorely disappointed in the current online gambling experience. There are no neon lights or beautiful horses and the glitz is replaced by mouse clicks and cheesy sound effects. For those of us who play computer games there is nothing here for us at all. The games designs are amateurish and cheap. There is no excitement and there is no interaction.
I believe that human beings will participate in games of chance online in some form and that gambling and wagering will be involved somehow. But we have a long way to go before the day arrives when that experience will be considered entertainment. As for me, I’m going back to playing computer games while I wait for the Breeders Cup at Churchill Downs in November. Bet on it.