Connoting to Touch: A Group Auto-Ethnography of the Online Casino

By Genevieve Collins

This blog post is part of the series “Casino Ethnography 2.0,” wherein a group of researchers from the Casino Ethnography Working Group use sensory ethnography to explore the embodied experience of online poker play (via the PokerStars platform). Other posts in this series (written by Amrita Gurung, Genevieve Collins, Isabella Byrne, and Pierre-Olivier Jourdenais) can be found here.

The Casino Ethnography working group, a research team led by Martin French, David Howes, and Erin Lynch of the Concordia Ethnography Lab, met regularly between 2020 and 2021 to conduct an autoethnography of the online gambling experience. Our game of choice was Texas hold’em, and the online Poker Stars platform our elected venue. Though we opted to play with pretend money, the stakes felt high as we placed bets, took risks, bluffed, and won (though in my case primarily lost) large sums. With a range of skill levels and online gambling experience, we set out to conduct a virtual ethnography with a collective attunement to the sensory environment. We asked ourselves how an online casino that mediates the gambling experience exclusively through a screen might uniquely engage the sensorium and influence our embodied reality.

Theorists have argued that we “lose our material body” when looking at screens, possessing instead a “spectral body” far removed from our habitual corporeal being (Zizek in Verrips 2002). On the contrary, as our auto-ethnography of group gameplay confirms, screens thoroughly engage the sensorium through our familiar, everyday material body that we come to inhabit in “particular ways” (Verrips 2002). Through this project we set out to interrogate the sensory dimensions of the online casino environment and discern these ‘particular ways’ in which our bodies were engaged sensorially. In this ‘screenic’ space where social interaction, gameplay, and risk and reward are all mediated through a computer, a guiding question we asked ourselves was: can the sensorium be engaged beyond the visual?

Figure 1: a screen-grab depicting one of my hands – cards and chips are distributed by a visually absent, “ghostly” dealer

Section I: Talking with the Body

To begin interrogating our sensorial engagement with the online casino, it is first helpful to reassess our relationship to the computers used to access the Poker Stars platform. By resisting the subject/object dichotomy that pacifies the screen, we can approach our ethnographic encounter as an engagement with screens as “subjects” and active agents in our collective gameplay (Verrips 2002).  

The screen can thus be perceived as embodied, possessing a “spirit” of its own (Verrips 2002). Indeed, the visually absent, “ghostly” dealer at the Poker Stars table in some ways stands in for the essence of this “spirit,” overseeing the experience (Group Ethnography Notes). At times, the platform also addresses players directly through reminders such as ‘you have 8 seconds to respond’ (Group Ethnography Notes). The website also requires you to ‘read in their entirety’ various tomes of information including the Privacy Policy as well as General Terms and Conditions which you must sign before gaining access to the website. The platform constitutes a more-than-human subjectivity that strictly governs the rules of play and creates a sense of surveillance that in some ways mirrors the experience of visiting a casino in person.

But how might this ‘screenic subject’ engage and extend the sensorium beyond a strictly visual experience? Dernick de Kerchove claims that “the TV talks with the body and not with the mind” (Kerchove in Verrips 2002). Similarly, McLuhan conceives of the TV as an extension of the sensorium that envelops us in “everyday synaesthesia” (McLuhan in Verrips 2002). In his argument, TV is more a “tactual-auditory” medium than strictly visual experience. This emphasis on tactility is not lost on Verrips (2002) who understands all sensory experience to be essentially tactile in nature:

“… we relate to the world through the touch of the cornea of our eyes, of the tympanum in our ears, of the receptors in the mucous membranes of our nose, of the papillae on our tongue, of the sensors in our skin and/or of our whole body.”

The ideas to glean from these scholars are twofold: 1) through screens the entirety of the sensorium can be engaged and 2) all sensory perception can be understood as fundamentally tactile. So, how does the online casino ‘talk with the body’ and allow for a tactile engagement in the context of our auto-ethnographic encounter?

Section II: Tactile ‘Screenic’ Experiences

            I experienced a sense of immersion into the Poker Stars platform initially because of the many visual cues and loci of engagement on the busy website (a platform not particularly intuitive to navigate). My hands were thoroughly engaged through the various buttons you must click, amounts you type when placing bets, as well as playful animations sent across the virtual table to your opponents, all within a finite amount of time. For myself, someone new to the platform as well as the game of poker, it was an all-consuming sensory process that required immense concentration. It was initially a complicated dance to learn, but once the rhythm of play was internalized, it was easier to maneuver through the game and navigate the platform.

Both the tactility of my environment and my awareness of my screens as co-subjects in the ethnography were enhanced by the hum of the fan and the heat coming off of my computer as Poker Stars competed with myriad other tabs irresponsibly left open on my computer, all vying for space and processing power.

As you spend more time in the virtual world, your other senses become immersed in the environment, and I began to perceive the computer screen as the “prosthetic organ” described by Morss that invites all of the senses into the experience (Morss in Verrips 2002). The material body “matters more” despite its seeming “evaporation in VR and cyberspace” (Verrips 2002). In a sense, we rely on our feeling body to a greater extent in the online casino environment as our experiences become mediated through another organ (the eyeball/screen). “What we see does not merely touch the surface of our eyes, our whole body is touched by what we see” (Verrips 2002).

The immersive nature of the online game cleaves open a unique space that allows for embodied experiences through the eyes as “organs of touch” (Verrips 2002). This is perhaps aided by the high stakes of the game and tight timeline in which you are expected to make quick decisions. This does not allow much room for you to look beyond your screen at your environment or register other stimuli in your immediate vicinity that might draw your attention away from the screen. I had a feeling of being immersed completely in the game, and the fast pace and high stakes nature of the gameplay evoked corporeal reactions such as sweating, sighing, and gasping. Early on in our gameplay I also experienced an initial sense of panic caused by a fear of being new to the game, the rules, the platform, and the timer (a looming presence counting down the seconds and prompting you to adhere to the pace of the game).

Although the act of playing poker online robs you of the tactility of throwing in and (hopefully) raking up physical chips or money, the sensation is swapped for a different kind of tactility that we simply experience in unique ways. “Making sense of the vision of touch in your own flesh” (Sobchak in Verrips 2002) involves attunement to the sensory environment of the Poker Stars platform as a tactile engagement. Despite the disembodied gaze possessing an impossible point of view that hovers above the table, a tactile corporeal experience is achieved through various mechanisms (Group Ethnography Notes). For example, a choice of cards that can appear to have texture or patina, my personalized setup of an old timey saloon that implied the smell of whiskey and horses, or, in the case of the final ‘festive’ game played before the holidays, a frosted table (cold to the touch) with steaming hot drinks and a bright red crushed velvet table reminiscent of Santa’s garb (see Figure 2, below). Despite the absence of bodies around the table, there is a discernible atmosphere of active sensing subjects gathered to play a game via their own unique engagement with the space. 

Figure 2: a ‘festive’ table, covered in bright red crushed velvet, reminiscent of Santa’s garb (and bag of presents in the background!)

Section III: Temporality, Sociality, and Sensory Aesthetics

As a beginner poker play new to the Poker Stars platform, there were many things frenetically signalling for my attention on the screen: the cards, the time bar, the recap of everyone’s hands from the previous game in the bottom left hand corner of the screen, as well as any playful animations being thrown across the table at me by my opponents. My experience of feeling rushed and the fast-paced nature of the game was not always shared by my fellow researchers, however, as those who had more familiarity with the platform and the game seemed better able to tune out the inessential (Group Ethnography Notes). 

During our virtual sensory ethnography, each player-researcher, in addition to ‘sitting’ at a virtual place around the table, was also present aurally and visually on the Zoom chat. For my specific setup, I was able to leave my computer open to the Zoom chat and access the Poker Stars platform through a separate computer. I was less familiar with this second device, so learning the quirks of a new computer further steepened the learning curve. This gave my opponents only a side profile of my poker face while I stared at the game ahead, perhaps evading any observation aimed at assessing my psychology during gameplay. Despite the fact that I rarely looked at the Zoom screen and used it primarily for aural cues and to engage in conversation with my fellow researchers, I had the constant feeling of being observed. This was perhaps a compounding of the feeling of having a camera aimed at you as well as the nature of Poker Stars platform that reacts to your every move and creates a sense of ubiquitous surveillance.

Though Poker Stars allows for a shared gameplay experience, each player also experiences their own corporal synaesthesia in unique ways. This is a result of details such as the brightness of the computer, the type of computer used, as well as the various elements of the table and background that can be personalized in style and colour.

Figure 3: tuning into my opponents’ ghostly bodies

The material conditions of the physical environment in which you are playing also blend with the virtual environment to contribute to a unique sensory experience. For example, most players were engaging with the afternoon sun pouring in the window, however a colleague with an 11-hour time difference played at night. In my case, the use of one computer for Zoom (set slightly further away and to the side) and another for gameplay (front and center) meant I was able to create a modified table game in which my own hand was directly in front of me while my opponents ‘around the table’ on Zoom were slightly further away. This required me to look up occasionally in order to observe my fellow researchers’ faces and reactions, though the game pace did not often allow for much looking. My posture was also affected due to these two loci of attention, as I was occasionally turning my head to look at either Zoom (typically between rounds) or at the computer screen displaying Poker Stars. This made it difficult to get any sense of my opponents’ facial expressions or posturing, despite the fact that getting to know the people you are playing with, their body language, and psychology, is often thought of as a fundamental aspect of the game (Group Ethnography Notes). This was also inhibited by the speed of play that immediately introduced a new round and allowed for little conversation or time to consider what had just transpired. As one of my research colleagues mentioned, she was looking for cues in the game play of her opponents other than visual or aural hints (such as how long it took them to make a move) in order to gather implicit knowledge about others’ hands (Group Ethnography Notes). Although no virtual ‘body’ was visible on the screen, we were able to tune into each other’s actions through other ghostly bodies (see Figure 3, above).

As the two screens were constantly vying for my attention, I was eventually able to strike a balance between visually engaging with Poker Stars (by turning down the volume and largely ignoring sounds emanating from the platform) and my aural attention to Zoom (the volume of which I increased beyond typical levels).

We also noted that the game carries on without much emphasis to mark the end of one round and the beginning of another, perhaps to mimic the more low-key nature of playing poker at a casino which typically bypasses the theatrics and sonority of slot machines (Group Ethnography Notes). The sense of concentration and quiet observation was often evident in our game play and would be intermittently punctuated by jovial conversation and laughter between rounds that slowly dissipated as the next round began. We became immersed in a governing rhythm set by the Poker Stars platform that rarely fluctuated. Although our play was friendly and financially risk-free, a sense of competition persisted and contributed to a sense of importance and immersion into the virtual environment.

Connoting to Touch

This project ultimately constitutes a unique application of sensory ethnography to the online casino. As participants and researchers, we were immersed in a hybrid environment created both by the sensory aesthetics of the Poker Stars platform as well as our unique physical environments. Our collective gameplay, research group discussions, and auto-ethnographic fieldnotes confirm the potentiality of haptic engagement through screens and explore the possibilities of the human sensorium. 

Works Cited

Verrips, Jojada. “‘Haptic Screens’ and Our ‘Corporeal Eye’.” Etnofoor (2002): 21-46.

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