By Gabrielle Lavenir, with contributions from Fariba Almasi, Adriana Cabrera Cleves, Diane Carru, Federica Chiusole, Mahdokht Ghorbani, Erin Lynch, Thomas Quarcoo Aduah
Translated by Sophie Dummett
Two visits to the casino, in very different contexts. The first under the heavy snowfall of a late January, and the second under the bright sun of a late afternoon in June. The first in the middle of the afternoon on a weekday, and the second on a Saturday in the late afternoon and early evening. Both times, the same roadmap: observe, survey, discuss, understand, and absorb the atmosphere of the place, paying particular attention to our sensory experiences.
Our group of eight students and two teachers conducted these visits as part of the “Casino Ethnography” (CE) project. This project is part of the research program on Responsible Gaming in the Digital Age supervised by Dr. Martin French at Concordia University in Montreal, and supported by the FRQ-SC . The study was able to draw on the support of Prof. David Howes at the Center for Sensory Studies and Sylvia Kairouz of the Gambling Research Chair, and is part of the projects carried out by the Ethnography Lab at Concordia. CE’s ambition can be summed up in a few words: to offer a sensory ethnography of the casino environment.
Before going any further, a few words on the method of sensory ethnography are in order. At first glance, the formula actually describes a priority given to the senses, and in particular to senses other than sight, in the collection and interpretation of ethnographic data (Sparkes 2009). Sensory anthropology, with which the method is associated, highlights the deeply cultural role of the senses as bearers of meanings and mediators of the experience of the social world (Howes 2005). The theoretical contributions of sensory anthropology are numerous, and we cite only one here: the explosion of sensory stimuli in the “hyperesthesia” of late capitalism, of which the casino constitutes a privileged example (Howes 2005).
The CE takes as its object the material experience of gambling and the sensations that the game arouses in those who participate in it. Games of chance are social practices that materialize in moments, places and interactions. As such, they constitute experiences invested with meanings and emotions by the individuals who invest in them. The CE finds obvious inspiration in the influential “Notes on the Balinese cockfight”: in its analysis of gambling as a text of a culture, but also in its “thick” description of the noise of the arena and faces of punters (Geertz 1972). This survey highlights the social, material and experiential dimension of the game, to complement the cognitive and psychological approaches widely represented in the literature on gambling. It is for this reason that a sensory ethnography of the casino is of interest to sociologists, anthropologists, and ethnographers, but also beyond the disciplines for researchers who work on video games (game studies) or gambling studies.
As in all ethnographic undertakings, our visits to the casino were punctuated by a questioning of our representations of casinos, of those who frequent them, and of the practice of games of chance. We will present three avenues of analysis based on these reflections. But first, we must mention the obvious: the casino environment encourages gambling. The sensory overstimulation elicits a state of mind that is both euphoric and detached: the avalanche of flashing coloured lights and the ringing of slot machines, intensified in the windowless rooms with low-painted black ceilings that reverberate and thick carpets that absorb. Added to this are the efforts to disorient the players: in space, with a labyrinthine layout and more escalators up than down, and in time, without clocks and windows (except on the ground floor). We’ll stop there, since this deliberate effort to design a space to push play is very well analyzed by Natasha Dow Schüll in Addiction by Design (2012).
A first notable element: the relative calm of the casino. This calm is first of all unexpected, given our representations of the casino as a space of sensory over-stimulation and frenzy of play. The place is of course not peaceful. Lights and sounds fill the rooms, and the rooms are far from empty even on a winter Wednesday afternoon. But while strolling in the casino one notices a discrepancy between the electronic agitation of the machines and the empty seats, the immobility of the players, the dark rooms, the sound reflux where the machines are little used, the virtual absence of voices, bland hallways and slightly discoloured carpet. Even on a summer Saturday night, most of the casino spaces seem almost dozing, with the notable exception of the dance floor on the ground floor and the youth betting area, with collective tables and animators. Everywhere else, the frantic rhythm of lights and sounds enclosed in dark and carpeted rooms simultaneously generate feelings of urgency and sleepiness. The near absence of odours, the cool temperature and the sweetness of the free drinks help soothe adrenaline rushes.
People also seem calm. Yet most of the conversation revolves around the topic of the losses that everyone takes – a topic that might arouse passions, but which is approached with detachment, even amusement. It seems that everyone is trying to avoid expressing intense emotions. Many of us note that the faces of the people sitting in front of the slot machines are impenetrable. We do not detect a smile or tears, we do not observe any outbursts of anger, and the rare cries of joy come from the groups of young people (for example after a success at the Wheel of Fortune). The majority of players are alone in front of the slot machines, and the poker, baccarat and blackjack tables are generally silent. We think of what Goffman said about the reserved behaviour of players flooding out within the framework of the game. These observations also refer to the aristocratic relationship to gambling described by Gerda Reith: “in the same vein [as the nobility of the 17th century], modern gamblers demonstrate character and realise their selves in their pursuit of play: an unproductive expenditure; an activity in and for itself”(2005, 146). This controlled behaviour echoes a discourse from gamblers on games of chance which downplays the importance of money. One of us hears an exchange between a dealer and a player: “Are you having fun? – Yes, it’s going well. – Well, like you’re winning? – No, I’m having fun! ”
A second notable element: the strong differentiation of spaces, linked to that of audiences and gaming practices. This differentiation is embodied in the layout of the casino, which offers a multitude of rooms and spaces with distinct functions and sensory atmospheres. The top floor, with dim lights and a sober sound atmosphere, is devoted to poker. Gamers, predominantly but not exclusively men, minimize sensory stimuli with dark glasses, headphones and caps. The many slots filled with slot machines have slightly different vibes: redder lights in the basement room, newer machines in some spaces, others with mechanical levers mimicking the one-armed bandits of the last century.
The casino seeks to diversify its attendance, especially with regard to young people. Let’s dwell for a moment on some of the spaces already mentioned, but this time focusing on how their sensory ambience is designed to appeal to twenty-somethings. There is a lively ground floor with a dance floor and music on weekend evenings, and an area dedicated to young people with collective tables, digital games, animators and a lower starting bet. Elsewhere, music replaces the noise of the machines, and on the ground floor a huge bay window overlooking an illuminated fountain replaces the usual windowless walls. During the second visit, the dance floor is full and half the crowd appear to be in their 20s. However, even on this summer Saturday night, the majority of people seem to be in their 50s to 70s at the slot machines, and 30 to 40 at the poker, baccarat and blackjack tables. Young people seem concentrated, although not exclusively, in the spaces allotted to them by the casino. In addition, the establishment highlights in its promotional campaigns its cabaret and restaurant, presented as top-of-the-range and undoubtedly intended to attract a slightly older clientele with a higher economic and social capital. These various audiences come together in distinct sensory spaces assigned to them by the casino.
A third and last notable element: the casino is an insider’s space. Our wanderings in the casino are marked by confusion. The plan is labyrinthine, the lights dazzling, the rules of the table games unknown, the numbers and odds displayed everywhere but difficult to interpret, the logic of the slot machines impenetrable. There are few visible explanations: only slot machines are equipped with a long and technical user manual, which can be accessed through one of the tabs on the screen. The fact that the odds of winning are virtually invisible is not surprising, but even the rules of the games are hardly spelled out. The organization of the casino does not seem to seek clarification of the rules to maximize access. But the people who play seem familiar with how the different games work. No one can be heard asking for explanations from the many employees who roam the floors in flower-decorated costumes. Many of us receive advice during discussions with players, which manifests a form of expertise and knowledge of the casino. The familiar atmosphere reinforces the impression of an insider’s space. People occupy the space informally, for example recharging their phones in wall outlets.
By drawing attention to the sensory and material dimension of games of chance and gambling in the dedicated context of the casino, the CE wants to bring an additional perspective to the literature on the subject. It stands out from cognitive and psychological approaches and studies on addiction, which are widely represented in research on gambling. It goes without saying that this work is of capital importance from a public health perspective. But the framework of the CE is not intended to lift the veil , that is to say reveal the illusions, the manipulations, the errors of calculation and the irrational beliefs of the players. Instead, it intends to seek the meaning of gambling as a social practice. It’s about, in a nutshell, understanding what happens when people play.
Geertz, Clifford. “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”. Daedalus 101, n o 1 (1972): 1-37.
Howes, David, ed. Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader . Oxford; New York: Berg Publishers, 2004.
Reith, Gerda. The age of chance: Gambling in western culture . Psychology Press, 2002.
Sparkes, Andrew C. “Ethnography and the senses: challenges and possibilities”. Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise 1, n o 1 (1 March 2009): 21-35.