Team Symposia

An Affordable Wager

The Wider Implications of Regulatory Innovations to Address Vulnerability in Online Gambling for Our Debates about Harm

March 2023

The UK’s gambling regulator, the Gambling Commission, introduced a raft of new regulatory measures to address gambling harm, including affordability checks on online players that rely on cross-operator data sharing. In this symposium, invited speaker Dr. Kate Bedford sought to understand these measures and their limits. She recapped what we already know about differentiated restrictions on access to gambling for adults, including a manifest in recent state-industry efforts to deploy online gambling technologies to identify and pre-empt gambling harm. She then summarized the agreed and proposed changes to British online gambling regulation since 2019, focusing in depth on affordability checks for players and the related imperative to develop a ‘single customer view’ of play. Finally, she outlines two grounds for concern about the measures rooted in the industry’s enthusiasm for affordability checks, linked to the profit-making potential of the data to be shared, as well as the implications for groups of customers who may already be disadvantaged and hyper-surveilled. She raises these concerns in an attempt to identify better, more systemic solutions to gambling harm, in the UK and elsewhere.

Professor Kate Bedford is the author of Bingo Capitalism: The Law and Political Economy of Everyday Gambling (2019; awarded the 2020 Hart-SLSA book prize and the 2020 International Political Economy book prize for the British International Studies Association) and is based at the Birmingham Law School where she teaches courses in public law, law and development, law and transitional justice, and global law. She is a co-editor of Critical Gambling Studies and she is currently working on a project about the gendered political economy of gambling regulation.

Self-Scrutiny: Gambling, Microdosing, and the Quantification of Health

December 2022

This symposium paired a presentation on the changes since 2018 to Ontario’s gambling regulation and the potential for gamification in responses to gambling addiction, with an examination and analysis of quantified self and gamification in technological applications, and their emergence in the landscape of health research. Both presentations discussed the elements of self-quantification and health as personal responsibility.

Amina Vance | Modernization of Gambling and its Interventions as Downloaded Responsibility

Considerable changes have been made to the Ontario gambling regulatory landscape culminating in the creation of Canada’s first legal private market for online gambling in April 2022. The last four years have seen an opening of sports betting, modernization of charitable gambling, defunding gambling research, and opening the market to private online vendors. These are part of broader trends in deregulation and shifts from federal to provincial authority in Canada and must be analyzed with attention to the risks and motivations specific to online gambling. Gamification is a popular phenomenon where game elements are incorporated into a non-game space in order to promote engagement or motivation. This research contends with the potential gamification of recovery from gambling addiction with particular attention to industry and regulator-provided responsible gaming programs. Deregulation downloads responsibility from the producer to the consumer while gamification emphasizes the individual as the primary unit of their own health through self-management practices. Together these trends, in the context of an increasingly isolating online gambling market, present intensifying challenges for problem gamblers and prompt researchers to critically examine our therapeutic frameworks.

Calvin Lachance | A Look into the “World’s Largest Microdosing Study”

Amidst the growing body of research in the potential therapeutic application of psychedelic substances, there is an emerging interest surrounding the practice of microdosing, involving ingestion of a sub-hallucinogenic dose of a substance such as LSD or psilocybin mushrooms, both of which remain illicit for purchase and use in the USA and Canada. One such study investigating this practice is, self-referred to as the “world’s largest mobile microdosing study”, accessible worldwide on a mobile app by start-up research platform Quantified Citizen. Where psychedelic studies may still be considered fringe or niche, Quantified Citizen, with the stated goal to “disrupt and democratize” health research, takes advantage by operating as a hosting site for studies that seek to forgo rigorous clinical research standards. The study is conducted through personality quizzes, survey data, and dexterity games; observing goals, routines, behaviors, and health status of participants who use psychedelics, including the collection of psychological and physiological data, all while being linked to users’ cellphone or tablet. A study platform such as this—unvetted and gamified—exemplifies rapid and potentially harmful changes in health research, knowledge production, and dissemination, worthy of further investigation as the landscape progresses.

Gam(bl)ification and/of Financialization

May 2022

This symposium highlights research examining the interplay between gam(bl)ification and financialization. By taking a look at Digital Asset Exchanges DAEs, the first presentation considers different ways that gamification mechanics are operationalized, and how they might mediate (financial) risk-taking. The second presentation highlights some key concepts for thinking through the empirical material presented in the first presentation.  

Raphaël Bélanger | The Gamification of Cryptocurrency Derivatives

Derivative products are staple financial instruments in traditional markets, yet they were only introduced in cryptocurrency markets within the last decade. In 2014, BitMEX created the bitcoin perpetual contract (XBTUSD), a derivative contract that allows traders to enter levered positions following the movements of an index price of Bitcoin. In doing so, BitMEX ushered in a new era in which cryptocurrency trading shifted from traditional spot (contract-less) markets to a combination of both spot and derivatives markets. BitMEX’s gamified platform and products have since become the ‘blueprint’ for the world’s largest exchanges and have embedded derivatives in a gamified cryptocurrency ecosystem. This presentation explores gamification features across a variety of Digital Asset Exchanges (DAEs), focusing on the aesthetic qualities of their user interfaces. Elucidating these features helps us better understand how they may shape user experience. Given a highly volatile market, trading in cryptocurrency derivatives entails significant risk compared to their traditional counterparts. Accordingly, this presentation explores how gamification may mediate risk-taking in the context of cryptocurrency derivatives trading.

Martin French | Playing with/in Markets and the Financialization of Everyday Life

Theorizing the nature of derivatives in late capitalism, Benjamin Lee and Randy Martin (2016) argue that their volatility plays a key role in economic risk management and risk-taking. Derivatives can be thought of as “contingent claims”, and as “contracts among counterparties with a payout that depends upon some uncertain future event” (Lee and Martin 2016: 8). And volatility “is the randomness in things that is felt as the intensity of change,” as we approach this uncertain future event (Lee and Martin 2016: 4). This presentation reads some of the implications of the previous presentation through the lens of financialization, touching on the concepts of volatility, the derivative, and the financialization of everyday life. It also considers the role of play in the types of edgework and risk-taking characteristic of contemporary economic life, as well as the (derivative) linkages between markets of all kinds in late capitalism.

Designing Games to become a Cultural Phenomenon

November 2021

This symposium brought together two presentations, one on Fortnite and one DOTA 2, in order to address the discourses of responsible game design and gamblification. In the case of Fortnite, much of the discourse focuses on the vulnerability of children, as opposed to the representation of DOTA 2 as premier Esport, supported by a robust community of responsible adult consumers. The overarching goal of this symposium is to contrast discussions of gamblification in games, scale and free to play event structure in order to highlight disjunctures in discussions concerning children, teens and adults.

Katherina Boucher | Fortnite: A critical Analysis

From 2018 to 2020, the videogame Fortnite by Epic Games gathered a lot of media attention, and a lot of this media attention was not particularly positive. From articles outlining how some children had spent incredible amounts of money on the game to how others had neglected going to the bathroom, the game was being depicted as problematic and addictive by many news outlets and celebrities. This paper analyzes the Fortnite phenomenon to try to find an answer as to why this game particularly became so popular, and what informs the discourse about addiction surrounding it. The paper specifically looks at the media panic theory and links it with Fortnite, but also looks at previous research that situated Fortnite as a space more than a game, and a space designed specifically for teenagers for whom children content is not quite suitable anymore, but for whom adult content is not yet for. Finally, it criticizes the lack of research around Fortnite, when the literature points a lot at the importance of knowledge around Fortnite for its players. This research examined play in the game, but also looked at its social media presence.

Andrei Zanescu | DOTA 2, the International & Mega-Event Design

Over the past few years, research on the gamblification of DOTA 2 (Zanescu, Lajeunesse & French, 2020) has been a starting point for the study of the imbrication of gambling from which to consider games more broadly. Theorization of gamblification has singled out battle passes (a recurring subscription model), found in games as service, as a key mechanism of these processes (Zanescu, French & Lajeunesse, 2021; Joseph, 2021). Although the battle pass subscription model has become a preferred mode of designing gamblified ecosystems, there is little written on how battle passes function in the larger context of organized esports. This presentation discusses the esports event structure of the International (the premier DOTA 2 competitive event), its production values and the state of exception which it brings about relative to the seasonal flow of the battle pass. This kind of state is found elsewhere, such as the Olympic games (Boyle, 2012), but it takes on a specific tone when it is scaffolded by habituation technologies like battle passes. Our aim here is to draw attention to the multiple temporal and social layers that constitute the free to play space in DOTA 2, which support and strengthen its platform features.

Feeling Risky?: Meaning, Embodiment, and Edgework in Gam(bl)ing Spaces

June 2021

The talks by our team members Dr. Erin Lynch and Pierre-Olivier Jourdenais explored the concept of risk in relation to gaming and gambling, through the lenses of edgework and sensory ethnography.

Pierre-Olivier Jourdenais: This presentation examines how gamers describe their experiences of playing games in permadeath mode, where the death of their character effectively ends their game. These experiences will be theorized through the conceptual lens of edgework, noting some of its limitations as well as how it can be adapted to develop an understanding of permadeath play, and a critique of games user research literature. Edgework, defined by Stephen Lyng as when individuals engage in voluntary risk-taking as a form of boundary negotiation to gain emotional rewards, assumed risk to be tied to one’s physical reality; the risk in edgework was physical, or pertained to one’s material existence. But as our worlds move further online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the boundaries between physical and virtual reality find themselves blurred, and thus what is defined as dangerous or risky is as well. Through an analysis of screenshots, strategy guides and Reddit forum posts regarding some of the themes found in the turn-based tactics video game XCOM 2, I propose a critique of edgework both from the macro sociological theories of risk as well as from the psychological perceptions of risk prevalent in games user research literature. I suggest that what is deemed and perceived as being risky from the part of the gamer is the meaningfulness associated with the gaming experience, and not the type of risk at play. But, as games are constructed by game designers and game researchers to be maximally meaningful for players, this raises questions pertaining to the thin and ambiguous line between making meaningful versus addictive games, and whether edgework in the context of intense video game experiences can truly be deemed to be voluntary risk-taking threading the boundaries between order and chaos, or life and death.

Erin Lynch: There have been sensory murmurings in critical and cultural criminology for some time. An attention to the sensual has underpinned feminist criminologies on landscapes of fear, but it has also informed scholarship on risk-taking, where cultural criminologists have responded to the call for a “criminology of the skin” using the embodied practices of edgework. Notably, Jeff Ferrell (and other cultural criminologists) have also championed the notion of criminological verstehen, which embraces voluntary risk-taking as a method to “get inside” the immediacy and situated experience of crime – a kind of ethnography as edgework. The embodied experience of taking a risk has thus emerged as both object and ethos of some of cultural criminology’s more multisensuous offerings. I argue that taking a cue from cultural criminology’s embodied approach – and its insistence that the meanings we make around risk are both corporeal and co-produced – might help gambling studies better make sense of the fraught atmospherics of risky gameplay. After all, the sensory marketing of casinos and gambling spaces at once trades on the idea that gambling feels like taking a risk (with games designed to “keep you on the edge of your seat” or “reeling with excitement” as “your heart skips a beat”) while at the same time curating sensory atmospheres and interfaces in which the act of risk-taking may become routine and is often rebranded as “all part of the fun.” This talk will explore how a sensory ethnographic approach to gambling spaces can offer insight into both the playfulness and routinization of (techno-mediated) risk taking in these spaces. It will also examine the marketing and enduring allure of “feeling risky” as part of the broader experience economy.

Risky Times: Studying Risk Environments during COVID-19

March 2021

Maraika Black, Rebecca Aberra and Dr. Colin Hastings discussed the challenges of conducting research amidst a global pandemic.

Rebecca Aberra presented her research about epigenetics, risk, risk profiling ant the sociological implications of genetic risk assessment, specifically for alcohol dependence.

Maraika Black shared her research about recreational gambling among elderly populations, and the methodological challenges that arose with the pandemic.

Colin Hastings presented his research on the treatment of health surveillance and criminal law and brought up questions about the classification of subjects as risky.

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