By Pierre-Olivier Jourdenais
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.
Prior to 2003, poker was a rather niche activity. There were 839 participants in the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event, an increase of 208 from the preceding year (Jacoby et al. 2023). But after amateur poker player Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 World Series – to which he won a seat through an $86 event on the PokerStars online platform – a poker boom took place; there were 2576 entrants to the 2004 Main Event, 5619 in 2005, and 8773 in 2006, the last year of the boom. Since then, the number of entrants has averaged 7000. Indeed, Moneymaker’s win really put online poker on the map; The Times published an article titled ‘Moneymaker method can show the way to a fortune’ in which the author argues that, after Moneymaker won, “…young pretenders worldwide learnt that staying at home in front of a computer screen could be more profitable than going to work” (Swains, 2006).
PokerStars itself did not waste the chance to promote itself in this new favorable climate. While many might consider poker to belong squarely in the realm of gambling – perhaps with images of smoky basements associated with the venture – PokerStars instead opts to market itself with a brand image that is more akin to sporting events. This is readily seen on its homepage where it uses professional athletes to market PokerStars, and is overflowing with sport terms such as ‘tournaments’, ‘champions’, ‘strategy’, and, of course, ‘sports’. Furthermore, there is a PokerStars School section in which the website promises “free poker training from leading poker experts”, allowing new players to “master the fundamentals”, “fix leaks”, and “play smarter, better poker” (PokerStars 2023). If you did not know any better, you would think that you are joining a new sports league. Thus, if traditional casinos tend to emphasize the pleasure and fun inherent to the casino experience (Lynch et al, 2020, p. 209), the PokerStars website emphasizes the sporting aspect of the Poker experience. But one thing is for sure: PokerStars is a rather big deal.
This duality of poker, namely its sporting quality as highlighted by PokerStars, alongside its nature as, if not a ‘gambling’ product, certainly a game in which a fair number of gambles take place, implies that players could interact with poker from multiple fronts or standpoints; namely, one could approach poker with a competitive mindset, but also with a more free-wheeling gambling one. Indeed, a particularity of poker is that it allows a certain amount of control – mostly through knowledge of probabilities but also through a fair amount of social engineering – over its uncertain elements. If a slot machine is purely gambling, and chess is considered a game of skill with few chance elements outside of human unpredictability, poker finds itself slotted in the middle. This also means that poker can be played at both sides of the scale; some players might play poker as if it was an exercise in probability calculations, while others might play it as if it was a game of chance. This also means that the game can and will attract a varied audience, and that players might feel different emotions and sensations while engaging with the game. This was of particular interest for us as researchers; how does it ‘feel’ to play a game of PokerStars? My own personal and research history is deeply tied into not only poker, but also high-intensity video game experiences. This gave me a viewpoint that was rather unique in our team.
In my own work I have used numerous sociological theories of risk-taking to understand why video game players engage in stressful, and sometimes seemingly unpleasant video game experiences. Poker can also seem unpleasant at times; there are a plethora of videos on YouTube highlighting players losing big hands on PokerStars and screaming out at the loss. Indeed, in my research I emphasize the play of certain video games with the ‘permadeath’ option enabled, namely games in which you have only one life rather than infinite continues or the ability to reload a past save. Poker can itself be viewed as a ‘permadeath’ game, in the sense that once you lose all your chips, you are done; the game is over. Now some poker formats allow for what we call re-buys (you can buy your way back into the game once you have lost your chips), which in video game terms could be perceived to be extra lives of sorts, or maybe akin to the arcade games of yore, when extra continues would cost you a quarter. But professional poker play, such as the World Series of Poker, tends to be tournament play, in which you are out once you lose all your chips; it is thus a ‘permadeath’ experience.
In my work I have examined this play experience through the lens of a few sociological theories of risk-taking, such as Stephen Lyng’s concept of edgework, first operationalized in his 1990 paper “Edgework: A Social Psychological Analysis of Voluntary Risk Taking”. Lyng argues that many participants in high-risk activities such as skydiving or mountain climbing do not engage in risk-taking for the activity’s anticipated rewards, but rather for the thrilling properties of the activity itself. But far from being mere thrill seekers, edgeworkers seek to feel the transcendent properties of said activity while also conquering it through the development of skills, even to the point of believing that they can control the seemingly uncontrollable elements of it. Lyng argues that gambling cannot thus be conceived as being edgework, as participants have no control over the outcome, but that poker, which has a strong skill component, could be edgework.
Another sociological concept of voluntary risk-taking is Erving Goffman’s Action. For Goffman, the appeal of risky activities is that it allows individuals to show others their “… style of conduct when the chips are down” (Goffman, 1967, p. 237). This ‘style of conduct’ is an expression of the prevalent normative pull of the current social context; so, in a society which advocates for a rationalistic risk-taking ethos, one that is calculative in nature, individuals might be likely to express their conduct through activities that resonate with said ethos. Going by Goffman, it is likely that such an approach would resonate more in certain social contexts, and in certain social groups, than others. Again, this implies that different individuals would experience the same thing in various ways, but it also alludes to different motivations in play, or for play.
In the end, I theorized that a full understanding of why individuals engage in ‘risky’ gaming might necessitate a merging of both edgework and action; a sort of action-work (Jourdenais, 2021). Furthermore, my research does tie into the thorny question of why individuals would play and be invested into free money poker, as while poker players who play for money are likely at least partly motivated by gain, it is harder to explain why individuals might engage in free money play. PokerStars drapes itself in a sporting allure, but offers a substantial free component on its platform, one on which players can play indefinitely. But can free poker be thrilling? As most video games are played for no monetary gain, yet many play them on grueling difficulty settings, there could be certain similarities between video game play and free money poker. Thus, what do players feel when engaging in games in such a way? Why do they do it? I myself enjoy permadeath games, and I am an avid poker player, even trying to become a professional player in the mid 2000’s. I was initially brought into this project as an ‘expert’ of sorts, to guide the other academics who were poker novices, in order to give my unique perspective on our primary research question: Attending to differences and similarities in our emplacement, embodiment, and connectivity, what describes the sensory experience of an online poker play, represented in the context of a hand, game, and platform (the ‘object’, i.e. PokerStars)?
In order to understand the experience of playing, and feeling/sending free money poker better, I played many games of poker on the PokerStars online platform with a group of fellow academics. While my personal poker history is extensive, the other academics at the table were novices. While I have read many books on poker strategy, and am a video gamer myself and thus tend to approach games with strategy in mind, many of the other players did not have this background. My office is also designed to emphasize play; I have a three monitor set-up, thus I am wrapped around by screens and a constant influx of information. In certain instances this can serve to bombard my senses, forcing me to prioritize important information and ditch everything else. In this manner my setup is reminiscent to Charles and Ray Eames’ movie work, which often involved showing viewers information on multiple screens at once, overwhelming their senses and forcing them to absorb information by making fast connections between seemingly disparate information rather than to consume media in the more traditional linear fashion (Colomina, 2001). While seemingly overwhelming, this was deemed to be an efficient way to convey important information; overwhelming the senses forces people to quickly separate what is important from what is not. But most importantly, The Eameses’ were also trying to illicit an emotional reaction (p. 19), as if the overwhelming flow of information would bring viewers on the edge of panic. Participants would at times even hallucinate certain sights and smells (p. 14), and the flow of information could lead to a sense of time compression. It is possible that using multiple screens forces one to focus on what is happening; the other players seemed to be playing on laptops or smaller screens, and in that context the computer finds itself lost amidst the rest of the apartment; this can lead the player to be easily distracted or less immersed.
When I install myself in my ‘cockpit’, full immersion is an obligation. In my case however I was never overwhelmed; in The Eameses’ experiments the participants had never been in such a setup before; the screens were novel, as were the sights and smells. But for me none of this is novel; I have had multiple monitors for years. Thus playing poker is now a rather routine activity for me, but it was not so for the other players. This was immediately apparent when the first few games were underway, as the other players expressed feeling overwhelmed by the speed of the game; indeed, PokerStars has rather tight time limits by default, and after a mere few seconds alarms ring out to remind the current player that they need to make a move or risk losing their turn (i.e. by having the AI automatically fold their hand). As we were also on a Zoom call during play, I was looking at the other researchers’ faces during hands, trying to read their expressions. I was looking for signs that they were distracted or losing focus, or I was trying to read their expressions when I was making certain moves or certain comments.
In fact, far from overwhelmed, I find it hard not to feel underwhelmed by the online PokerStars experience. While the platform attempts to simulate the look of a poker table, it falls rather short of being immersive. The PokerStars platform has changed little in the past 15 years, while other video gaming products have gone through multiple generational leaps in graphical quality since the mid-2000’s. The PokerStars app is rather barebones, and text heavy, especially outside of actual games (i.e. in the interface when looking for games). The other researchers expressed the poker table as feeling like it ‘floated in mid-air’. The cards are oversized, and the backgrounds, which one can change, tend to be monotonous or neutral in tone. Some backgrounds are a bit more colorful; one simulates a Wild West theme complete with cigar smoke and bullet holes. Yet, my fellow researchers often repeated that they did not feel necessarily immersed in the ambiance. While video game poker products, such as 2016’s Prominence Poker (which is free-to-play on Steam and other platforms) have developed immersive graphical interfaces and avatars, PokerStars emphasizes limited stimulation in favor of sheer speed. As stated earlier, the action is fast and furious, with little time to react. Interactions between players is also rather limited; outside of a chat box and a limited set of user interactions – such as throwing a horseshoe or a box of tissues at an opponent – there is not much to be done between players. The feeling of an actual PokerStars game is rather serious; there is not much to do but to pay attention to the cards, with one hand following the other. While Prominence Poker is rather slow and tries to emulate the sensation of playing on an actual table with other individuals, including emulating the speed of an actual poker game, PokerStars does not.
That said, while the experience of online poker is now a routine activity for me, I did feel somewhat stimulated by our games. It was somewhat reminiscent of a prior experience, when I was teaching poker to a local Montreal queer group. The game ended up being rather exciting as the other players, who had little poker experience, found the experience to be visceral and stimulating, even if no real money was on the line. The excitement at the table was palpable. While I would not go as far as to say that the same could be said of our online research group, the novelty of the experience for the other researchers was also palpable; they expressed the alien-ness of the interface, their struggles with the game’s speed, and their confusion at me consistently winning. All in all, they seemed to ‘care’, or at least to be interested, and this made the experience invigorating for me. This is important, as in isolation I am not likely to feel much; as I have been playing video games for 35 years, I sometimes end up playing games in a mechanical, routine manner; it’s a very cerebral endeavor that does not necessarily illicit strong emotions or feelings from my part. Thus, to ask me “What do you feel?” when I am playing games is likely to evoke unsatisfactory answers; often I do not feel much, and much of my experience is not necessarily centered around the ‘experience’ of the game but rather on its mechanical aspects, i.e. how to play the game and how to win at it. Thus, it was refreshing to have other researchers bring my attention to elements of the play experience that I would normally gloss over: the look of the table, the background, the sensation of play. Indeed, when talking about games to other less experienced players, the emotions they tend to express are reminiscent of how I felt about games as a child, when I was terrified of in-game death to the point of having nightmares, or as a teenager, when I first experienced terrifying horror games. The older I get, the harder the games need to be to evoke sensations from me; a free money poker game would not normally make me feel much. But if the other players at the table look like they are invigorated by the experience, then it can be fun. It’s a good reminder that sometimes it is not just about winning; it can also be about a shared experience, and the enjoyment of being with others and their own unique experiences.
Colomina, B. (2001). “‘Enclosed by Images: The Eameses’ Multimedia Architecture,” Grey Room, No. 2, pp. 5-29.
Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. Pantheon Books: New York.
Jacoby, O., Thompson, W., and Morehead, A. (2023). “Poker,” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/poker-card-game.
Jourdenais, P-O. (2021). Managing Risks of the Fun of It: A Sociological analysis of Permadeath and XCOM. (Master’s essay, Concordia University).
Lynch, E., Howes, D. and French, M. (2020). “A touch of luck and a ‘real taste of Vegas’: a sensory ethnography of the Montreal Casino,” The Senses and Society, 15:2, pp. 192-215.
Lyng, S. (1990). “Edgework: A Social Psychological Analysis of Voluntary Risk Taking,” American Journal of Sociology, 95:4, pp. 851-886.
PokerStars. (2023). PokerStars Learn, https://pokerstarslearn.com/poker/learn/
Shay, H. (2017). “Virtual Edgework: Negotiating Risk in Role-Playing Gaming,” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 46:2, pp. 203-229, doi: 10.1177/0891241615603448.
Swains, H. (2006). ‘Moneymaker method can show the way to a fortune.’, The Times, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/moneymaker-method-can-show-the-way-to-a-fortune-j7mpcn9jppq.