By Amrita T. Gurung
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.
In line with these themes, in this blog post, I explore the temporalities of our games, one, across disparate geographies and time zones and, two, through the mediation of haptic screens, the pace of the game, and overall, the design of Poker Stars (that at once provides us with the embodied sensorial experience of but also robs us of the immediacy of the real play game). Moreover, the game – through its hyper-interactive designs, sounds, and settings, punctuated by pop-up messages – provides us with the feel of a real game, lending to the temporal dimension of gameplay. Second, I explore my experiences and those of my playmates at the interface of virtual and physical worlds and how those boundaries become blurred. How did our external environment affect our virtual play? In addition to these, I explore the complexities of playing poker with play money, and to what extent our losing or winning of the game had an effect on how we played, how we responded to others in play, and how that affected our team dynamic, etc. Did winning or losing the game increase the likelihood of risk-taking or decrease it? To what extent was I willing to risk more and more in order to redeem my losses? Or, was it just another enticing game?
Time, Temporalities and Notion of Durée
Considering that our play sessions were entirely online and from disparate time zones and locations, issues of time, temporalities and spatialities became central to our sensorial engagements with the virtual gambling space. Mediated through the ‘object’ of computer screens, our presence in the virtual poker game was as tactile as it was sensorial because it required us to adapt to its rhythm, speed, and design through clicking, scrolling, typing, and navigating in our computers to fully immerse in the game. While the interactive components unique to the online gambling experience did heighten our experiences of the game, it also structured our overall games and our moves during and between games. I, for one, always found myself divided between seeing the screen of our game versus the Zoom screen. Since I could only look at either my table or the other playmates at any given time, I consistently felt that I was either missing out on a game or on actual interactions that came in the forms of facial expressions and actions, and reactions after each move. To make up for that loss, one of the other players admitted that she would use separate computers for playing and for Zoom in order to avoid switching screens and to have her own empire. I could not do that. In switching between different screens open on my computer – and privileging the screen with the poker table versus Zoom – I struggled to be in what risk and addiction scholar Natasha Dow Schull calls “the zone” (Schull, 2012).
In fact, the tempo of each round of the poker game was progressively fast-paced; for the initial one or two sessions, we could not really make sense of the ‘problem of fleetingness’ of time we experienced in the game. Thankfully, it is not just us who have been posed with the problem of the fleetingness of time. This has preoccupied many in the field. The notion of durée – which is the ‘lived time’ where ‘the past tends to reconquer, by actualizing itself, the influence it had lost’ and which constitutes an organic ‘melting’ of past, present, and future (Bergson 1911 in Reith 1999, pg. 136) – is said to have partly solved the problem. However, our experiences of the time in the games we played stood in contrast to Bergson’s notion of time that encapsulates present, past, and future. In fact, I found the temporalities of the games we played to be akin to what theorist Gerda Reith describes as a “succession of unrelated instants” that goes against the “flowing organicism that is the lived time of the durée” (Reith 1999, pg. 137). Reith notes that in a game of chance or gambling, Bergson’s notion of durée loses its significance for each round of play is a “self-contained island in time, existing independently of what came before or what will come after” (Reith 1999, pg.136).
However, our group conversations on Poker Stars had me thinking back to real play with my friends back home in Nepal, since our games of Flush involved gambling with real money. Although, according to Reith, the form of temporality experienced by gamblers is devoid of past memories, I kept on going back to my past memories, where most Nepalis do not like gambling at all if not for money. However, it was striking to observe myself as I lost almost all the time, how I became more engrossed in the game, and how I experienced each game as a “new day” with the hopes that I would make up for my losses. With each game I lost, I became sad and disappointed, and with each game I won, I felt content and powerful again. This cycle, captured in the temporalities of ‘excitement and boredom’ (Reith, 1999), was felt differently depending on what hand I had—Royal Flush meant big bets whereas Four of a Kind meant smaller bets and thrills. Even then it was interesting to see how some of my playmates took the game lightly, which was evident in the conversation they held during the game, whereas another regular playmate and I had to concentrate fully on the game.
Haptic screens, blurred boundaries, and unique sensoria
Schull (2012) explores in her book, Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, how games are by default designed to keep you hooked so that you spend more time and more money on gaming machines. This was also felt in our experience of online poker games. Poker Stars is designed in such a way – especially in the speed of the game – that it hardly leaves any room for conversation or interaction among players. Schull’s ethnographic work explains the reason behind such a design, where a player is quoted as saying how players, propelled by the rhythm of the video poker machine, would discard winning hands. Our game of Poker Stars was not an exception in this regard. The games are designed in such a way that keeping pace is prioritized over making the right decisions (Schull, 2012).
Furthermore, according to Reith (1999), the gambler’s sense of time “freezes into repetition, space contracts, and the value that accrues to money is obliterated” (pg. 134), which is more intimately portrayed in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novella, The Gambler (1866), where the gamblers are portrayed as living all night long playing roulette at Vauxhall with no bearing of the world outside until the doors close. An illustration below paints the scene:
After 10 o’clock, those left around the gaming tables are the real, desperate gamblers, for whom nothing exists at the spa except roulette, who come for the sake of it alone, who give poor notice to what happens around them, and are interested in nothing else during the whole season, but only play from morning till night, and would be ready, perhaps, to play all night till dawn, if it were possible.(Dostoevsky et al., 2005, pg. 292)
So, what it is about the gambling that pulls in and sustains gamblers for prolonged periods of time? Schull (2012) in her study explores how the gambling industry tapped into the consumerism culture of the 20th century to make the experience of gambling what she calls player-centric. To make the experience of gambling more player-centric, casinos construct the speed, sound, environment, and infrastructures of the slot machine in such a way as to make the customer stay and spend hours at it. For instance, a good chair directly corresponds to not only the gambler’s blood flow but also to the flow of their time and money into the casinos’ machines (Schull, 2012).
Unlike the real card games that I am used to playing with my friends back home during festivals, virtual gambling is a different world in itself, to be explored, learned, and mastered, demanding our attention to both bodies and senses. Bodies, in that it provokes us to be inside the virtual realities, and senses because the materialities at the interface between the human and non-human and the built-in system we experienced demanded us to be inside and outside the screen. In this, Poker Stars provided an experience of suspension between the actual and virtual, where the two get blurred in that the computer becomes an extension of our senses and bodies, taking us inside and outside virtual realities (Verrips, 2002).
For instance, one of the games we played just after I moved to Montreal at the end of summer had me playing Poker from the shared dining hall of my apartment as I had not set up my working table in my room. While we were discussing the temporalities and spatialities of play and their interaction during the virtual play, I realized how transient and temporal our games were in that I was constantly thinking that at any moment one of my flatmates would come and start cooking. But at the same time, it also gave me a perspective into how the online game wasn’t solely virtual but also structured by the environments where we had each chosen to play. My housemate did turn up in the kitchen and started frying an egg. Although he did not ask me about my game, I noticed him wondering what I was doing, which to a certain extent made me uncomfortable and self-conscious as it made me feel that I was under surveillance. As if the game I was playing with my playmates on Zoom was not already a spectacle enough!
Dissonance between actual and virtual poker play
Playing Flush during festivals in Nepal often entails drinks and snacks being served every half an hour, jokes and talks, and commentary on each move of the player followed by stakes made as a bluff. But in virtual games, as we were positioned in disparate locations, my fellow players’ geography, time, and surroundings inevitably became part of my own, momentarily, if not routinely. Going back to the shared kitchen from where I was playing poker online, a playmate took notice that even though the onscreen background of an old school saloon – where the fumes of a cigar intoxicatingly filled the room and glasses of beers circled the table – did create enough of an environment to be in the zone, we were never entirely inside the screens. We kept on talking about real games and the inability to see each other in person, where part of the experience is also embodied in the ways we dress, sit and make our moves.
This absence of the immediacy of playing in person became more and more pronounced for me as I went down memory lane to my games of Flush, which were usually in a living room with my friends and family members where we would be served with-hot snacks of chhoila (smoked meat marinated in fresh herbs and spices) and drinks of aila (homemade rice liquor) every now and then. Missing in the virtual games was also the boisterousness of a card game that inevitably invites people to make wild bets followed by rubbing and summoning of the cards—bassa and ekka (king and ace)—all adding to the anticipation and thrill of the card game where some win and others lose money. The atmosphere would even get more intense and the noise louder as people would bet blind which would require those who had seen their cards to put double the amount of the blind bet. This creates tension if you are embroiled in a situation where you can make it or break it. The following quote spoken by Dostoevsky’s Alexei Ivanovich—who had a premonition of his how his life was going to change before he lost all and everything in gambling—illustrates how a gambler feels inside during each round of the game:
…. I sensed that the finale was approaching for this whole mysterious and tense situation. One more stroke everything would be finished and revealed. About my own fate, which was also caught up in it all, I almost didn’t worry…. I’m far away in a foreign land, with no post and no means of existence, no hopes, no plans and—it doesn’t worry me!(Dostoevsky et al., 2005, pg. 260)
Need to Win
Building on how gamblers live in temporalities of each round of the game, perhaps that’s why one of the playmates who had far more experience in playing Poker would tell us during our games that he was more cautious around novice players like us because he couldn’t really predict what our moves were going to be like. Personally, I couldn’t disagree with what he said. Since our games were virtual, we did not – or at least I did not – have any particular strategy, and the design of the Poker Stars platform and the overall pace of the game was such that some of our moves were arbitrary. I couldn’t agree more with what Dostoevsky wrote of how an experienced gambler knows what this ‘whim of chance’ means and how winning and losing determines how people perceive you:
…. the point here is that—one turn of the wheel, and everything changes, and these same moralizers will be the first to come with friendly jokes to congratulate me. And they won’t all turn away from me as they do now.(Dostoevsky et al., 2005, pg. 320)
Yet, what was it about the play money of the online poker game that affected me? The money was not real and hence there was nothing to lose at the end of the day. But what was at stake then? What was bothering me then? I couldn’t make sense of the feeling that I sat with as I played, sometimes completely there and other times arbitrarily, navigating different screens open on my computer. And, I would be lying if I didn’t say that I wasn’t affected by the perception of what my playmates thought about me as I lost more and more. Twice or thrice, I went bankrupt but I would always have money to play because it was just play money. Although we would react and make comments, we wouldn’t see each other’s faces. But I found my losses speaking in silences, awkwardness, and the arbitrariness of my moves. Hence my need to win became stronger.
However, it was not until I read The Gambler recently that I could make sense of and capture what I was feeling about losing play money in our games. Having lost many rounds of the game, and having virtual boxes of tissues thrown my way, my need to win had become stronger, just as Dostoevsky’s gambler articulated, ‘It’s exactly like a drowning man grasping at a straw. You must agree that if he weren’t drowning, he wouldn’t take a straw for the branch of a tree’ (Dostoevsky et al., 2005, pg. 201).
Playing online poker with play money was not that different from real money in the strong emotions it evoked in me of the need to win. What I also found most interesting and revealing about the virtual poker play was not so much about winning or losing but our attempt to make claims of our place in the world, structured by temporalities of time across disparate geographies, time zones, and screens.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky. 2005. The double; and the gambler. New York: Everyman’s Library.
Reith, Gerda. 1999. The Age of Chance: Gambling in Western Culture. London: Routledge.
Schüll, Natasha Dow. 2012. Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Verrips, Jojada. 2002.”‘Haptic Screens’ and Our ‘Corporeal Eye’.” Etnofoor: 21-46.