By Isabella Byrne
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 September 2020 I joined a research team whose aim was to do a virtual sensory ethnography of online casinos. In this research we explored the sensory dimensions of PokerStars, an online casino platform, where we played poker together virtually and video-chatted on Zoom at the same time. Sensory ethnography is a research approach in which the ethnographer attends to the body and its senses as the primary lens for enquiry. In their 2020 paper, Lynch et. al. argue that this attention to the sensory dimensions of casino experiences is imperative because casinos are spaces with intentionally designed atmospheres and moods that appeal to the senses of its patrons, informing and co-creating their embodied experiences.
While designing the research approach, we thought critically about how to conduct sensory ethnography in virtual spaces. Was this even possible? What was the value of doing so? As a secondary aim, we hoped to explore what virtual sensory ethnography might look like, given that it is a research approach that is quite under-explored. And by attending to our sensory experiences while playing poker online together, we wanted to understand the impact of the platform’s design on player experiences and how that affords a particular form of play.
I logged onto the PokerStars platforms with my colleagues for the first time in July 2021. While I’ve spent a lifetime playing a variety of both online and in-person games, I had limited experience playing poker at the time, let alone virtually. Thankfully we had chosen to do free-to-play, meaning that no ‘real’ money would be lost or won through the course of our play-research. At first, it was overwhelming to pay attention to this new-to-me fast-moving game, the conversation with my colleagues, the platform, and my sensory experiences all at once. But … I couldn’t help but compare it to the Dungeons and Dragons campaign that I was playing in where we had just ventured into a casino of our own…
We decide to visit the casino at daybreak, and the gruff staff member who meets us outside ushers us into the dark, covered passageway down into the entrance. We are nervous, feel out of place, and look amongst each other anticipating what secrets might lie past those coveted doors – what magnetic force are we about to discover that lies beyond this threshold? What continues to call people back day after day, through all of the wins and losses?
We fumble in our pockets that are heavy with the cash we have prepared for this adventure as we cross into the dank vestibule, assuring that everything is there. We are temporarily blinded as our eyes have to adjust to the nearly pitch-black space of the casino’s interior. Behind us, the door clicks closed. It could be any time of day or night in here.
The casino’s main room hosts about a dozen round tables that are scattered across the slick wood floor, each with a smattering of patrons. Dan, the club’s host, tells us in his honey-warm voice to make ourselves comfortable while he goes to grab a first round of drinks, and we sheepishly slide into the red and worn fake-leather chairs at an unoccupied table in the center of the room.
We look at each other, and about half of the patrons already seated glance over at us; the other ones either too focused on their game or too ambivalent to care. I put my hands on our round table: the surface is somehow simultaneously rough and smooth, and is pocked with water rings worn into the wood from many rounds of drinks. I try not to get distracted as I finger the surface, imagining all of the things that have been said and lost at this table. I take out a gold piece, and ask the dealer how to play.
Dungeons and Dragons is a tabletop roleplaying game in which players create and control characters that explore, engage in combat, collect resources, and speak with the other inhabitants of an imagined world. The Dungeon Master (DM) creates the setting, plays the non-player characters, acts as a referee, describes situations and environments, and determines the consequences of player actions on the world (Shay 2017, 205). The other players each play at least one character with unique characteristics and statistics that they speak for and embody in this world, rolling dice as they go along that define the outcomes of their choices.
I have been playing this particular game of D&D online with five other players on a tabletop roleplaying game (TTRGP) hosting website called Roll20 since May 2021. Each Sunday at 7pm we log on with our respective beers, decaf coffees, teas, and snacks, and step back into where we left off in the story last week. Using video and voice chat on the platform, we roleplay our characters by speaking in their voices and describe how they interact with the other characters and the world by using sensory details.
In this particular session at the casino, our characters exchanged gold pieces (the form of currency used in our D&D game) for a roll at a dice game, and used our real-world dice to determine the outcomes. In one game, you rolled two six-sided dice (2d6) and if your sum was either 7 or 12, you won double your initial bet.
Why bring up this D&D experience when our enquiry was about PokerStars? Because I was stumped: my experience gambling in a virtual D&D campaign felt different from my experience gambling on PokerStars online, despite the fact that many of my ‘conditions’ of play were the same in each. I played both from my desk at home, on my computer, while video-chatting with the other players, and neither involved any of my own money. Even though what I was doing on PokerStars was technically closer to a “real” experience of gambling — I was just a few clicks away from gambling with my own money — our visit to the casino in this D&D campaign was so much more immersive and affective than any of my sessions on PokerStars. In comparing these two experiences, I propose that these two forms of play feel different because they both attend to player embodiment differently.
When I first logged on to PokerStars, I found the interface to be less-than-evocative of the casino poker tables I had seen in in-person casinos. Each time I looked at the platform I was reminded that I was looking at an interface, not a virtual table made to look real: in the default interface, the table (which was more akin to a short green trampoline) floated impossibly like a hovercraft over a monotonous grey background. The viewer’s perspective, rather than being seated at their “seat” looking at the dealer, floated panoptically above all the seats at the table (see Figure 1 below).
Eventually I found one table setting that was more along the lines of what I was looking for: the perspective was still the same (floating above the table panoptically), but it was made to look like a saloon. There were even dynamics in this image that suggested that there was an environment beyond the table: there were beer bottles placed around the rim and animated smoke billowed from a cigar. Instead of being grey, the background suggested that the still-floating table wasn’t the only thing in the room: there were barrels, worn wood floors, a carpet, wanted posters, hats, a piano, and suggestions of walls beyond (see Figure 2 below). I found this table/background design was better than any of the others in terms of immersing me in the environment, and as a result I found that I was more concentrated on and committed to the game when I used it.
On the PokerStars platform, your view of the table is disembodied, and seemingly omniscient. You float above the table rather than sit at your hand. There is also no semblance of embodiment of any form besides the option to add a display picture of yourself, which is set in a round frame next to your screen name. Whereas when we play D&D, roleplaying, characterization, and in-game embodiment is a cornerstone of the type of fun our table gravitates towards. Our Dungeon Master provides ample description of the environment and where our characters find their bodies situated. As players, we describe what our characters look like and do to interact with this environment at every new location or “scene.” Plus, when speaking in character voice or describing actions, it is not rare to find any one of us gesticulating to our webcams to bring that character to life.
I argue that Poker Star’s lack of embodiment creates a distance between player and interface, one that removes them from a sense of complete immersion (cf. Murray and Sixsmith 1999). At all times while playing poker on the platform, I was aware that I was interfacing with a game on a screen made of pixels, which caused me to play more disinterestedly than when I was gambling in D&D. Whereas when playing D&D, even though it was just as fictional, our game’s inherent attention to the place of our characters’ bodies in the world causes me to be completely immersed, deepening my sense of investment, attention, and care. By contrast, play on the PokerStars platform felt less “real.” I was not “in the zone”, a flow state that Natasha Dow Schüll describes as being essential to losing oneself in the game, an act of forgetting all consequences of play (Schüll, cited in Hsu 2013). On PokerStars I was hyper-conscious of the fact that I was interfacing with a game because my body was not “pulled into” or invited in to play. And, as a result of roleplay embodiment, I was more invested in the outcomes of play while gambling in our D&D game. Likewise, the consequences felt much greater.
Attending to my body in each of these forms of play shows how embodiment and imagination play a role in my sense of immersion, care, and investment. With less embodied immersion on PokerStars, I was placing less value on my experience or my resources on the site. This might also have had to do with the fact that I felt I was playing with money that had no value. I found that despite the fact that I was not playing with my real money in either game, I cared less about how well I was performing while playing PokerStars. I found myself more aware of my resources while playing D&D because my resources had value in our fictional world. If I spent all of my gold gambling, I wouldn’t be able to afford that new set of armour that might later protect my character from a killing blow in combat, for example. In PokerStars, the value of the play-money earned or lost has no worth outside the platform.
Another element that might account for this stark comparison is that I am more invested in the wellbeing of my D&D character than my PokerStars avatar. I had spent a significant amount of time developing my D&D character’s being, and as a result I care about their persistence, something that makes me think more carefully about the consequences of my actions (regardless of whether they are chaotic by nature or not). And, no matter my actions, their consequences feel much greater, even if they are still bounded within a fictional world, than the 4 walls of the poker platform. On PokerStars there is no formal acknowledgment of a body, which makes it seem like a body relatively without in-game consequences.
So, although I played both PokerStars and my regular D&D campaign online from my computer at my desk at home, I realized that these two forms of gameplay offer different senses of player embodiment, which afford different styles of play. In other words, these two experiences feel different, because they feel different. Either experience attends to the body and sensory qualities in contrasting ways and this impoverishment or stimulation of the senses may have influenced me to play more or less recklessly. In this way, different forms of in-game embodiment provoke and/or enable different forms of play, and vice versa: further validating the role that (virtual) sensory ethnography has in the world of games studies.
Machine Gambling in the ‘Zone’: Natasha Dow Schüll’s Addiction by Design. Social Studies of Science 43(6): 952–956.
Lynch, Erin, David Howes, and Martin French
A Touch of Luck and a “Real Taste of Vegas”: A Sensory Ethnography of the Montreal Casino. The Senses and Society 15(2): 192–215.
Murray, Craig D., and Judith Sixsmith
The Corporeal Body in Virtual Reality. Ethos 27(3): 315–343.
Virtual Edgework: Negotiating Risk in Role-Playing Gaming. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 46(2): 203–229.