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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston

Dressing down: Web gambling's hallmark

24 July 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada AND ONTARIO, Canada -- The long-running debate over whether to legalize Internet gambling has usually focused on its potential to be more addictive than gambling in a casino.

A new study by researchers at UNLV and the University of Western Ontario largely side-steps that issue and instead suggests online casinos can be harsher environments than the bricks-and-mortar casinos most Las Vegans frequent.

Based on 90-minute interviews with 30 Las Vegas gamblers, researchers touched on an aspect of online gambling mostly ignored in the political discourse: that it can be a negative environment dominated by bullying, foul-mouthed players who prowl gambling chat rooms.

Donna — participants' last names were withheld by researchers to protect their identities — reported being harassed while gambling online, including by one player who stalked her by phone. She said she learned to ignore the live chats that accompany online games but still gambled only when her husband was sitting nearby to "protect" her.

"When I clicked off (a poker game), I was crying," Donna told researchers. "I let a complete stranger who was online, who didn't know me, I didn't know him, hurt me. If it was in person, it would be different." Another online gambler told researchers she was often called derogatory names in the accompanying chat area after winning a poker hand. Unlike some study participants who shied away from online bullies, Alice said she thrived on confrontation and enjoyed the heightened atmosphere of competition online. "There's this guy online that I can't stand," she said. "So that's a challenge, and whenever I do beat him I feel great."

Online gamblers are hardly surprised by the findings. Bullying and foul language are common in all kinds of Internet chat rooms regardless of their focus, they say.

"It's Internet 101 — on the Internet, people don't care what you think personally," said Steven McLoughlin, a volunteer online moderator for Two Plus Two, a Las Vegas gambling book publisher that runs a gambling discussion forum attracting some 18,000 posts daily.

Poker players have a name for such online anarchists (trolls) and their bullying (flaming).

Losing money can inspire bad behavior online, said McLoughlin, but bullies also abound in bricks-and-mortar casinos.

Casino gamblers in the study found comfort being around other people, seeing familiar faces and interacting, though superficially, with employees. They also reported more emotional highs and lows than online gamblers. Some preferred visiting casinos because they offered an escape with stimulating surroundings. "Sometimes the floor people will come up and touch me, or ask how you (are) doing, put their hand on my shoulders, rub my shoulders for good luck ... it makes me feel good," said Lorraine, a casino gambler.

Paid for by a grant from the research fund at UNLV's William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration, the study is unusual in that it wasn't funded by the casino industry, researchers who are opposed to casinos or those who make a living treating or studying gambling addictions. Its small sample size and reliance on in-depth interviews limits its scientific or political usefulness, but it still adds to the growing body of research on Internet gambling.

Gamblers in the UNLV study weren't asked about gambling addiction, but rather what gambling meant to them and what motivated them to gamble online versus in bricks-and-mortar casinos. Researchers asked gamblers, 20 of whom primarily visited casinos and 10 of whom mostly gambled online, to create visual collages representing their feelings about gambling.

Alice, to illustrate how she felt about gambling online, showed a cartoon character fighting off a pack of bulldogs.

The study comes as the debate heats up around Internet gambling, which is the focus of at least five bills circulating through Congress. The study doesn't conveniently serve arguments for or against legalization of online gambling and therefore is unlikely to register in the debate. But it does offer a glimpse into an activity that is growing in popularity and is little understood by many involved in the debate.

Players in the political debate interpreted the study in contradictory ways. Members of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling found distressing an anecdote from a young mother who involves her husband and 4-year-old daughter when she gambles online.

"If I win something big, I can experience it with my daughter," Brittany told researchers. "At a casino, she wouldn't be able to sit there and have that kind of enjoyment with me ... she gets excited when she hears the noise on the computer."

Also distasteful to coalition representatives was the illusion of greater control some participants felt when they gambled online versus in a casino. Online gambler Cleo acknowledged to researchers chasing her losses shortly after claiming to feel more in control of her gambling: "I took five times what I'd (initially) lost and lost it ... It depressed me." Coalition Chairman Dr. Guy Clark said banning Internet gambling makes more sense than regulation because bricks-and-mortar casinos are already doing a "lousy job" of keeping kids from hanging around casinos and restricting gambling addicts' access.

Michael Waxman, a spokesman for the Safe and Secure Internet Gambling Initiative, latched onto the study's recommendation that online gambling be regulated. He agreed with some of the protections suggested by researchers, including gambling counselor hotlines and "cooling off" periods for gamblers on losing streaks.

"What (prohibitionists) are basically saying is that 'We want the status quo' when the status quo is that millions of people are gambling online, without any regulations to protect consumers," Waxman said. Co-author and UNLV associate professor Kathryn LaTour has conducted several studies on consumers' motivations. Like many Nevadans, LaTour supports regulation. But she is more interested in exploring the range of experiences reported by gamblers in a town where gambling is a fact of life.

"It's interesting that we have all these options for gambling in Las Vegas, but these people really prefer being in their pajamas and sitting at their home computers," she said.

Dressing down: Web gambling's hallmark is republished from