‘Swipe, Bet, Done’: The Socialisation of Gambling and the Casualisation of Money in Accelerated Culture

Thomas Raymen, Plymouth University

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Over the past three decades, the gambling industry has undergone a significant process of deregulation. While this has largely been a global phenomenon, few governments have embraced these changes as enthusiastically as those of the UK. In 2007, the introduction of the Gambling Act (2005) effectively liberalised the industry by withdrawing prohibitions on the television advertising of sports betting, casinos and poker. Since then, Ofcom (2013) have reported that there has been a 600% increase in gambling advertising, with the industry spending £456 million on TV advertising between 2012 and 2015 (Chapman, 2016). Major sports broadcasters of Association Football have even squeezed in a new advertising segment immediately prior to kick-off, enticing viewers to place last-minute bets with up-to-the-minute odds on the first team or player to score. This aggressive liberalisation has significantly enhanced revenues for the gambling industry; lucrative profits that are contingent upon a multitude of intensifying financial, social and personal costs to the gambler. The most recent statistics from the Gambling Commission (2016) indicate that British gamblers incurred a record £12.6 billion in losses last year, a number that has been consistently rising since 2011. Online gambling accounts through poker, casino and sports betting account for a third of these losses, while punters lost £1.7 billion on fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) alone; machines that have been dubbed the ‘crack cocaine’ of gambling for their addictive nature and rapid gameplay, allowing players to stake as much as £100 every 20 seconds.

Understandably, much of the academic and public attention towards gambling has been oriented around issues such as FOBTs, the relationship between gambling and crime (Banks, 2013; 2014), the high-concentration of betting shops and arcades in areas of socio-economic deprivation (Wardle et. al, 2014) and, of course, ‘problem gambling’. This is the sharp-end of the gambling industry, characterised by cases of suicide and self-harm, criminality and bankruptcy. In a forthcoming article on the emergence of ‘lifestyle gambling’, however, Oliver Smith and I argue that the overwhelming tendency to focus on the most extreme cases of problem gambling or criminality limits the harms of gambling to a ‘deviant’ class of the socially excluded or pathologises ‘problem gambling’ in ways that are deracinated from their wider socio-economic context. This continued focus conceals the ubiquity of these harms and how they relate to socially included ‘responsible’ gamblers who would not register on the Problem Gambling Severity Index (PGSI).

This blog post addresses how the technological flexibilisation and broader socialisation of gambling has rendered it a culturally embedded feature of more accepted and normalised modes of leisure such as casual sports fandom and the night-time economy. This emergence of identity-based cultures of betting are problematic enough and fraught with myriad harms; as access to friendships, identity, and social and cultural forms of symbolic capital are predicated upon the casting one’s money into chance. However, this post particularly problematizes the relationship between gambling and what Steve Redhead—following the work of Paul Virilio—describes as accelerated culture. In a society centred on speed and the collapse of temporal and spatial barriers to consumption, the socialisation, technological and cultural evolution of mobile gambling cultures have not only moved gambling into all areas and spaces of life, but have increasingly casualised the gambler’s relationship to money in ways which reflect a wider harmful culture of indebtedness (Horsley, 2015).

This is particularly pertinent when one looks at the rapid evolution and democratisation of the gambling industry within the last few years. While once highly regulated and viewed as a deviant or morally questionable practice, gambling has become perhaps one of the most normalised and culturally embedded forms of leisure—particularly within the realms of sport. There can be no doubt that we have witnessed a democratisation of gambling through its technological flexibilisation, its targeted and high-volume marketing to an ever-broader array of social demographics, and its relentless presence within mainstream lexicon. SkyBet sponsors the English Football League, while 50% of Premier League team shirts are sponsored by an assortment of bookmakers and betting companies, with even more teams such as Liverpool, having training kits sponsored by bookies.

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This is of course a product of gambling’s enhanced mobility, but to reduce this change to technological advancement would be to ignore the wider role of consumer culture, the late-modern primacy of commodified leisure and how gambling has become surreptitiously embedded as a normalised and vital feature of existing circuits of consumerism. Sports-betting in particular has increasingly moved away from the betting shop and become embedded within more accepted leisure activities such as casual sports fandom, the night-time economy, or even staying-in to watch sport, drink and bet with friends. Industry statistics show that in the last year the number of bingo and arcade venues dropped by 11% while bookmaker’s shops are also steadily in decline (Gambling, Commission, 2016). Having a ‘cheeky flutter’ can be done at the bar instead of requiring a concerted detour to the bookies. Nowhere is this better indicated by the ‘Ladbrokes Life’ adverts which, along with other bookmakers’ TV commercials, visually embed sports-betting as an integral aspect of the wider ‘lads weekend’ experience, attaching its practice to an infantilised masculine leisure identity that is peculiar to late-capitalism (Hayward, 2012; Smith, 2014).

What we are seeing is an attempt by the gambling industry to democratise itself and artificially inject a sense of ‘the social’ into the practice of gambling that has always been an undeniably isolated and individualistic. Take a trip to a casino, bookmakers shop, or slots arcade, and one will find rows of gamblers engrossed in the slot machine or FOBT in front of them, or gamblers flitting between roulette tables too busy placing bets and picking up chips to engage in friendly socialisation. Despite the gambling industry’s laborious efforts to contrast the new ‘mobilised’ age of gambling from the depressing and asocial realm of the bookies, the extent to which gambling has become socialised is dubious to say the least. If anything, the effort to inject sociality into gambling has engendered greater asociality within the pub. A more common scene is groups of men sitting in a bar, with a pint in one hand and their phone in the other, their heads on a swivel that flits from the TV to their phones as they look at the in-play odds or cash-out offers available. Certainly, the benefits of the gambling win are socialised, with the expectation that a successful bet will be recycled back into the consumer economy by getting a round of drinks in, paying for the cab fare or takeaway, or simply being placed back into one’s betting account. Losses on the other hand are individualised and internalised. Any concerns about money are to be suppressed to avoid being a ‘downer’ on the day or night out.

In our forthcoming article, Oliver Smith and I detail the myriad harms that emanate from the emergence of this socialised mode of ‘lifestyle gambling’. Far from the harmless youthful hijinks of the ‘grown-up boys’ who characterise alcohol and gambling advertisements, the ethnographic research follows men in their twenties and thirties who are experiencing growing social and financial precarity. Deepening overdrafts, spiralling credit card bills, and the relentless pressure of high-interest pay-day loans have become all-too-familiar in their daily lives, part of a broader culture of indebtedness which is now a normalised feature of late-capitalism (Horsley, 2015). This has contributed to strained personal relationships, family breakdown, and tightening family budgets. Exiting the vortex requires a commitment to deferred gratification that is thoroughly incongruent with the hedonic realism (Smith and Raymen, 2016) of contemporary consumer society; underpinned by a broader fear of missing out, as instrumental friendships are organised around these tenuous networks of consumption which are predicated on the ability to pay one’s way. All of this contributes to the intensification of an underlying objectless anxiety that is arguably characteristic of contemporary life (Hall, 2012a; Lloyd, 2012). In an accelerated timeframe, this has prompted growing mental health issues among these men, destructive behaviours of drinking and consumption, and wider existential crises. In the absence of a coherent symbolic order, these men feel that their incomprehensible anxiety—intensified by the looming threat of cultural irrelevance (see Smith, 2014)—can only be assuaged by returning to those consumer markets that are the very locus of their problems. It appears, therefore, that the normalised ‘socialisation’ of gambling, fiercely defended by the industry as non-problematic and relatively neglected by academics, requires a more critical criminological eye that extends beyond the limited notions of ‘crime’ and ‘deviance’ and instead contextualises these issues through the more ontologically robust notion of harm (Hillyard and Tombs, 2004; Pemberton, 2015; Smith and Raymen, 2016; Yar, 2012).

This socialisation of gambling is undeniably problematic. However, I argue that scholars of gambling ought to spend more time critically evaluating and theorising the contemporary subject’s problematic and increasingly casualised relationship with money. Situated within the broader cultural context of consumer capitalism, we need to look at how this casualization of money, intensified by capitalism’s logic of speed, is being technologically achieved within what Steve Redhead—following the work of Paul Virilio—describes as ‘accelerated culture’.

Ole Bjerg (2009) has argued that the compulsive gambler holds a distorted relationship with money. Bjerg’s starting point is to analyse money as a sublime object of capitalist ideology. As psychoanalysts of consumerism and capitalism have acknowledged, the sublimity of an object is preserved not only through its cultural reification, but through the maintenance of an element of distance between the subject and the sublime object. Traditionally, money is something that requires time to accumulate. The worker must sell their labour and time to be paid wages, while even the capitalist entrepreneur must engage in a range of management and logistical duties before claiming profits. In gambling, Bjerg argues, the subject gets ‘too close to the money’ and money becomes desublimated, as one can win “$1000 in a breath”. The promise of money and its subsequent satisfaction and happiness is quickly destabilised as it loses its status as a sublime object, much in the same way that scholars of consumerism have observed that the ‘sublime’ commodities of consumer culture rapidly lose their appeal upon the moment of acquisition (Appadurai, 1986). The subject’s relationship with money becomes casualised and the desire for money is lost. The gambler, therefore, restakes money not in an effort to recoup lost funds, but in an effort to temporarily restore money to its sublime perch, and re-establish the desire for money and the experiential satisfaction that comes from the anticipation of play. Thus, argues Bjerg, the rapid, frictionless, and casual availability of money within gambling can develop into a pathological relationship to money that can result in problematic and harmful gambling behaviours. It would seem that Bjerg’s ideas would hold water, with some of the most addictive forms of betting such as slot machines, roulette, and FOBTs, all being predicated on the logic of speed, where money is continuously desublimated and resublimated multiple times every minute.

Arguably, however, this casualised and frictionless relationship with money is far from limited to gambling. It could be argued that in a consumer society which is underpinned by a fear of missing out and predicated on a culture of indebtedness, we have developed a culturally pathological and frictionless relationship to money. Overdrafts can be extended at the touch of a button and high-interest payday loans can be obtained from one’s sofa. In seemingly contradictory fashion, this pathological relationship of becoming ‘too close’ to money has emerged from the perpetual distancing ourselves from physical currency. Here, when we speak of the importance of ‘distance’ from money, we refer not to the physical distance of ourselves from money, but rather the effort and labour that goes into acquiring and spending it. Our methods of payment have progressively removed us further and further from the act of handing over cash, consistently striving to temporally accelerate the speed of acquisition. Cheques were followed by debit cards; the punching in of one’s pin number was replaced by ‘contactless payment’, which has seen the creation of ‘contactless beer pumps’ in pubs. Now, the emergence of Apple Pay means that owners of an iPhone no longer even have to reach into their wallet to pay for items with a debit card. In an accelerated culture of hyper-consumption, frictionless speed is King. Of course, calls to simply halt the pace of accelerated culture is a doomed solution that is thoroughly incongruent with the underpinning energy of capitalism. Accelerated culture is a symptom, rather than a cause; symptomatic of capital’s refusal to abide any spatial, temporal or material limits—instead turning them into barriers to be circumvented, irrespective of the human cost.

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The physical distancing of the subject from money to enable a more casualised relationship to one’s own money (and therefore less reflective betting) has always been a staple feature of gambling. The translation of cash into chips is the oldest and simplest example—betting with bits of plastic rather than ‘real’ currency. However, in a technologically advanced society, this is intensified, with the placing of sports betting apps requiring only a few clicks of a button. Additionally, consistent with the broader notion of accelerated culture, we have seen simplicity and speed become the key selling feature of sports-betting apps, exemplified by BetFair’s advertising slogan ‘Tap Tap Boom’. One of the most extreme examples of this, however, is the emergence of the most recent sports-betting app ‘Bookee’, which models and advertises itself on the dating-app Tinder. Odds on a particular game are offered, and one simply swipes right to accept the odds and left to reject. If accepted, you are presented with a sliding scale to determine the stake you bet. Here, you whimsically move your finger along to increase or decrease your stake. Bets are not carefully considered, but rapidly and casually accepted or dismissed with the swipe of a finger. Moreover, Bookee have also introduced a ‘world first’ feature of ‘split your bet’ in which punters are encouraged to ‘go halves with your mates’ on a bet; the ultimate casualization, socialisation and acceleration of betting all in one app. This technological acceleration of betting results in money that has very real value and utility becoming increasingly casualised and robbed of the symbolism involved in the transaction of notes and coins.

The potential harmful effects of this casualised relationship with money is amplified when one extends this to the wider erosion of time and space in gambling in accelerated culture. Gambling was previously fixated by place and location, with bookmakers, bingo halls, slots arcades and casinos all specific places separate from the environs of everyday life. These spatially-specific gambling locations also placed temporal limits upon when one could cast their money into chance, forcing gambling to take place away from the demands of work or the domestic environs of the family. This physical separateness allowed scholars of gambling to follow the line of thought first suggested by the likes of Caillois (1962) and Goffman (1967) that gambling was an activity separate from everyday life. Such a way of thinking is now completely defunct, as gambling identities have become synonymous with wider leisure identities and an embedded feature of everyday life. Sports betting today can be seen as a quintessential example of what Paul Virilio—theorist of speed, power and technology—termed ‘the city of the instant’. Bets can be placed at work or at home, sitting on a train or waiting for a bus as the technological availability of and ‘distance’ from money is minimised. The gambling industry has achieved a complete erosion of time and space as it collapses into one another. To term this as ‘24/7 gambling’ is to impose a redundant temporal schema of a week that no longer applies in late-capitalist accelerated culture (Crary, 2013).

The last two decades have witnessed a dramatic shift in the gambling terrain, both within an international context and in the UK. A relentless process of deregulation has enabled the industry to grow dramatically. Deregulation around advertising has embedded the industry within the largest sporting organisations in the world, ensuring that industry logos are emblazoned across advertising hoardings at sports stadiums, replica football kit, while the advertisements of gambling websites are synonymous with televised sports. Gambling has moved from being a pastime requiring commitment and an intimate knowledge of the social habitus of the ‘bookies’, to one that is accessible online through all handheld devices. The new mediascape of gambling detaches the gambler to some extent from the act of handing over money, robbing transactions of the symbolism associated with notes and coins. In combination with payday loans, overdrafts and other forms of credit which our participants utilise regularly, we can see the relationship between the gambler and money becoming distorted. In this way, money loses its ‘sublime’ status and merely becomes a means of accessing consumer society’s reified gifts of consumer commodities and cultural capital (Bjerg, 2011). While much of the attention surrounding ‘problematic gambling’ continues to revolve around FOBTs and disproportionately focuses upon those socially marginalised groups who occupy the often-depressing foreign terrain of bookmakers shops, if we are to understand emerging forms of harm and problematic gambling in the 21st century, then we must also consider gambling’s culturally embedded position within existing networks of normalised consumption, and issues of speed, accelerated culture, and the technological erosion of space and place. Situated in the context of consumer culture, the pervasive fear of cultural obsolescence, and the extended adolescence of the ‘lifestyle gambler’, it does not seem unrealistic to suggest that the arbitrary boundaries between problem and non-problem gambling will continue to blur.

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