Vast, haze-filled casino floors where rows of flashing colors light up expressionless faces endlessly feeding coins into a machine. Men sporting Hawaiian shirts rake piles of plastic chips across green felt tabletops, all seeking the hedonistic rush of hitting a jackpot seemingly just out of reach.
This is gambling as many of us know it. However, the combination of luck, wagering, and a chance at a payoff is far from a modern concept. As far back as the Paleolithic era, humans wagered on the roll of crude dice made from knuckle bones. Nonetheless, the staples of contemporary gambling—slot machines, card games, craps tables—may be considered primitive technology soon, says Kahlil Philander, an assistant professor of hospitality business management at Washington State University Everett with an expertise in the economic impacts and public policy of gambling.
The advent of the internet is altering the gambling landscape. Traditional forms, such as scratch-off lotto tickets, are slowly being phased out in favor of more interactive, skill-based virtual games. What’s more, gambling is becoming more accessible on computers, smartphone apps, and video games. As the digital realm gives a flurry of new avenues for gamblers, lawmakers grapple with the challenges posed by emerging technology and an evolving scientific understanding of gambling addiction.
Gambling in Washington state is governed by laws largely created in the early 1970s. While older than most, Washington’s regulatory framework is not much different from other states, which do not take into consideration the multitude of new digital gambling forms.
The unique challenges posed by online and digital gambling have left policymakers scrambling to update antiquated laws created in an era when the internet was an unknown concept. Complicating the equation further, the ambiguity of betting’s newest forms has given way to debate about whether these activities even constitute gambling in the first place, says Washington State Gambling Commission Director David Trujillo.
“Is paying real-world money to open up ‘loot boxes’ for a chance at obtaining rewards within a video game considered gambling? What about earning virtual points on an online poker site? We spend a lot of time answering questions about ‘is this gambling or is this not?’ And we get these scenarios all the time because they’re always slightly different,” Trujillo says.
In the meantime, lawmakers across the country are eyeing the potential for a dramatic rework of the policies surrounding one not-so-new form of gambling: sports betting. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering the case of NCAA v. Christie, which seeks to overturn the law that effectively outlaws sports wagering in 46 states. The case is gaining momentum as the NBA recently called upon U.S. policymakers to create laws that provide a basis for betting on its games, in spite of efforts by the American Gaming Association to block such regulations on the basis of unconstitutionality. State governments—including Washington—are closely following NCAA v. Christie, as a reversal of the sports betting ban would be felt across the country. “Everybody is kind of in wait-and-see mode,” says Trujillo.
While many unanswered questions remain about legalized sports wagering, lawmakers are tantalized by the prospect of massive gains in tax revenue it could bring to their home states—not to mention the value it provides to consumers—says Philander, who has been working with West Virginia regulators to create a legal framework in case the ban is lifted.
Philander works with government agencies and other organizations across the globe to promote safer, more beneficial gambling operations, as well as efforts to reduce gambling addiction. He’s found great success in the development of GameSense, a program devoted to fostering responsible gambling practices that has been adopted by casinos across the country such as MGM Resorts International. Philander says he hopes to see responsible gambling programs like GameSense more universally embraced. Moreover, he predicts casinos and other U.S. gambling manufacturers will begin using data mining and artificial intelligence to track and identify player behaviors indicative of problem gambling within the next decade.
The scientific community’s comprehension of gambling addiction has undergone “quite a remarkable change” just within the past ten years, says Philander. As psychologists reconsider the severity and classification of gambling disorders, Washington lawmakers are following suit.
David Sawyer, a Washington state representative and ex officio member on the state gambling commission, dubs problem gambling the “red-headed stepchild of addiction,” far too often overlooked as a secondary concern to drug addiction.
“The Gambling Commission has been taking a critical look at gambling addiction in our state, and we’re trying to find a pathway to help those who are addicts,” Sawyer says. “Because we haven’t taken a serious look at [gambling addiction] in such a long time, I think our first step is to step back and bring in whatever experts we can to help folks who are addicted to gambling.”
The age-old notion of gambling and its place in society is far from settled. While the future of gambling, regulations, and how we treat gambling addiction is uncertain, the way we wager in the years to come is likely to be a far cry from the bets we place today.