Event: Dr Mark Johnson - The Importance of Gambling to Game Studies


Wednesday, 14 Feb 2018
, 14:30-16:00.

Geoffrey Manton Building, GM307.

This talk will explore a number of potential intersections between game studies and gambling studies, focusing on how both disciplines can yield a wide range of insight into the domains studied by the other, yet have remained almost entirely separate up to the present day. Game studies has been almost universally uninterested in exploring games in which gambling takes place - casino games, card games, many online games - due concerns over the ethical weight the word "gambling" carries, a dominant focus on video games and to a lesser extent board games, and the central roles of scholars from humanities and social science rather than psychology and other positivistic disciplines which dominate gambling studies. Gambling studies, meanwhile, emphasises questions of problem and responsible gambling which leave little room for critical studies, has only just begun to address the importance of understanding video games to contemporary gambling practice, and can often view any form of gameplay as the first step towards pathology, deviance, and negative life outcomes.

However, a range of phenomena have recently brought gaming and gambling together, and now is consequently an excellent moment to consider these as two sides of numerous common objects of study. Specifically, this talk will examine Esports gambling, loot boxes, fantasy sports betting, and Twitch.tv, drawing on two years of ethnographic and interview work in these areas, as well as the author's upcoming monograph on the gambling-gaming intersection. In the first case, the talk will outline the rapid rise and newfound near-ubiquity of Esports gambling, both "within" games (through methods such as skin betting) and external to the digital fabric of the games themselves (more akin to traditional sports betting), and the importance of understanding this practice to exploring the current political climate of Esports. In the second case it will explore the expanding ongoing controversies surrounding "loot boxes", the question of whether or not these are gambling - and whether it matters - and how anti-"gambling" discourses are being mobilised in opposition to loot boxes, despite the primary issue players report being a question of paying to win, not a question of unpredictability being tethered to what are effectively monetary wagers. In the third case the talk will examine daily fantasy sports platforms, their commonalities with "sports management" video games, and their status as ambiguous gambling-gaming artefacts which subvert the clear boundaries between the two. In the fourth case the talk will consider the rise of online poker being live-broadcast on the live-streaming platform Twitch.tv, viewed by millions, and also how numerous broadcasters are "gamblifying" some of the methods by which their viewers offer monetary support; in both cases gambling is becoming increasingly intertwined with live streaming, which merits our attention as a segment of the practice that can no longer be easily overlooked.

Finally, the talk will conclude with a call to acknowledge the role of money more generally within game studies; several studies have been done in this area both by the author and others with interests in the political economy and labour politics of games, with several more currently in development, but more are needed to more fully understand how play and money are entangled, and the unusual phenomena that emerge where they meet.

Please book your (free) tickets on Eventbrite here.

Dr. Mark Johnson is a Killam Memorial Postdoctoral Fellow in the department of political science at the University of Alberta, and a member of the Alberta Gambling Research Institute. He is the author of the forthcoming monograph The Unpredictability of Gameplay to be published by Bloomsbury Press in September 2018.