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There are all kinds of gamers.  There are gamers who play Parker Brothers' board games, and haven't touched an electronic game at all.  There are gamers, like my mother-in-law, who play one electronic game in particular, the copy of Solitaire that came on their PC.  And as we all know, the Wii has created a new category of gamers who mostly use their console to get exercise.  But there is also another category of gamer, who have been playing for quite a long time–the "gamer," perhaps more colloquially known as the gambler.  But is there any common ground between the world of gaming, and the world of "gaming?"

It should be somewhat telling, as I write about this, that I place quotes around the word "gamer" when referring to gambling.  I am a lifelong hardcore gamer, who is working in "gaming."  Within that world, "gaming" is a mandated euphemism, especially if you're in marketing, like me.  This was a conscious decision, that some other marketing guy looooooong before me initiated, to focus the attention not on the stakes to be lost or won, but on the experience and the enjoyment of it. 

 

The old bait-and-switch, in other words.  Focus on the carrot.  But my thesis is that it is the presence of the stakes that makes for the separation between "gamers" and gamers.

There's lots of common ground between these two worlds.  Unlike slot machines, live Hold'Em or Omaha poker is a game where you play against other people, and the house merely takes a cut of the action.  This introduces all the thrill of strategy and multiplayer interaction and cunning deviousness that Halo and Modern Warfare players are enjoying in a whole different, yet seemingly related, way.

But are gamers gamblers?  And are gamblers gamers?  Honestly it's just as hard to generalize about "gamers" as a group than it is about gamers.  Do live poker players go home at night and practice against the A.I. on some console poker game?  Nope.  Not the good ones, anyway.  Most of them are playing online on PCs against real people.  And a good portion are doing so illegally for money.  Landmark legislation passed just a few years ago sent ripples through the "gaming" community as Congress outlawed online play for money, and then tried to figure out how to enforce it (arresting various surprised and disgruntled European businessman in airports as soon as they arrive).  I wouldn't have known anything about it by reading gaming news on the internet. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Beacuse that just indicates that, yes, the worlds are separate, from a fan's perspective.  Gaming has, in the past, been an activity enjoyed by young men.  A typical casino customer database is over 50% seniors, aged 50 and over.  I would roughly estimate 60% of casino patrons are female.  But as the demographics of gaming grows, publishers will find themselves looking for ways to please the same people that "gaming" already appeases.  But would a WiiWare slot machine do it, with one-armed bandit waggle?  No.  Because no matter how much we in "gaming" would like people to focus on the experience, playing an electronic gambling machine in a casino is better than the home-game experience in that you can win money (and get free drinks while you try). 

So, you can't gamble over the internet, and Casino video games always just end up making it very clear how little of the thrill of a casino game is captured by its rules, gameplay, and strategy.  They are all completely boring…yawners.  In much the way most Poker games with A.I. and facial models just have no hope of capturing the complexity of the interaction of reading a tell, most casino games, without real stakes, have no hope of capturing the thrill of the game.  Without betting, craps is just throwing a bunch of dice around.

From the other perspective, exploring why gamers aren't "gamers" as a rule, when you visit a casino the "games" you play can often be the type that just anger hardcore gamers, because you have no control over the outcome.  Of course this is not entirely true, but any choice you have only opens you open to the possibility of tainting your odds against you.  Video poker players can hold the wrong cards, Black Jack players can hit on 15 when they're staring at the dealer's  6, etc.   But for the most part, especially on slots, it's spend the money, hit the button, and see how it turns out.  Total play time, 3 seconds, please insert coin to continue.  It's a hard transition to make. 

The victory for a hardcore gamer is the right to sink more time into a game, without spending more money, because you are doing well.

The victory for a hardcore gambler is the right to sink more money into a game, without spending more time, because you are doing so well.

Finding this common ground is very much on the minds of publishers and manufacturers.  Many of these industries' manufacturers and publishers are the same.  Bally.  Williams.  Konami.  Sammy/Sega.  They will be looking for crossover and probably have found it a lot more in international markets like Japan, with the Pachinko parlors, than in America, where "gaming" regulation is often much more strict, and locally administered–and therefore unpredictable.  But the hints at integration, at acclimation, happen here: Chuck-E-Cheese with its ticket-for-prizes system can be seen as casino training wheels for tots.  Swap poker for whack-a-mole and a cash jackpot for a pez dispenser and the transition is complete.  Remember that Nintendo added (make-believe) sports-betting to Super Smash Bros. Brawl.

The concepts are out there, available.

Bally, for example, put out a Pac-Man slot machine, with bonus rounds which let you hit a button on the touch-screen to determine Pac-Man's bonus path (and your winnings).  But this kind of effort is only going to reach the niche–the overlap of the groups of "gamers" and gamers that exists already.

You could snag gamers with a skill-based electronic game with stakes, no-brainer, but when ANY gamer, anywhere, can go four days on a quarter on Defender or whatever, ain't no slot machine manufacturer or casino going down that road.  House advantage is the rule, and it has to be guaranteed.  The unbreakable barrier is between chance-based games with house-banked stakes, and skill-based games with no stakes. 

Again, poker demonstrates common ground.  Starting with tournaments.  People smiply play skill-based games against other players for a prize pool, after paying an entrance fee or a cut, to whatever business is makin' it happen or providin' the space.  I think this idea could fly further, to start, not just in a tournament structure, but as a "gaming" extension of our old gaming arcades.  A room full of live Street FIghter 4 play for stakes, and the house gets a cut of all the action.

Isn't that essentially what arcades were when Street Fighter 2 was big?  Bets were victory for gamers, time as king of the hill instead of money as your prize? Games ended by incredible upsets when some kid came up and button-mashed you out of your hour-run on a single quater against every challenger?  Drama, victory, fefeat, challenge, STAKES!

I personally see a future where there is less division between the worlds of "gaming" and gaming.  As people pay real money for digital assets, that they can lose in gameplay, I see less and less of a distinction here than most people want to insist exists, even if the currency at risk is just time, rather than money–which, in the adult world where both are finite resources, is often equated to money.  Eventually, as social acceptance of gambling increases, I believe we will see it creep into some game publisher's revenue streams (perhaps in some tickets-for-prizes Chuck E. Cheese model), and trigger renewed furor and legislative debate over gambling over the internet.  I'm surprised it hasn't happened already.  Watch this space!