Vicious Games: Capitalism and Gambling. A Review
Wide-ranging and precisely researched. Professor Cassidy’s fieldwork as an anthropologist provides a fascinating insight into the actuality of the gambling industry in opposition to surface statistics and ‘evidence’. She shows the nexus comprising industry practice, government policies, regulation, academic research, technology, marketing and gamblers. Importantly, she removes any idea of a global approach: each state or region of the world has very varying practices involving many different factors.
A history of UK gambling from 1960 legalisation of betting shops through to the present online practices via the introduction of electronic gambling machines on the high street is contextualised within contrasting and complementing histories in other parts of the world. Personal work as a cashier in betting shops reveals the inherent violence in many and the risks to staff – a stark contrast to the stated industry policies of staff and customer protection. Cassidy’s experiences at gambling industry conferences and in headquarters of major gambling companies captures not a monolithic perspective but multiple, often contradictory aspects of individual roles, the views of individual workers and, rather than a neat linear introduction of business responses to new models based around potentiating profit opportunities afforded by regulatory and technological developments, a fragmented, sometimes chaotic, ‘catching up’ by the industry.
The book demands that we stop thinking simply about the world of gambling. However, there is a strong advocatory impulse which. almost imperceptibly, draws to a conclusion. In many ways this conclusion was reached in Cassidy et al’s 2013 report ‘Fair Game: Producing gambling research’ at Goldsmiths, University of London, which you’ll find online. In the report, as in the book, the status of academic research is interrogated. Not only is it an ‘unpopular’ academic research interest, hence a paucity of good quality investigations, it has been used by the industry on occasions, paid for by the industry, as a rhetorical weapon. The sense is that the mantra of governments for ‘evidence’, industry claims that there is ‘no evidence’ that gambling provision causes no harm to the vast majority of players, is something of a fig leaf. The research approach of Cassidy, an anthropologist, is in total contrast to what, in any case, is fairly febrile data-driven approaches (for one, data is incredibly difficult to come by). In sum, the great weaknesses of gambling research are unearthed. And in any case, at the end of the day governments, legislators, policy makers, regulators and industry do not make decisions based upon ‘evidence’.
As well as the excellent insights afforded by Cassidy’s conversations with a range of stakeholders from industry CEOs to people who have been grievously harmed by modern gambling products, where the book excels is in Cassidy’s placing gambling in the context of neoliberal capitalist ideology. At a simple level this can be charted in the Thatcher-Reagan turn to market freedom and an emphasis on ‘personal responsibility.’ There’s no such thing as society, only individuals who have the power to shape their life, the responsibility and freedom to do so. If a person runs into trouble with gambling (or any legal product) it’s their own fault. They are weak, flawed, bad. Although Cassidy discusses a public health approach (in theory) to gambling problems, I think it would have been helpful to put this in the wider context of mental health ideology, since gambling or any other ‘addiction’ is a mental health issue (though in practice the medical establishment sometimes has difficulty dealing with this, although individual professionals do their very best to change such practice and underlying assumptions). Concentration on individual ‘pathology’ is endemic in all branches of mental health research and society: one senior gambling executive claimed that ‘problem gamblers had ‘brain diseases’ to start with. There is, of course, resistance to the dominant ideology, resistance which asserts the centrality of ‘problem’ environments – inequality, poverty, exploitation by clever marketing and so on.
Cassidy argues that this dominant focus upon the individual reinforces and reproduces the emphasis on ‘responsible gambling’. In fact, ‘An experiment which began in the 1980s ((financial deregulation, neoliberalism)), to shift the burden of risk from the state to the citizen, has increased inequalities and changed the ways in which we imagine wealth is created and shared. Gambling has been at the heart of these shifts: in the City as it deregulated and embraced riskier, increasingly complex and opaque ways to make money, becoming less and less accountable as a result, and in government itself, which encouraged citizens to become self-sufficient individualists.’
The promotion of ‘responsible gambling’ reflects this ideological construction of ‘self-sufficient individualists’. Dominant narratives around gambling are based upon this attitude, an attitude taken as something as natural and realistic as the way things really are, as natural as nature. Cassidy’s book is a powerful challenge to these dominant narratives. The last line of the book is optimistic. I won’t repeat it here but comment that its an excellent coda.
As a layperson I want to add that the book is very accessible, and short, while remaining academically rigorous. It has so much in it, so many interweaving levels, that the only way to do justice to it is to urge people to read it
(Review by Adrian Bailey from The Machine Zone)