Are Casinos More Addictive Than Online Gambling?
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Are Casinos More Addictive Than Online Gambling?


This post was originally published on July 29, 2014.

Despite my addictive personality, I’m not much of a gambler. I blame it on my deeply entrenched pessimism. Until I got into recovery, I tended to assume the whole universe was rigged against me, to say nothing of the particular Vegas establishment I occasionally found myself drinking in. By contrast, compulsive gamblers seem propelled by an unquenchable optimism. Hell, I envy them.

But not really. At its worst, gambling addiction is as life-ruining as pretty much anything else. And in the age of online everything, it can be done from the comfort of your own home. Which raises an interesting question: what’s more addictive, real-life casinos or their online counterparts?

Betcha Online Gambling Isn’t as Triggering

Online poker was all the rage five or so years ago, and it’s easy to see why. For one, you can theoretically make thousands of dollars without having to change out of your pajamas. You can play several tables at once, which makes it perfect for the ADD generation. And those with social anxiety are spared the humiliation of losing in public. Yet despite these obvious perks, Cameron Tung found that online gambling pales beside the perennial allure of actual casinos and sought out the possible reasons why.

When researchers from the Harvard Medical School’s Division on Addiction studied tens of thousands of Internet gamblers over the past two years, they discovered that most of them weren’t being especially reckless, much less getting addicted. Whether they were betting on sports outcomes, playing poker, or hitting up cyber casinos, most online gamers didn’t go too crazy on the virtual floor. A typical player might bet once every two weeks and lose just 5.5% of the money they put in. Any fears that the online gambling trend would turn America into a nation of gambling junkies were (thankfully) misplaced. While people are drawn to new opportunities to bet money, most lose interest as the novelty fades. Of course, there are those outliers who let online gambling take over their lives, but it’s hard to imagine these people would be any less glued to their seats at Morongo or the Mirage.

The Dangers of a Swanky Casino Allure

What makes physical casinos so compelling compared to the convenience of virtual Vegas? Consider the role that specific casino aesthetics play in lulling the brain into that addictive trance. To explore this idea, researchers at the University of Guelph compared the “playground” design of ritzy joints like the Bellagio and the Wynn to places where décor plays second fiddle to the slot machines and blackjack tables themselves. It turns out that the more a casino resembles the garden of Eden, the longer people want to stay there, the more money they drop, and the more often they come back. It’s the calm and restoration conveyed by moving water and sprigs of greenery that make five-star venues so appealing.

What does this have to do with online gambling? Well, it’s a rare gambler whose living room looks like the Bellagio. In short, the addictive appeal of casinos transcends the mere prospect of winning big or even the thrill of the games themselves. Just as Panda Express has perfected the chemical formula for making orange chicken as addictive as possible, top-flight casinos exploit an aesthetic of addiction to lure their customers back again and again.

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About Author

Erica Larsen AKA Eren Harris blogs at Whitney Calls and Clean Bright Day. Their writing has also been published on Salon, Selfish, Violet Rising and YourTango. They live in Los Angeles with their husband and their enormous cat.