An Introduction to Gambling in the Context of Game Studies
by Alexander Pfeiffer *1, *2, *3 and Georg Sedlecky *3
*1 Postdoctoral fellow @ Comparative Media Studies / Writing - Massachusetts Institute of
Technology (MIT), USA; *2 PhD Candidate @ Department for Artificial Intelligence -
University of Malta (UoM), Malta; *3 Associated senior researcher @ Faculty of Education,
Arts & Architecture – Danube-University Krems (DUK), Austria
Gambling (such as slot machines, betting or casino games) and games (such as board games
or digital games) have common roots that began thousands of years before Christ with games
like “Senet” or “The Royal Game of Ur”. An aspect that is often forgotten or only appears as
a marginal note in modern (digital) game studies. This could be because game studies
researchers have a certain concern about being associated with the "bad reputation" of the
gambling industry. In classical game studies, gambling was intentionally left out of the
equation in Huizinga's work, but it was given a special meaning in Caillois' criteria for games.
In the book chapter “An Introduction to Gambling in the Context of Game Studies” the
common roots of gambling and gaming are explored, both Caillois' playing criteria and
Bartle's player types are revisited in the context between gaming and gambling, Casinos are
examined as places of theatrical play and finally attention is paid to the mechanics of
gambling that are being applied in the gaming industry (Catchword lootboxes).
Gambling, Gaming, iGaming, Game Studies,
Gambling (such as slot machines, betting or casino games) and games (such as board games
or digital games) have common roots that began thousands of years before Christ with games
like “Senet” or “The Royal Game of Ur”. This is an aspect often forgotten or only appearing
as a marginal note in modern (digital) game studies. Maybe game studies researchers have a
certain concern about being associated with the "bad reputation" of the gambling industry. In
classical game studies, gambling was intentionally left out of the equation in Huizinga's work,
but it was given a special meaning in Caillois' criteria for games. In the book chapter „ An
Introduction to Gambling in the Context of Game Studies” the common roots of gambling and
gaming are explored; both Caillois' playing criteria and Bartle's player types are revisited in
the context between gaming and gambling; Casinos are examined as places of theatrical play
and finally attention is paid to the mechanics of gambling that are being applied in the gaming
industry (Catchword lootboxes). Let us first take a look at the history of the first board games
in the context of gaming and gambling.
About the early history of game and play
“There were no entertainments for such a huge period of human existence. In that
environment, games had a fantastically strong hold. They reigned supreme." For
centuries, even millenniums, “The Royal Game of Ur” served as the PlayStation of its
day.” Irvin L. Finkel in the article “Big Game Hunter” on times.com
To explore the historical connection between gaming and gambling we have to go to the year
2600 B.C. and take a close look at a game called “The Royal Game of Ur”, also known as the
Game of Twenty Squares or simply the Game of Ur. We know a lot about this specific game,
thanks to Irving L. Finkel (2007), a curator at the British Museum and his essay "On the rules
of The Royal Game of Ur", where he summarised all available information about the game
which originated 2600 B.C. in the Mesapotanian area. Our knowledge of the game is based on
a Babylonian clay tablet dating from 177 BC, which is kept in the British Museum and was
first translated by Irving. This tablet described the rules of “The Royal Game of Ur” that were
valid at the time. Irving believes that some iteration of the game exists, depending on the
particular time period the game has been played. It is the only proof of rules of the game from
this period in the ancient world. The British Museum also has five original boards, which
were discovered by Sir Edward Woolley during an excavation in 1920. With the translation in
hand and the opportunity to work with the original boards, Irving created replicas as part of
his work at the British Museum in 1979 and began to bring the game back to life.
In “The Royal Game of Ur”, two parties must first roll their game pieces into the board via a
fixed path, and then roll out again with a matching roll at the end. The board contains seven
game pieces, each in black and white, and four dice in the shape of a tetrahedron. The dice
have small notches at two of the four corners. If such a notched corner points upwards, this is
considered a point. For a turn, all points of the four dice are added together. The game pieces
are moved in a fixed track over the board according to the number of eyes rolled, with the
centre axis being used by both players and the game partners being able to "throw each other
out" there. The game is only played forward, and no second game piece can occupy already
occupied playing fields. If a gaming piece moves onto a square marked with a star, the same
player may throw the dice again. Opposing pieces on the star fields may not be thrown out.
From the point of view of game researchers, however, the additional purposes of ancient
games are extremely fascinating. For example, Irving describes that inscriptions were found
on the boards, which indicate that “The Royal Game of Ur” also served a purpose as a fortune
telling tool. Becker (2007) and Botermans (2008) associate “The Royal Game of Ur” with
gambling and betting, they describe the possible purpose of additional stones found during
excavations with the game board. While playing, additional stones could be placed and at
certain events from the game these were earned.
Pusch (1979) and Glonneger (1999) discuss the game “Senet”. “Senet” is an ancient Egyptian
board game, which dates back to the year 3000 B.C.. This game also has a deeper purpose,
which we would probably call a "serious game" nowadays. “Senet” was played by two
players. The journey began in a field marked "birth". The last five playing fields contained
miniature representations of gods and words: Horus; Re + Osiris; Month (or Thot) + Schu +
Maat; Semataui and finally Per-nefer (the "House of Good"). Spread over the game rows there
were four fields, which brought luck or misfortune. These were scattered more or less
unevenly. There was for example the field "Flood", which forced the player to take his figure
out of the game. The "Frog/Toad" field, on the other hand, brought good luck - the player was
allowed to count his next point roll twice. Each player was given seven figures, which were
called Ibau ("dancers"). Depending on how many counting lines the counting bones pointed
upwards after a throw, the player could move forward with a figure of his choice. The aim of
the game was to be the first to arrive at one of the last houses with all remaining figures. The
game therefore had a religious meaning and the players were in contact with the names of the
gods. Furthermore, star constellations, like the one of orion, were named in texts related to the
For Finkel, “The Royal Game of Ur” game has another educational function:
„The really good thing about “The Royal Game of Ur” is that you can never be
complacent because just when you think you have it in the bag - Bang! Bang! Bang! -
and you have to go all over again. And I think that's one of the good things about it. So
you never know who is going to win until you've won and this is a good message for
life.“ Irvin L. Finkel during a game at the international table-top days 2017.
Nowadays both games are also revived. “The Royal Game of Ur” is increasingly being played
in Iraq again due to a project from University of Raparin (Euronews, 2018; the arab weekly,
2018). Iran and Iraq, both countries which are known that “Backgammon“, a game which is
assumed to have originated from “The Royal Game of Ur”, has a very high popularity
(Donovan, 2007). Replica of the game are not only available in the British Museum, or via the
University of Raparin, but also in online stores like Amazon, where you can also find “Senet”
in the portfolio.
About Roger Caillois and the forms play
Roger Caillois was a French philosopher and author. He was a founding member of the
French "Collège de Sociologie pour l'Étude du Sacré". His approach to explaining play can be
seen as a phenomenological one
Roger Caillois is critical of Johan Huizinga's approach, saying that Huizinga does not
categorize forms of play and instead focuses on the category of regulated competition (âgon),
thus neglecting other forms of play. Caillois also finds Huizinga's theories too general, as they
attempt to define game as such without delimiting its content. However, Caillois takes some
elements of Huizinga and develops six core features of games on the one hand and
distinguishing four basic forms of play on the other.
The core characteristics of the game according to Caillois (1961, cf. pp. 9, 10) are therefore
that a game is:
• Free / voluntary meeting of the players: Roger Caillois, like Huizinga before him,
stresses that playing games must be voluntary. If this voluntariness does not exist, the
game would lose its appeal.
• Seperate / spatially and temporally limited event: The game has boundaries in terms of
space and time, which are agreed in advance.
• Uncertain / open procedure and uncertain end: The progress of the game and the end
cannot be predetermined, but depends, for example, on the skill of the players.
• Unproductive / playing creates no values: The game creates neither values nor wealth
nor anything new in any way. And apart from the possible exchange of property
between the players, at the end of the game everything is the same as before the game.
• Governed by rules / procedure determined by a set of rules: The game is based on
fixed rules that the players know and follow.
• Make-believe / you live in a fictitious reality during the game: the game is played in a
second reality and does not relate to the real world.
Furthermore Caillois defines four basic types of play, which are based on the central interest
of the players.
• Agôn (competition): The competition or contest can range from "racing" to more
complicated games like football or chess.
• Alea (chance): The players want to challenge luck and chance. This can be
expressed by tossing a coin, tossing a coin or participating in the lottery.
• Illinx (intoxication): This is about wanting to put yourself in the state of
intoxication. This can be achieved by dancing, roller coastering, downhill skiing,
racing or even by childish shooting games.
• Mimicry, travesty (masking): The attraction of the disguise leads to putting oneself
in a different role. This enables the role reversal. You can play a dwarf, a mother, a
knight or a famous character.
But, according to Caillois (1961, cf. p. 22), even this classification does not cover the entire
spectrum of games. However, games may have combinations of two types. Caillois lists
acting (masking) and competition as the most common combination. He thinks of the
competition at the court of the king, we can think of modern TV-shows like "Let's dance”; or
“the masked singer".
But he claims that there are combinations that are not possible. And also, a combination of
three types is not possible, because the third type would have only a subordinate supporting
role but does not describe the basic principle of play. Not possible, according to Caillois, is
for example a combination of regulated competition and thrill, while quite possible is a
combination of chance and thrill - this is true if the player forgets his surroundings during the
In his doctoral thesis, Pfeiffer (2018) notes that, regarding the forms of play it can be said that
although they still form a very good basis, our modern narrative forms have made an
expanded viewpoint necessary. It is now possible to cover considerably more grey areas and
to combine more game forms. Other game forms such as "simulation", "collecting for
oneself" or "collaboration" could also be identified as new basic forms. During the conducted
experts interviews was a certain consensus, that there is no combination that is not (no longer)
possible, especially as a sequence (on a timeline, one after the other). Specially Poker but also
online role-playing games can be mentioned as examples of games in which the entire
spectrum of game forms, as discussed by Caillois is found. Even in professional sports a mix
of all four elements can be possible.
About casinos and their function as a theatre space
Roger Caillois (1961) further writes that games can establish a link to the fundamental
character of a society by analysing which games are or were popular in the respective society.
Natasha Schüll refers to Erving Goffman in her book "Addiction by Design" (2012). Goffman
was a Canadian sociologist who conducted an ethnographic study in Las Vegas (1967).
Goffman acted as a blackjack dealer, a role that seemed to him to be the most appropriate
observation perspective for his study. For him, the game at the table was a "contest of
character" in which players could demonstrate their courage, integrity and mastery depending
on the situation. For Goffman, the casino game offered an opportunity for people in an
increasingly bureaucratic society to become heroes, and heroines through "fate". The casino
fulfilled the desire for "action" in the lives of the players. Goffman describes the casino as an
arena for mimicry - i.e. masking, theatre play. For Goffman, it is thus not an escape from
everyday life, but a conscious entry into a staged world. Here Goffman explicitly refers to
tables/games such as roulette or blackjack, in which people compete against each other, with a
In today's world, for example, theatre begins at the moment of reaching the strip of Las
Vegas. You enter a world full of lights, big screens and surreal seeming buildings: Paris,
Venice and New York, less than 200 meters apart.
Once in your hotel room, you might think you are a millionaire - a spacious room and, as a
highlight, even a TV in the bathroom. The staging begins to work. The theatre play, the
"action" described by Goffman, begins.
In the gambling room you buy your membership card. Only in the old casinos on Fremont
Street there are still a few "Quarter operated machines". On the membership card the money
is topped up (at the machines). It is paid out again in coupons.
The cards themselves contribute to the staging. At casinos on the Strip like the Caesars Palace
you already get a Gold Membership Card with a booking of 10 US $.
Off-strip hotels such as the Eastside Cannery use principles of gamification on the player
membership card: no matter whether you win or lose at the machine - credits are loaded onto
the card. These credits can be used to win breakfast the next day, dinner, an extra night in a
hotel or tickets for a show. The credits can also be bought for money, in order to win a
"material prize" at a "special slot machine, dedicated to the specific in-casino-gamification".
Most casinos on the Strip are connected underground and take the visitor into another world.
At Caesars Palace you are in ancient Rome (where you finally go shopping in luxury shops
like Tiffany & Co), around the "Venice Hotel" in Venice or at the "Paris, Paris" in Paris. Due
to the high temperatures, most of the day is spent in the hotels and underground. The casinos
themselves - or at least their gaming areas - are mostly winding and a labyrinth. You can
hardly see the exit. Only modern hotels like the Cosmopolitan, which belonged to the
Deutsche Bank until 2014 and was then sold for 1.73 billion dollars, have a straightforward
design in which the exits can be seen from everywhere and ultimately a clear structure.
One thing, however, is recognizable in every casino: the slot machines are absolutely taking
over. Tables with human operators are still there, but no longer the center of attention.
Following Schüll (2012), Bo Jason Bernhard, Assistant Professor at the Department for
Sociology, Hotel Management at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Executive Director
of the university's International Gaming Institute, used the term "deforestation" in his speech
at the “International Conference on Gambling and Risk-Taking” to describe the shrinkage of
the slot machines. Also Robert Hunter gambling addiction therapist from Las Vegas, calls the
advance of the machines "Survival of the Fittest" - in other words "the strongest wins" (again
regarding to Schüll). We have therefore been seeing a dramatic increase in the use of digital
slot machines since the 1990s instead of classic gaming tables. These are being staged more
and more and are often linked to big brands, sometimes with new and own stories and in some
cases they show aspects of transmedia storytelling. The branding goes from “Star Wars”,
“Godfather”, “Lord of the Rings” to board games like “the game of life” and video game
brands like “Frogger”, “Pac-Man” or “Street Fighter”. (Note: Star Wars slot machines, as well
as all slot machines with branding from the Marvel universe, are removed due to rules
established within the Walt Disney Group, see www.jedinews.co.uk/.)
But there are also comments on playing with slot machines from a socio-critical perspective.
Callois as well as Goffman say that slot machines are only for people who lack social
competence, or that they are only used when there is no one to interact with. Clifford Geertz,
author of the renowned essay: “Deep play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight (1973)”, says that
slot machines or are only for women, adolescents, very poor, socially outcast or per se
peculiar people. Geertz says that cockfighting-man will never go near to these machines,
referring to his study on (illegal) Balinese Cockfights, which is seen in Balinese culture as a
game of honour and to become the “man among man”.
A side note: Cockfights are also noteworthy in the context of gaming and gambling and how
both the social status of the fighters and betting on the outcome has changed worldwide since
the beginning of this (brutal) entertainment form (also referred as blood-sport) 1000 BC in
China (cf. Dundes, 1994) .
About player types in game and gambling research
In the next section, the authors like to compare the types of players according to Bartle (1996,
2003) with the gaming behaviour in casinos and gambling halls.
Achiever – Regular Player: The main purpose is to reach the next level, to defeat the next
boss and to find the next best equipment and weapon. The challenge and the struggle of the
game drives the player. To break the game and become truly overpowered is the hidden
dream of every “Achiever”. Paradoxically an “Achiever” will become bored of the game
afterwards. Socialising is unimportant unless it is useful for getting new strategies or it is
required to achieve something as a group. Competing with other people is also irrelevant,
except it is for gaining experience or better equipment. In Gambling Context, the “Regular
Player” wants to defeat the Casino / the Machine and to overcome the odds. A “Regular
Player” loves the risk and the roller coaster experience. Socialising and direct competition
with other players is very limited. Competition is more on a subconscious level, like “I can
effort a higher bet than the other player” or “I won the higher Jackpot than all of my friends,
so I am a better player”.
Explorer – Fun Player: The main purpose is the exploration of the whole world, to figure out
all (hidden) game mechanics, and to immerse into the game world. The “Explorer” loves an
epic main story, lots of side quests and all kind of different NPCs to interact. Gaining
experience points and levelling up are just for the purpose to enter new areas or progress in
the story. Socialising with other people is limited to in-game situations. In gambling context,
the “Fun Player” loves to immerse into the games and the casino. A “Fun Player” needs an
exciting casino floor, brand new games featuring movies or TV Series, awesome graphics and
impressive sounds. The “Fun Player” tries out all new games, Jackpot concepts and wants to
get the whole casino experience. A “Fun Player” often comes with friends, so socialising and
sometimes competing is part of the experience, but not the main purpose.
Socialiser – Social Player: The main purpose is the social interaction with other people and
friends. A “Socialiser” loves to talk in voice or text chat over in game content, other players
and private things or problems. For achieving goals within the game, the team comes first.
Every player has his role and takes part of the success of the team. Defeating other people and
chasing achievements is not important. In gambling context, the “Social Player” comes to the
casino to meet friends and connect with new people. A “Social Player” loves jackpots setups
and any games that offer interaction with other people. Competing with other people is just
for the purpose to interact with them and have a good time rather than winning at any cost
(e.g. a loose Poker round, a crowded Black Jack table). Everyone loves big wins, but the
“Social Player” is not chasing for big money.
Killer – Competitive Player: The main purpose is either the direct competition with other
people, to defeat an opponent and to achieve victory or to find a way to show being superior
to others, e.g. through knowledge of the game itself. If defeating others is the higher goal,
levelling up and explore the map is only for the purpose of getting stronger and better
equipment to be able to compete with other players. Social Interaction depends on the player
and the game. Many PvP (player versus player) games are played in teams (e.g. League of
Legends, Counter Strike, Overwatch, FIFA). Inventing successful game strategies and
maintaining a good team spirit are crucial for success. Sidenote: (Bartle 1996) defines the
player as “Killer” but “Competitive Player” would be a more accurate description. In most
competitive games (either eSports or Sports in general), you cannot win by just killing the
enemy. In gambling context, the “Competitive Player” comes to the casino to challenge up
with other people and to get their money. The number one game is poker with his
combination of skill, psychology, strategy and luck. Social interaction is mostly part of the
About gambling mechanics in digital games
At the end of the chapter the authors would like to point out some mechanics which have been
adopted from the gambling industry into the gaming industry.
The first point to mention is sound. Almost everyone knows the sound of slot machines when
the coins roll into the coin cup. This sound, which is also in modern slot machines only a sound
file, occurs in games such as "World of Warcraft" when a monster or chest is looted. This sound
is associated with something positive for the players and was therefore used as an amplifying
element in video games. (cf. designingsound.com; thepsychologyofgaming.com)
As a second point, the authors would like to mention player-initiated gambling. For example,
in CSGO the topic of "skin gambling" is very much discussed, while in World of Warcraft the
/roll function as well as betting on game content (who first kills a certain boss) led to the fact
that loot is now split automatically. The /roll function may no longer be used in public chat.
These are just two examples that show that if there is the possibility (in terms of technical, but
also game mechanics worth betting on), there will be (illegal) gambling within digital games.
And the third and perhaps most important point is the game mechanics of lootboxes. These are
for example currently (2019/2020) being investigated by Meduna et. al. at the University of in
their working paper: “Loot Boxes – A Game Changer?”. The topic of lootboxes is where we
game researchers should pay much more attention in the near future and in the best case a larger
project in which both people from games and gambling research should participate together.
Since lootboxes have become popular, one could argue that game designers are now the bad
guys and, out of greed for profit, they install unnoticeable mechanics for the players, which are
(almost) pure gambling. Whereas the players do not face this gambling voluntarily and
consciously but are driven into it with their money to bet on something, in the case of lootboxes
virtual objects, without any direct real value for their character or their account.
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Games in Perspective: Papers from the 1990 British Museum Colloquium, with Additional
Contributions. London, England: British Museum Press. p. 16.
Botermans, Jack (2008) “The book of games : strategy, tactics & history.” Fankbonner, Edgar
Loy. New York: Sterling. pp. 712–20
Caillois, Roger (1961) “Man, play, and games.” New York: The Free Press.
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Settlers of Catan”, St. Martin's Press - Macmillan Publishers, New York
Dundes, Alan (1994). “The Cockfight: A Casebook.” Univ of Wisconsin Press.
Finkel, Irving L. (2007) “On the Rules for The Royal Game of Ur” obtained from:
Geertz, Clifford (1973) “Deep play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight“ in The Interpretation of
Cultures, Basic Books
Glonnegger, Erwin (1999) “Das Spiele-Buch: Brett- und Legespiele aus aller Welt; Herkunft,
Regeln und Geschichte“, Drei-Magier-Verlag, Uehlfeld
Goffman, Erving. (1967) “Interaction Ritual: Essays in Face-to-Face Behavior.” Chicago:
Meduna, Marc von; Steinmetz, Fred; Ante, Lennart; Reynolds, Jennifer, Fiedler, Ingo (2019)
“Loot Boxes – A Game Changer?”, Gambling Research Division Working Paper Series, No.
Pfeiffer, Alexander (2018) “Auf dem Weg zur ludischen Gesellschaft“ Thesis for: Doktorat
der Sozial- und Wirtschaftswissenschaften an der Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien, Advisors: em.
o. Univ. Prof. Dr. Johann August Schülein, Prof. Dr. Wilfried Elmenreich,
Pusch, Edgar (1979) “Das Senet-Brettspiel im Alten Ägypten. Das inschriftliche und
archäologische Material“ in Münchner Ägyptologische Studien. Band 38. Deutscher
Schüll, Natasha (2012) “Addiction by Design, Machine Gambling in Las Vegas“, Princeton
University Press, Princeton and Oxford
“Big Game Hunter; time.com”, February 2, 2020
“Tom Scott vs. Irving Finkel: Das Königliche Spiel von Ur | International Tabletop Day
2017“, February 2, 2020 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WZskjLq040I)
„Royal Game of Ur: the ancient boardgame making a comeback in Iraq”, February 28, 2020
“Iraq’s resurrection of the Royal Game of Ur”, February 28, 2020
“Psychology of 10 Years of Sound in World of Warcraft”, February 20, 2020
“How are loot-based games like World of Warcraft”, February 15 2020
“The Lawbringer: Gambling in World of Warcraft”, February 12 2020
“YouTubers avoid fine over Valve 'CS:GO' gambling scam”, February 10 2020
“The Original Trilogy ‘Star Wars’ Slot Machines Discontinued in Vegas”, April 27 2018
Unknown. 3000 BC. Senet
Unknown. 2600 BC. The Royal Game of Ur
Unknown. 1350 BC. Backgammon
Unknown. ~300 AD, modern chess ~ 1500 AD. Chess
Ainsworth. 2017. Pac-Man (Slot Machine)
Manufacturer. Year. Game of life (Slot Machine)
Crytologic. 2015. Street Fighter (Slot Machine)
Konami. 2016. Frogger (Slot Machine)
IGT. 2012. Star Wars (Slot Machine)
Scientific Games. 2016. Godfather (Slot Machine)
IGT. 2017. Lord of the Rings (Slot Machine)
Riot Games. 2009. League of Legends
Blizzard Entertainment. 2016. Overwatch
Electronic Arts. 2019. FIFA 20
Blizzard Entertainment. 2004 World of Warcraft
Valve; EA-Games. 2003. Counterstrike