Gaming, Gambling, and Labeling
Years ago I had a friend who worked in the public relations department of a large Las Vegas casino. I noticed that whenever I used the word “gambling” in conversation she would politely correct me. “It’s gaming,” she would say.
Technically, gaming means waging bets are legal, so she was sort of right. But in reality the two words seem to represent very similar activities.
Historically, gambling has not had a great reputation, so it makes sense to come up with another word for it (PR professionals specialize in spin). Some religious groups view wagering bets as sinful; it was illegal in the U.S. until Nevada legalized gambling in 1931. Since then most states have some form of gambling, whether it be Indian casinos or state lotteries. Internet betting sites have made gambling even more commonplace.
Gambling is a good example of the active nature of what symbolic interaction theorists call the labeling process. We decide what is considered “deviant” through a process of meaning-making that is not fixed, but changes over place and time. While some people still might think that gambling is morally wrong and the people who do it are engaging in a troubling activity, in many ways gambling has lost its deviant status. When this happens we would say a behavior has been re-labeled; in other words, we give the same behavior a different meaning, even if the behavior itself hasn’t changed.
So re-labeling gambling as a form of recreation helps to reduce any stigma that was once associated with betting. Beyond the act itself becoming more widespread and legal throughout the country, part of the re-labeling process involves changing public perception of both the activity and who engages in it. When gambling was mostly illegal, it was associated with organized crime, urban street corners, police corruption and other shady characters.
The labeling process may have inconsistencies; for instance, Bingo players at senior citizen centers or churches tend not to be seen as gamblers. Sociologist Howard Becker wrote extensively about the labeling process. He observes that it is not the act itself that connotes a label, but the reaction of others. Part of the reason that gambling is not nearly as stigmatized now as it was generations ago is because public reaction tends to be different.
Most states today raise money through gambling by selling lottery tickets. The first state lottery drawing began in 1964, and within 20 years other states followed. Buying a lottery ticket is often advertised as a short-cut to the American Dream, as you can see in this classic lottery ad:
Today visiting a casino or buying a lottery ticket is no longer associated with dark alley activities, but has become mainstream. Las Vegas and Atlantic City have marketed themselves as tourist destinations for people across the age spectrum. Walking the Las Vegas strip, it is common to see young adults dressed for a night on the town pass by middle-aged tourists with t-shirts and fanny packs.
Marketers have also sold the Las Vegas experience as an adult playground, a sort of time out from our regular behavior. Surely you have heard the marketing slogan “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” This campaign is part of the re-labeling process
This is an example of something that sociologist Joseph Gusfield called a “moral passage,” when a behavior shifts away from being seen as a personal moral failure. Gambling can still cause problems, especially if people become compulsive gamblers and get into serious debt. This too has been re-labeled as gambling addiction, using the language from other addictions as a psychological or medical problem rather than being seen as sinful behavior, as it once was.
In this case, a person can be diagnosed with an impulse control disorder, seek therapy and attend Gambler’s Anonymous, modeled after Alcoholic’s Anonymous. (Gusfield specifically writes about how perceptions of alcohol consumption went through a moral passage from the time of the Temperance movement when heavy drinking was considered sinful, to today when alcoholism is considered a disease.)
Labeling is about more than PR spin or choosing a new word to describe sociological phenomena. The labeling process enables us to take a closer look at how we make meaning of everyday behavior, which behaviors are rewarded and which are punished—and why.