Are Role-Playing Games Gambling and Therefore Potentially Addictive?

July 19, 2010 | | Comments 5

Gambling is the act of risking something of value on something an unknowable outcome.  It is my sincere belief that all role-playing games, even the ones with no obvious random component (ie dice), involve players risking something of value on an unknowable outcome and, therefore, are gambling.  Before I get angry comments about diceless or role-playing only games, remember those games have goals. Goals that player want and place value upon and cannot guarantee success.  Failure has an emotional cost, so I argue that diceless RPGs are just as much gambling as any dice game.  Risk and value are the only requirements and role-playing games clearly meet the criteria.

Value is a vague term and I need to define it before continuing. Monetary value is only one measure of value, emotional investment is just as powerful. In fact, in some ways it is more powerful. You can always earn more money, but losing a long-term emotional investment in a player character on a bad die roll crushes the soul.  It is like an artist watching a favorite painting burn. No money was lost, but it still hurts and that gave the PC value to the player.

Gambling addiction is a well-document and recognized  affliction, but so far as I can find, no one has applied the same criteria to role-playing games. Odd, because it is clear that both involve reward and risk on a game of chance.

It is this risk that gives gambling its “rush.” I say rush because gambling plays with your brain chemistry and success, or even a near miss( I got a 19!), generates a cascade of chemicals that directly impact your brain.  It literally gets you high.  A fact elegantly demonstrated by some Parkinson’s Disease patients that became gambling addicts after  starting a new treatment.  After it altered their dopamine levels, patients continually sought the rush of gambling and suffered for it.

Long before I took up blogging, I spent a year running a small casino’s surveillance department. Not the most rewarding job in the world, but it was very informative, as I was the “eye-in-the-sky.” Gamblers fell into two groups; healthy and addicted. Healthy gamblers came in once per week, dropped $50.00 in their favorite slot machine, chatted up the cocktail waitress, got a free drink and left  after two hours.  They walked out happy because they lost money they would not miss and gambling was merely one facet of their lives.  Winning was just a cherry on top.

Addicted gamblers, and there were many, lived in the casino.  Gaming stretches of 24 hours or more were common and they never smiled.  Grim determination lay upon their faces and they kept playing, stopping only when their money ran out or exhaustion set it. Not to worry, though. They were back as soon as humanly possible, Gambling was not a fact of their lives, it was their life and winning an obsession.

I am not saying that all role-players are addicts, but over the years I met a few gamers that seemed…fanatical about RPGs.  I am not a psychologist and am in no way qualified to diagnose anyone, but in retrospect they looked addicted to the gambling aspect of the game. I make that distinction because there are, sadly, more than a few players  live and breathe RPGs because their real lives are so miserable and their social life non-existent.

No, there were a few that really loved the dice and seemed genuinely injured when fate brought them bad rolls. Even going so far as emotional outbursts and pouting during the game. Players with that same hungry look of my slot machine junkies. A 20 was more than a hit on a monster, it was a fix.

Assuming my thesis is true and there are role-players addicted to the gambling aspect of the games, then their personal lives suffer for it. A true gambling addiction damages individuals and families in a multitude of ways and often requires professional intervention. None of this is good for the gamer or the hobby.

I am just uncertain of the problem’s size.  Has anyone else noticed this type of behavior at games or conventions? Drop me a comment if you have any input.

Trask, The Last Tyromancer

Filed Under: Featuredrant

About the Author: Trask is a long-time gamer, world traveler and history buff. He hopes that his scribblings will both inform and advance gaming as a hobby.