Are Role-Playing Games Gambling and Therefore Potentially Addictive?

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



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.

5 thoughts on “Are Role-Playing Games Gambling and Therefore Potentially Addictive?

  • July 19, 2010 at 12:39 pm

    Oh no. Surely the rush/addiction/problems in gambling come from the money side of things (the thrill of winning money too) rather than getting involved in the games of chance.

    I don’t know any gaming groups that use real money.

    The “most likely” candidates would be professional orgs that charge per character creation. I guess that might become like gambling if they paid out real cash in exchange for treasure/xp earned.

  • July 27, 2010 at 7:42 am

    I’ve noticed that type of behavior, both in local groups and at conventions.

    However, it’s been my observation that such behavior is bounded by age. In other words, as players get into their late 20s and mid-30s (I haven’t seen enough 40-somethings yet to make observations), they don’t exhibit the “addiction” signs you discuss in your article.

    As I understand it, gambling addiction can be a problem for any age. Therefore, my conclusion is that roleplaying is not gambling, or at least, the addiction pattern, if there is one, doesn’t manifest in the same way.

  • July 30, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    I think your sincere belief is mistaken, and here’s why: Your premise is faulty. By that premise, just getting out of bed is gambling, and you’re obviously addicted to it because you do it just about every day. Going to a movie is gambling because you can’t know whether you will like it or not. Determining the location of a subatomic particle is gambling because you can’t know its velocity. (which makes Heisenberg a famous gambler)

    You can’t guarantee ahead of time any outcome of any sort with absolute certainty. Therefore, your definition would include every single action, it ceases to be a useful definition because gambling ceases to be distinguishable from any other activity.

    Gambling is wagering a thing of value for the another thing of value at a game of chance. RPGs do not inherently involve wagers. Despite the presence of dice and the use of probability, they do not constitute a ‘game of chance.’ A game of chance is unaffected by the skill of its players, and that is clearly not the case with RPGs.

    Games like poker and such involve skill, too, but it’s all metagame skill, skills that. Knowing the percentages, counting the cards, psyching your opponent. Those skills are considered cheating in RPGs.

    I fail to see where your straw man about ‘diceless’ and ‘story only’ is in any way relevant.

    • July 30, 2010 at 5:58 pm

      Now RPGs can be addictive, but not because they’re gambling.

  • August 2, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    Merriam webster defines gambling as:
    1 a : to play a game for money or property b: to bet on an uncertain outcome
    2 : to stake something on a contingency : take a chance
    3 : to risk by gambling

    Gaming on the other hand is:
    1 : the practice of gambling
    2 a : the playing of games that simulate actual conditions (as of business or war) especially for training or testing purposes b : the playing of video games

    I understand the point of view and logic chain you are using, I would reverse the logic, gambling is a form of gaming addiction. If you stop and consider other types of gaming that have addictions; video, online, pen and paper, minitature. They are share the similar qualities of gambling addiction; seriousness, exhaustion or similar lack of resources, obcession or compulsion, life consuming. Diablo, Everquest, World of Warcraft, Halo, Modern Warfare, console games, computer games, arcades, So my question would be is it gambling or gaming that they are addicted to?

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