“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” “21.” “Greed.” It’s no secret these new network television game shows are immensely popular. But why? According to some observers, they have achieved phenomenal success for the same reason casino gambling has taken off over the past two decades: Gambling is fun!
Ever since antiquity, people have engaged in some form of gambling. Dice have been recovered from Egyptian tombs, while the Chinese, Japanese, Greeks and Romans all were known to play games of skill and chance for amusement as early as 2300 B.C.
More recently, both Native Americans and European colonists had a history of gambling within their own cultures. Native Americans developed games of chance and believed that their gods determined fate and chance. British colonization of America was partly financed through lottery proceeds, beginning in the early 17th century, when lotteries were perceived as a popular voluntary form of taxation in Georgian England.
Today, the popularity of gambling remains strong. One of two Americans played the lottery and more than a third gambled in a casino in the past year, according to a 2000 survey by national pollsters Peter Hart and Frank Luntz. The same survey found that more than 94 percent of Americans view casino gambling as a social activity, while 75 percent believe casino gambling can be a fun night out.
It may be that the entertainment value of gambling explains the popularity of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” According to a February Gallup poll, three of four Americans have watched “Millionaire.” In analyzing the show’s success, Los Angeles Times writer Paul Brownstein noted: “It’s a form of recreational gambling, an intricate, hyper-stylized casino game beamed into America’s living rooms. And what it tells us is very true: Gambling is fun. A horribly self-destructive activity if it gets out of control, yes. But in the meantime fun. Fun, fun, fun.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Robert McCormick, professor of economics at Clemson University. As he wrote in The World and I, “[Gamblers at American casinos] are middle America, and they are having fun. Biloxi, Las Vegas and Atlantic City are entertainment meccas. … Like spending hours watching TV or an evening listening to Porgy and Bess, it is just plain fun.”
As we defend our industry, sometimes we forget to remind people that beyond the important jobs we provide, the economic development we generate and the capital investment we make in our communities, there’s another important element that’s critical to our success: our customers enjoy the entertainment experience we provide.
And yet we often are faced with attacks from opponents who can’t see that reality. While a small number of people don’t gamble responsibly and deserve our attention, the overwhelming majority does. Many of us have friends who gather in Las Vegas every year for the Super Bowl or March Madness. Or we know of war veterans and old friends who have met there for a reunion. And we certainly recognize that hundreds of thousands of conventioneers have designated Las Vegas as their preferred destination. Even the Southern Baptists have met in Las Vegas. Why? Because it’s fun. They come to our resorts to see a concert or a show, shop, dine at one of our fine restaurants, and, yes, to gamble. As Gerri Hirshey wrote in The New York Times Magazine: “You do see it all here in the Gambling Nation, people of different races, incomes, playing skills and ages having a swell time rump to rump.”
Few people want to see the federal government take on the role of “pleasure police,” yet that is precisely what opponents of our business have been asking them to do. U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) recently criticized those who would attempt to limit senior citizens’ rights to make their own decisions, specifically in regard to gambling. “To me, this is one more instance of the Dumbing Down of Senior Citizens,” Rep. Frank said in the June 6 Congressional Record. “Are older people perceived to be so witless, so gullible, that we need to be protected from ourselves lest we buy too many lottery tickets or play Bingo too often? Do we need Big Brother to watch over us at the blackjack tables and slot machines? … I defend the right of anyone over age 21 to spend their money where they please - be it a casino bingo hall, sports arena, vacation resort, etc.”
Some governments have publicly recognized the entertainment value of gambling. The Australian government, for example, recently conceded that point in its federal review of gambling: “The benefits of liberalisation of the gambling industries come primarily from the satisfaction that consumers obtain from the ability to access what for many is a desired form of entertainment.”
Despite the popular perception - and the reality - that gambling is just plain fun, it appears that gambling will remain under siege by the small but vocal opposition that would like to see its elimination as a legal form of entertainment. But Guy Calvert, a mathematician and quantitative analyst at a Wall Street firm, argues in the World and I that the regulatory experiences of the past should be a reliable guide in determining future gambling policy. “Historically … gambling prohibitions have done more harm than good. [W]e recognize that alcoholism is best addressed on a voluntary basis rather than through outlawing drinking. Likewise, the best recourse for compulsive gamblers may be counseling and abstinence, not government intervention to prohibit or otherwise limit gambling.”
While the busybodies of the world continue their fight, we, too, will continue to defend the rights of our customers who enjoy the entertainment options we offer. We’re accustomed to being in the hot seat. But with 28 million “Millionaire” viewers every night it’s on and 75 million-plus casino visitors every year, it’s clear that most people agree that gambling is fun.
And that’s my final answer.