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Why Gamblers Could be Great Advocates for Sustainability

CCA LiveE | Tuesday May 17th, 2011 | 0 Comments

The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.

By James Lee

Vegas. Mega Millions. Sports bets. Pokerstars.com. Gambling comes in a variety of forms and has been a part of the American – and global – culture for centuries. It received a huge boost in mainstream popularity in recent years from the likes of World Series of Poker (WSOP). In 2010, our nation’s 483 commercial casinos collectively took in $34.6 billion in revenue, and needless to say, the figure is much more astounding worldwide.

Despite the tremendous growth in market size and user base, the gambling industry consistently gets a bad rep even by those who enjoy gambling. No one publicly announces their love for gambling, at least not with the same kind of pride as running or playing the guitar.

As a student in CCA’s MBA in Design Strategy program learning to apply human-centric design thinking to create sustainable innovations, I became curious about the human psychology and behavior aspects of gambling. Our society considers the phenomenon a taboo and the last thing you want to do if you want a healthy, sustainable lifestyle. Well, I happen to think gamblers have the potential to make some of the greatest advocates and evangelists for sustainability.

People see frequent gamblers as dangerous, irresponsible, and irrational – and rightfully so. There are plenty of horror stories featuring serial gamblers who bet their life savings away in a desperate attempt to fight against the odds. Sure, all of us have that friend who hits the blackjack table the second he walks into the casino and doesn’t leave until he finds his wallet empty and ATM card maxed out. However, I am not referring to the extremes – addiction to anything, even running or playing the guitar, can be bad and create an unsustainable lifestyle. I am talking about the many others who enjoy gambling within their constraints and embrace the thrill of taking risks. Could this trait serve as a springboard to positive social behavior?

“Of course not!” you say. “People who gamble want the winnings right away. They’re all about instant gratification!” Not true. A recent study looking at the concept of discounting and probability, showed that “gamblers” and “non-gamblers” treat temporal discounting similarly – in other words, both groups showed the same level of ability to delay gratification.

“But gamblers don’t like to take control of their situation and just let the dealer take all their money!” Not true either. People who gamble love control. In fact, according to another research, gambling games promote an “illusion of control” – belief that the player can exert skill over an outcome that is actually defined by chance. So, while it may be true that people don’t always have significant control over the outcome in gambling, they display a strong desire for control and are open to outside influences.

We’ve all heard stories of extremely troubled youth who, with the right guidance and inspiration, transform into some of the most driven and successful people in our society. I think the same can be said of the folks who like to engage in gambling and other dangerous, risky activities – that if they are given the right inspiration, and if the opportunities are presented in a compelling way, they will immerse themselves in sustainability and never look back.Black dice

So the question is, how do you position the concept of sustainability in the context of gambling? A good starting point might be to approach gambling as an experience and assess the numerous touchpoints involved in delivering it.

For instance, there is the casino: if you walked in and it was deserted, or there were others but they expressed boredom or frustration and anger from losing, would you want to join them? What are the touchpoints that bring people into casinos and affect their experience inside? What if we saw Earth as the ultimate casino – who would be the equivalent stakeholders and what type of touchpoints and/or communication would encourage people to play? Could there be a system that engages people to gamble on environmental causes?

Or perhaps it is a more subtle approach of integrating aspects of gambling into sustainable actions. A perfect example comes from eight credit unions in Michigan that have helped “build people’s savings by doing something radical: acting less like financial institutions and more like the lottery.” For every $25 that people deposited into their credit union savings account, they earned an entry to win a $100,000 prize awarded a year later. Many were skeptical about the program’s success in a state with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, but the results were astounding: more than 11,000 residents opened accounts, saving $8.6 million throughout 2009. This should come as no surprise – the credit unions seized the perfect opportunity by tapping into a basic human desire – to win – and using it to shift behavior. In this innovative model, every stakeholder wins.

In one sense, gambling is about betterment. It is about risking what you currently have while exerting control to bring a better future. It is about making the “right” choice that ultimately improves your own environment, financially or socially. What is sustainability?

People who enjoy gambling, and those who are addicted to it, may indeed be more volatile and risk-loving in nature than the more straight-edge folks who logically calculate their every move before engaging. But it’s that volatility and the desire for high risk, high returns that I am betting on to bring a positive social change – because sometimes, you just have to go all in.

“A gambler is nothing but a man who makes his living out of hope.”  ~William Bolitho, Writer


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