Gambling or Gaming? Words Have Power

Is internet gambling just entertainment or is it a seedy backroom activity? A new Cornell study says it depends whether the activity is described as ‘gaming’ or ‘gambling.’ The study showed how labels can shape how people perceive the gaming industry. Kathy LaTour, associate professor of services marketing at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, stated “Changing an industry label from gambling to gaming affects what consumers especially nonusers, think of betting online. A label like gaming prompts all sorts of implicit associations like entertainment and fun, while a label like gambling can prompt seedier implicit associations like crime.”

The study is available online. In the long term study LaTour and Humphreys analyzed several media articles describing lottery and casino gambling between 1980- and 2010. The articles appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and USA Today. They also analyzed media coverage of ‘Black Friday’ which took place on April 15, 2011. On Black Friday federal authorities and publicity mad federal prosecutors seized the domains and assets of three popular poker websites. Newspapers portrayed online poker as a crime which led many to have a negative view of online gambling.

The authors of the study said a pattern emerged; lotteries and land based casinos were associated with legitimate entertainment while online gambling was associated with crime and a lack of regulation. Even an innocuous activity like internet bingo was perceived as a criminal activity depending on the words used to describe it. The authors conducted several experiments. The authors found that a ‘rags to riches’ narrative prompted positive associations while ‘get rich quick’ narratives prompted negative associations. To further test their hypothesis the authors changed one word in the narratives; gambling or gaming. They found that using the word ‘gaming’ caused nonusers to have see online betting as a legitimate activity.

LaTour stated “We found that how you label an industry really matters. This is especially true for nonusers or individuals who are not as familiar with the industry.” The authors concluded that “There is great promise for using theories and methods from linguistics and rhetoric to understand consumer behavior. Labeling can equally work in the interest of opponents to an industry. Consider the case of fracking. Although industry actors have searched for a replacement term, the practice of extracting energy from below the earth’s surface has become known as fracking, which carries with it rhetorical connotations of fracturing naturally existing rock.”