“Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else.”
― George Orwell, 1984
Orwell’s seminal novel spelled out a dystopian vision of how to control people by dictating their reality. It leapt to mind when I ran across a spate of articles on the newest addition to online gambling—Virtual Casinos.
Let me start by noting that I am a fan of Virtual Reality. It carries enormous potential for societal good, despite early uses as primarily a gaming technology. During a recent virtual VRx Medicine conference hosted by Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, researchers, physicians, clinicians, mental health professionals and entrepreneurs demonstrated VR’s positive impact on health, especially pain management for people with sickle cell, third-degree burns, IBS and other extremely difficult conditions. It also has efficacy for behavioral health, effectively treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety and even as a psychiatric tool for schizophrenia. Some predict it will become the “third leg” of accepted behavioral health treatment, joining with medication and protocols like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
But, like every tool that humans crafted since we scratched flint and started fire, VR’s powerful immersive experiences can be equally channeled to promote human dignity and cause human tragedy. It’s not the tool that necessarily corrupts. It’s the intent of those who created it.
VR casinos probably can’t be classified as either good or bad, just as is true for bricks and mortar gambling sites. For casual gamblers who want to experience a casino but perhaps can’t physically do so, some of the newest VR platforms allow them a “full experience.” They can virtually do everything from join a poker game and chat with other players to pull slot machines and look at the views from the windows of the eighth-floor slot room.
On the other hand, we know that gambling addiction constitutes a proximate mental health disorder. That means the easier, the more convenient, the more socially acceptable gambling becomes, the more people bet and the more some become addicted. VR makes a trip to Vegas as easy as a head set and controller in your living room.
And it is clearly lucrative. A report from Technavio, a company that researches, analyzes and predicts market growth in technology, pegs the VR gambling market potential growth difference will grow by $1.74 billion between 2021 and 2025.
Other new trends could compound and confound pathological gambling as well, specifically crypto currencies and Non-Fungible Tokens or NFTs. Think of these as virtual money, compensation or winnings that are all accumulated in cyberspace. NFTs often function as rewards or experiences for people who interact with different brands. For example, Wendy’s offers a virtual coupon for free chicken nuggets that you can nosh while visiting their virtual restaurant.
Why does cyber spending add to the danger? Many reasons. Virtual cash transactions don’t link to my bank account necessarily. This makes spending massive amounts seem even more harmless and enticing. They also reinforce a reward system central to the mindset that facilitates pathological gambling: If I play more, I can win back what I lost. Don’t quit now. Make more.
Finally, cyber spends can be almost completely anonymous and untraceable. We know that online betting already leads problem gamblers to incur massive debt in part because no one knows whether they’re betting or just responding to email on their mobile device. The less chance I can be caught, the greater the chance I will keep playing.
Bruce Jones, gambling addiction treatment counselor and the initiator of Maryhaven’s gambling treatment program, confirms that my concerns aren’t virtual but real. He’s seen a significant uptick in online gamblers seeking help in the past few years, and that’s before legal online sports betting rolls out in Ohio over the next year.
“Online gambling is already everywhere. Heck it’s in most people’s pockets when they’re walking around,” Jones says. “The concept of a Virtual Reality Casino is a natural evolution in that instead of you going to the casino, the casino is there for you whenever you want it. And that, coupled with an unregulated environment, can have devastating consequences for a lot of gamblers.”
“We’ve also seen numerous studies that show how proximity to a casino increases problem gambling levels,” Jones adds. “You can’t get much closer than someone’s own living room and a headset, and that’s the real danger of a VR Casino for many of the folks we treat.”
Virtual casinos could be the Wild, Wild West of the Metaverse envisioned by early creators like the company formerly known as Facebook, and now christened Meta. Company founder Mark Zuckerberg recently directed his 100,000 employees to “build awesome things.”
Perhaps Meta could direct its team’s creative efforts toward restoring the families and lives that fall prey to gambling addiction—literally.
Maryhaven is here to help, both the gambler and those who love someone who may gamble too much. Call 614-324-5425 or go to maryhaven.com/gambling for more information.