Throughout history, gambling has been a part of most cultures around the world. From playing with the earliest bone dice to the most sophisticated video lottery terminals, it seems humans are fascinated with gambling. But what is the role of culture in shaping attitudes and practices related to gambling?
First, different kinds of gambling seem to be preferred in different cultures. Casinos are popular among Asian and Eastern European gamblers, while card games are preferred by Southern European and Arabic gamblers. Scratch lottery tickets are popular in North American and European countries. For example, they are the “preferred bet” in British Columbia. Mahjong, Pai Gow (similar to dominoes), and casino games of Baccarat and poker are the games of preference in China.
Second, the reasons people gamble vary from place to place. Gambling is regarded as entertainment and escape for Korean and Arabic gamblers whereas Chinese and Spanish gamblers tend to regard it as a regular social activity. There is a long history of gambling in France associated with leisure and relaxation. In films, gambling in France is often associated with luxurious lifestyles. The “French Riviera,” including the principality of Monaco, still generates images as a place for “high rollers” (think about movies such as “Casino Royale”).
The kind of games played, the reasons for playing, how the games work, and the ways in which different genders participate in gambling all vary across cultural groups. In Canada, about 70% of adults have gambled in the past year. Overall males and females participate equally. Whereas, in China most gamblers are men. When it comes to online gamblers however, even in Canada, they are predominantly male (82%).
Official attitudes toward gambling have also varied from place to place and across time. Today most American and European cultures permit gambling, and governments generate significant revenues through lotteries and other gambling activities. It was not always so. Half a century ago, gambling was still illegal in Canada except where specifically allowed such as charitable bingos, horse racing and summer fairs. Changes to the Criminal Code in 1969 expanded the range of events to include lotteries and a 1985 amendment allowed provincial governments to operate a range of “lottery” games, including online, electronic terminals and slot machines. There is a long history of gambling in Europe both regulated and unregulated. Members of the European Union adhere to a range of laws and statutes that control various aspects of gambling, primarily casinos and online games. Many Muslim cultures prohibit gambling today but this, too, has not always been so.
The percentage of people who develop problems with gambling also varies across cultural lines. For example, Indigenous people in Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand have experienced higher than average rates of problem gambling. However, this likely has less to do with their culture than with the cumulative impacts of colonization and the poverty and social dislocation that followed. Similarly, recent immigrants might turn to gambling as an opportunity to meet new people and integrate into their new community. Individuals who feel isolated, have poor health and unmet expectations of their new country may gamble as a way to cope with boredom, loneliness or depression. Feelings of discrimination and perceived racism may add to these feelings and make matters worse. The lack of social connections can make them more vulnerable to developing problems with gambling.
Culture also affects our readiness to seek help. Some people, for example, those from South and East Asian cultures, may be less likely to seek help for problems with gambling. Seeking help can be seen as shameful in societies where gambling is prohibited or individual problems are hidden. Having a problem may bring dishonor to the entire family, thus seeking help may be discouraged.
To answer our original question is, yes. But the meaning of that may not be so simple. The relationship between culture and gambling is complex and multi-faceted. It is important then that we all are sensitive to these cultural issues as we seek to support each other.