The real nature of gaming

Pauliina Raento wants to expand gaming research beyond mere problems, numbers and statistics.

The new docent in gaming research points out that gaming is part of our day-to-day life and involves experiences, togetherness – and politics.

Pauliina Raento

Pauliina Raento

Unglamorous. That is what you can safely call Finnish gaming. It is about as exciting and sexy as buying a windbreaker.

“The Finnish gaming mentality is about popping a few euros in a slot machine at the petrol station, or buying a Lotto ticket at the grocery shop. For Finns, there’s nothing special or mystical about gaming,” says Pauliina Raento, the new docent of gaming research at the University of Tampere.

Thanks to her international career as an expert in gaming, Raento knows what she is talking about. She has not encountered the same kind of inherent gaming culture anywhere outside Finland.

“You can buy any gaming product on every corner and at every kiosk. The activity of gaming could not be more mundane in Finland. I don’t think that’s the case anywhere but here – and Nevada.”

Right, Nevada. That is precisely the source of Raento’s fascination for gaming and its study.

Originally, Raento travelled to America’s number one gaming state to study nationalism, but the casino industry won her attention in the end.

“Gambling is the state’s primary business. Everything happens at the casinos.”

In the mid-1990s, Las Vegas was in the middle of a mega casino construction boom, and the effects of the trend also trickled outside the gambling capital. Raento was drawn to the geography and regional nature of gaming – how small mining towns in the Rockies were revitalised by the opening of casinos that changed the paths of these towns with no more than a few thousand residents in one fell swoop.

Another interesting phenomenon was the manipulative design of the casinos.

“How the spaces are built in a way that makes you want to hand over your money, and even if you lose, you still have fun and leave satisfied. I became interested in how this is done through planning and design:  the means by which the casinos draw people in, keep them there and get them to spend their money.”

Between 1998 and 2001, Raento worked in the United States as a research fellow for the Academy of Finland, completing a postdoctoral study on the American casino industry.

After returning to Finland, she was enlisted as Professor of Human Geography at the University of Helsinki and later as Research Director for the Finnish Foundation for Gaming Research.
In other words, gaming and its research have been in Raento’s sights since the mid-1990s, either full-time or part-time.

In early 2017, the University of Tampere made Raento the first docent in gaming research in Finland.

“Most of all, the docentship is an acknowledgement of the entire field. Until recently, we have conducted our research among a small but very enthusiastic group. Now, gaming research has finally received the academic seal of approval. At the same time, Finnish gaming research has gained international visibility.”

Tampere is a natural home for Raento, as she has cooperated with the University of Tampere Game Research Lab for years.

“We complement each other in terms of our competence. Tampere now has the first single concentration of gaming expertise in Finland.

One joint area of interest for its members is the blurring of the lines between digital gaming and gaming that involves real money.

“What does it mean for the concept of gaming when you can buy a new level for yourself in a game that is played for entertainment or spend actual money within the game? Similarly, many gaming products online are becoming more entertainment-oriented and engaging. These developments are very interesting.”

Raento herself does not admit to gaming all that passionately, even though she has “always played something”.

“I place the occasional parimutuel bet on horses for fun. At our family’s summer cabin, we have decided who has to carry the firewood based on a game of cards, and on car trips with friends, we bet on anything, such as which side of the road the next petrol station will be on. I play for entertainment and on a relatively small scale.”

Raento says she knows too much about gaming to entertain any hopes or illusions, especially with regard to games of chance.

“As regards games of skill, on the other hand, I know how much knowledge I would need in order to win. There’s no point in betting if you can’t properly familiarise yourself with what it is you’re betting on and keep up with the sport and the related statistics. I don’t have that kind of time.”

Yet Raento knows the player’s perspective well. In addition to her own gaming, she worked part-time as a croupier whilst working at the Finnish Foundation for Gaming Research.  For one summer, she hosted gambling tables at nightclubs in Helsinki and the former Täyspotti Casino at Itäkeskus shopping centre.

“I wanted to experience day-to-day gaming at the grassroots level, to see what Finnish gambling looks like in these places.”

Well, what does it look like?

“It looks like something all right…”

In Raento’s view, researchers are better equipped to engage in the discussion about gaming if they are familiar with the nature of the activity in actual everyday life.

“Studying things and drawing diagrams in your office is not enough. A researcher should have a genuine connection to the reality being studied.”

The same goes for professionals who work with people with gaming-related problems, for example.

“One of our strengths in Finland is that, during their studies, the professionals of many fields have worked as croupiers. These people are now employed by the media, gaming companies and care providers. This means that the people who treat gaming addictions are genuinely familiar with the problems.”

Gaming research has traditionally been very problem-oriented. Raento, too, knows this approach but points out that the examination of gaming culture should extend beyond the problematic aspects.

“We don’t study food culture exclusively through eating disorders, do we?”

Raento would like to see the research delve into the workings and phenomena behind population surveys, numbers and percentages, and find entirely new directions.

“There is so much to study and discuss with regard to gaming, such as real money gaming among immigrants.” What happens when a possibly traumatised person with a completely different cultural background arrives in our remote country and is suddenly thrust into the middle of our unique gaming culture? Or what does the trend of gamification, which is happening alongside digitalisation, actually mean? What happens when betting becomes part of e-sports? There are currently very big gaming-related trends, which is why we need a wide-ranging discussion about the field.”

In Raento’s opinion, one necessary topic for discussion is the age limit related to real money gaming.

“It wasn’t implemented until recently. For a long time, Finns grew up in a gaming culture without any restrictions, and yet we turned out relatively right-minded as players and citizens. The question is, what prevented the problems before the age limit was introduced? And, on the other hand, can age limits be harmful? Do they make gaming more appealing?”

In addition to this, the Finnish state-run gaming monopoly system could do with some critical examination.

“You could say we’ve employed the fox to guard the hen house. We still have a long way to go in terms of figuring out what this affects and how. In that sense, it’s a good thing to have gaming research acknowledged at the university level.”

Raento reminds us that, alongside the problems, gaming also entails many positive elements. Gaming brings us joy and experiences.

“Las Vegas has to be doing something right, sitting there in the middle of nowhere and still raking in millions of dollars in business each year.”

Gaming also provides entertainment and a context for socialising with other people.

“Playing with friends is empowering and fun. You could call it a form of exciting play. In a group, it’s also often easier to keep a handle on things. Your friends will often rein you in if you start going overboard.”

The charitable causes at the core of the system are also an essential part of Finnish gaming. A Finn plays knowing that the money spent goes to a good cause, such as supporting culture. In the United States, for example, gambling primarily plays into the pockets of the large listed companies in the field.

Pauliina Raento

Professor of Human Geography at the University of Helsinki 2007–2016

Research Director at the Finnish Foundation for Gaming Research 2008–2013.

Docent in Gaming Research and Professor of Regional Studies at the University of Tampere since 2017.

Member of the Scientific Council at the International Research Center for Gaming Regulation, operating in Las Vegas under the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada.

Her published works include Gambling in Finland (2014), Addiktioyhteiskunta (with Tuukka Tammi, 2013), and Gambling, Space, and Time (with David G. Schwartz, 2011).

Text Hanna Hyvärinen
Photos Jonne Renvall