According to Doctor Fong, gambling isn't entertainment in Asian culture, but a way to glimpse a person's fate—similar to randomized divination rituals like kau cim fortune-telling sticks. Winning money means a boost in self-worth and being judged as having upright moral character, while losing it could mean the opposite. "If I literally read the tea leaves, or play this game of chance, it might get me a snippet of what the ancestors have planned for me," he says. As a result of this cultural dimension, many Asian communities don't perceive gambling as wrong, even if it's illegal.Given these cultural roots, it's not surprising that a wagering game that's swept Asia has also gained purchase in Asian-American sections of the US. While these are culturally and ethnically different groups, says Dr. Fong—and he cautions that not all Asians gamble—the theme of wanting to play and "go big" when betting retains some similarity.When asked about whether these gambling dens are dangerous, Doctor Fong points out that they primarily pose a danger to the gambler—not just physically, but financially."The most important thing is customer protection, to ensure players are playing something that's fair, that the odds are going to be known to them, and the rates of outcome will be consistent—and that's the problem with gambling dens. You have no idea how it's actually being controlled or regulated."
"The most important thing is customer protection, to ensure players are playing something that's fair, that the odds are going to be known to them, and the rates of outcome will be consistent—and that's the problem with gambling dens." -Dr. Timothy Fong
But as definitive as this report seems, forensic reports don't always hold up to legal scrutiny. Despite the large number of machines confiscated, Honolulu prosecutors couldn't get those 414 felony gambling charges to stick in court. First, a judge threw the case out in 2014, after it came to light that the prosecution's gambling expert wasn't certified to comment on sweepstakes machines. The state re-filed, but last August the prosecution's second attempt got dismissed with prejudice under a speedy trial rule—and because their case still contained the tainted expert testimony. Despite the state dropping all charges, eighty of the arcade owners' machines remain in police custody.Far from being an outlier, these arcade raids are a sign of things to come. As casinos turn to video game-slot machine hybrids as a way to draw in Millennials, the line between an arcade and a casino will get increasingly thin."The last gambling conference I went to in Vegas, the new trend was video game machines where you have much more interaction, like Guitar Hero, or Dance Dance Revolution," says Dr. Fong. "You're controlling a video game character, and if you get a certain number of achievements you win a bonus."
As casinos turn to video game-slot machine hybrids as a way to draw in Millennials, the line between an arcade and a casino will get increasingly thin.
But for law enforcement and legislators, these machines will mean writing and enforcing new laws that stamp out underground gambling, yet preserve arcades and carnivals. That will prove tricky, and mistakes have already occurred. One Florida law proved so broad that Disney World removed its ticket redemption games and claw machines in case they fell afoul of the police, and arcades like Dave and Busters argued that the law disallowed legitimate arcade systems like added-value swipe cards. This quandary will only get deeper as popular arcade games like DDR come to market in both gambling and non-gambling versions—or if unethical arcade owners create a version that can switch from one to the other."There's going to be a lot of debate in the next two to five years, because these machines don't look like traditional slot machines," says Doctor Fong. "They have that integrated [gameplay] experience, and people aren't quite sure what to call it. But at the end of the day, if you put [a machine] in your place of business—and [customers] pay you money based on an uncertain outcome—then it's gambling."If history is any indication, underground gambling will never go away—but it may go digital.Gambling is entertainment for the vast majority of people, but 2-3% of gamblers fall into the world of gambling addiction or gambling disease. If you suspect that you or someone you know has a gambling problem, visit the UCLA Gambling Program website for information about treatment. If you live in California and are seeking help for gambling addiction, call 1-800-GAMBLER to get assistance.Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Waypoint, Vice, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp
"There's going to be a lot of debate in the next two to five years, because these machines don't look like traditional slot machines." -Doctor Timothy Fong