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Betting kicks in flicks: A brief look at gambling on film

As a researcher in the gambling studies field and an avid watcher of films, it comes as little surprise that I love watching films where gambling is key to the plot. Occasionally, I write academic papers about gambling portrayals in film (most notably an in-depth look at my favourite gambling film, The Gambler – the original 1974 film starring James Caan in the title role and not the more recent 2014 remake starring Mark Wahlberg – which I published in a 2004 issue of the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction). I wrote about this paper in a previous blog and I have also written a few blogs where gambling films are central to the articles such as my blog on Philip Seymour Hoffman and his film Owning Mahowny, my blog on the psychology of Columbo (where I argued that gambling and gamblers are central to many of the plot lines), and my blog on the psychopathology of Star Wars (where problem gambling is one of the many disorders that features in the film’s franchise).

casino-movie

The world of gambling and gamblers has been portrayed in many films and in many different ways throughout the years (e.g., The Sting, The Cincinnati Kid, Casino, Owning Mahoney, Rain Man). However, I argued (way back) in a 1989 issue of the Journal of Gambling Behavior that many of these film representations tend to cast gambling in an innocuous light, and often portray gamblers, largely male, as hero figures. I made this observation without doing any systematic review of films containing gambling and my thoughts were purely impressionistic.

A decade ago, Dr. Nigel Turner and his colleagues published a lovely study in the Journal of Gambling Issues examining ‘images of gambling’ in films. They built on Jeffrey Dement’s 1999 book Going for broke: The depiction of compulsive gambling in film. They noted that:

“Dement’s (1999) book, Going for Broke is a thorough examination of movies that depict pathological gambling. He examined a number of films in terms of the extent to which the portrayals delivered accurate and appropriate messages about problem gambling. Although some movies accurately portray the nature of pathological gambling at least during some segments, Dement found that many movies about pathological gambling had irresponsibly happy endings. Film images in some cases reflected societal views on gambling. However, images in films may also alter societal views of gambling (Dement, 1999)…Dement focused only on movies that were about problem and pathological gambling. Many films that depict gambling or have images of gambling that are not about pathological gambling per se. In [our] article we will extend Dement’s work by looking more broadly at films about gambling”.

In their study, Turner and colleagues content analysed 65 films (from an initial list of “several hundred films”) mainly from the two decades prior to the publication of the study. The authors recounted that:

Many of the films we discuss are personal favourites that we have watched several times (e.g., Rounders, The Hustler, Vegas Vacation, The Godfather). Some of the films reviewed in this article have been also discussed by [other scholars]. Some films were included because they were found listed as gambling films in film catalogues or by Web searches for ‘gambling movies’ (e.g., Get Shorty). Other films were suggested to us by recovering pathological gamblers, counsellors specializing in problem gambling, recreational gamblers, video rental store employees, and postings to the bulletin board of Gambling Issues International (a listserve for gambling treatment professionals). Our examination of movies was restricted to movies released in cinemas (i.e., not television), and filmed in English (with one exception, Pig’s Law)…In all cases, either the first or second author viewed each film. In some cases both authors viewed the same film separately. The authors then discussed the themes that they thought were depicted in the film. The authors then collected the descriptions of movies and organized them into general themes”. 

After viewing (and re-viewing) the films, the authors found eight themes (often overlapping) represented in the movies watched. More specifically these were the themes of: (1) pathological gambling (films such as Fever Pitch, The Gambler, Owning Mahowny, Pig’s Law, etc.), (2) the magical skill of the professional gambler (Rain Man, Two For The Money, The Cincinatti Kid, Maverick, etc.), (3) miraculous wins as happy endings (The Cooler, The Good Thief, Two For The Money, etc.), (4) gamblers are suckers (Casino, Croupier, Two For The Money, etc., (5) gamblers cheat (Rounders, The Sting, House of Games, The Grifters, etc.), (6) gambling is run by organized crime (The Godfather, Casino, Get Shorty, etc.), (7) the casino heist (Ocean’s Eleven, The Good Thief, Croupier, etc.), and (8) gambling as a symbolic backdrop to the story (Leaving Las Vegas, Pay It Forward, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, etc.).

After this initial content analysis, Dr. Turner and his colleagues organized these eight themes into a general taxonomy of films. They reported that:

“First these films can be divided into two categories: films in which gambling is a central focus of the film, and others where gambling is a relatively minor topic but serves a symbolic role in the film. The films that are about gambling can be further divided into those that present generally negative views of gambling (e.g., pathology, crime, cheating) and those that present a generally positive image of gambling (e.g., magical skills and miraculous wins). The positive image is mainly related to the ability of the player to win (by skill or by miracle), but some of these films also add additional positive images by hinting at a glamorous and exciting lifestyle (The Good Thief, James Bond films, Rounders). Negative images of gambling are more common than positive images of gambling. Negative images were further divided into pathological gambling, suckers, cheaters, organized crime, and robbing casinos”.

They also go on to note that: very few films show ordinary people gambling non-problematically:

“Throughout the history of movies, gambling-related stories have been present. Movies about gambling are most often inhabited by problem gamblers (e.g., The Gambler), cheats (e.g., Shade), criminals (e.g., The Godfather, Ocean’s Eleven), spies (e.g., Diamonds are Forever), people with incredible luck (e.g., Stealing Harvard), and professional gamblers (e.g., Rounders, The Hustler). With the exception of The Odd Couple (1968), we have come across few movies that show ordinary people gambling in a non-problematic manner”.

With regards to problem and pathological gambling they conclude that:

“Some movies provide important insights into the nature of pathological gambling (e.g., The Gambler, Owning Mahowny, The Hustler). However, others make light of the disorder or indulge in the wishful thinking common with pathological gamblers (e.g., Let It Ride, The Cooler, Fever Pitch, The Good Thief). In some movies people develop a problem too quickly (Viva Rock Vegas, Lost in America). Some films take the view that all gamblers are addicted (Croupier, Two for the Money)…Most films about pathological gambling depict a narrow segment of the problem gambling population focusing on the male “action” gambler (see also Griffiths, 2004). Most pathological gamblers simply do not embezzle millions of dollars as in Owning Mahowny or take stupid risks just for the thrill of it as in The Gambler. Films rarely show gamblers hooked on slot machines or other electronic gambling machines even though such machines, where they are available, now account for a majority of problem gamblers in treatment”.

Obviously the sample of films chosen was selective and there were over a hundred films that weren’t analysed. However, even though the study was published ten years ago I don’t think the results (if repeated on more contemporary films) would be particularly different.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Dement, J.W. (1999) Going for broke: The depiction of compulsive gambling in film. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Griffiths, M.D. (1989). Gambling in children and adolescents. Journal of Gambling Behavior, 5, 66-83.

Griffiths, M. (2004). An empirical analysis of the film ‘The Gambler’. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 1(2), 39-43.

Gluss, H.M. & Smith, S.E., (2002). Reel people: Finding ourselves in the movies. Keylight: Los Angeles.

Turner, N. E., Fritz, B., & Zangeneh, M. (2007). Images of gambling in film. Journal of Gambling Issues, 20, 117-143.

The teen screen scene: How does media and advertising influence youth addiction?

When we are looking for factors that change behaviour we can look inside the individual for personal characteristics that make people vulnerable to addiction and we can look outside the individual for features of the environment that encourage addictive behaviours. Addiction is a multi-faceted behaviour that is strongly influenced by contextual factors that cannot be encompassed by any single theoretical perspective.

The media (television, radio, newspapers, etc.) are an important channel for portraying information and channelling communication. Knowledge about how the mass media work may influence both the promotion of potentially addictive behaviour (as in advertising), and for the promotion of health education (such as promoting abstinence or moderation). Much of the research done on advertising is done by the companies themselves and thus remains confidential. The media, especially television and film, often portray addictions (e.g., heroin addiction in the film Trainspotting, marijuana use in the TV show Weeds, gambling addiction in the TV show Sunshine, etc.). Because of this constant portrayal of various addictions, television and film dramas often create controversy because of claims that they glorify addictive behaviour. The popularity of media drama depicting various addictions requires an examination of their themes and the potential impact on the public.

A 2005 study in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine by Dr. H. Gunasekera and colleagues analysed the portrayal of sex and drug use in the most popular movies of the last 20 years using the Internet Movie Database list of the top 200 movies of all time. The researchers excluded a number of films including those released or set prior to the HIV era (pre-1983), animated films, films not about humans, and family films aimed at children. The top 200 films following the exclusions were reviewed by one of two teams of two observers using a data extraction sheet tested for inter-rater reliability. Sexual activity, sexually transmitted disease (STD) prevention, birth control measures, drug use and any consequences discussed or depicted were recorded.

The study reported that there were 53 sex episodes in 28 (32%) of the 87 movies reviewed. There was only one suggestion of condom use, which was the only reference to any form of birth control. There were no depictions of important consequences of unprotected sex such as unwanted pregnancies, HIV or other STDs. Movies with cannabis (8%) and other non-injected illicit drugs (7%) were less common than those with alcohol intoxication (32%) and tobacco use (68%) but tended to portray their use positively and without negative consequences. There were no episodes of injected drug use. The researchers concluded that sex depictions in popular movies of the last two decades lacked safe sex messages. Drug use, though infrequent, tended to be depicted positively. They also concluded that the social norm being presented in films was of great concern given the HIV and illicit drug pandemics.

Drug use in this context could be argued to illustrate a form of observational learning akin to advertisement through product placement. A similar 2002 study by Dr. D. Roberts and colleagues examined drug use within popular music videos. Whilst depictions of illicit drugs or drug use were relatively rare in pop videos, when they did appear they were depicted on a purely neutral level, as common elements of everyday activity.

The makers of such drama argue that presenting such material reflects the fact that addictions are everywhere and cut across political, ethnic, and religious lines. Addiction is certainly an issue that impacts all communities. However, it is important to consider possible impacts that it might have on society. Empirical research suggests that the mass media can potentially influence behaviours. For example, research indicates that the more adolescents are exposed to movies with smoking the more likely they are to start smoking. Furthermore, research has shown that the likeability of film actors and actresses who smoke (both on-screen and off-screen) relates to their adolescent fans’ decisions to smoke. Perhaps unsurprisingly, films tend to stigmatise drinking and smoking less than other forms of drug taking. However, the media transmit numerous positive messages about drug use and other potential addictions, and it is plausible that such favourable portrayals lead to more use by those that watch them. Anecdotally, some things may be changing. For instance, there appears to be more emphasis on the media’s portrayal of alcohol as socially desirable and positive as opposed to smoking that is increasingly being regarded as anti-social and dangerous.

Back in 1993, the British Psychological Society (1993) called for a ban on the advertising of all tobacco products. This call was backed up by the UK government’s own research which suggested a relationship between advertising and sales. Also, in four countries that had banned advertising (New Zealand, Canada, Finland and Norway) there was been a significant drop in tobacco consumption.

However, public policy is not always driven by research findings, and the powerful commercial lobby for tobacco has considerable influence. In her reply to the British Psychological Society, the Secretary of State for Health (at the time) rejected a ban saying that the evidence was unclear on this issue and efforts should be concentrated elsewhere. This debate highlights how issues of addictive behaviours cannot be discussed just within the context of health. There are also political, economic, social and moral contexts to consider as well. The British government and European Community made commitments to ban tobacco advertising though they found it difficult to bring it in as quickly as they hoped. It is now rare to see smoking advertised anywhere in the UK but there is a new trend in television drama and films to set the action in a time or location where smoking is part of the way of life (for example the US television programme Mad Men).

Just as the British Government have banned cigarette advertising and banned smoking in public places, they have also deregulated gambling through the introduction of the 2005 Gambling Act. This Act came into effect on September 1st 2007 and allowed all forms of gambling to be advertised in the mass media for the first time. This has led to a large number of nightly television adverts for betting shops, online poker, and online bingo. Whether this large increase in gambling advertising will impact on gambling participation and gambling addiction remains to be seen. There have been very few studies that have examined gambling advertising and those that have been done are usually small scale and lack representativeness.

In an article I wrote in 2010 looking at these issues, I reached a number of conclusions that I don’t think have changed in the past few years since I wrote that article. My conclusions were:

  • Glamorisation versus reality is complicated: The issue of glamorisation versus reality is of course complicated. Although the drama producers hope to accurately depict various addictions, they still need to keep ratings up. Clearly, positive portrayals are more likely to increase ratings and programmes might favour acceptance of drug use over depictions of potential harms.
  • Research on the role of media effects is inconclusive: More research on how the media influence drug use is needed in order to evaluate the impact of such drama. With media and addiction, it is important to walk with caution, as the line between reality and glamorisation is easy to cross. More research is needed that investigates direct, indirect, and interactive effects of media portrayals on addictive behaviour.
  • Relationship between advertising and addictive behaviour is mostly correlational: The literature examining the relationship between advertising on the uptake of addictive behaviour is not clear cut and mostly correlational in nature hence it is not possible to make causal connections.
  • There could be different media effects for different addictions: Although there appears to be some relationship between tobacco advertising and tobacco uptake, this does not necessarily hold for all addictive behaviours. For instance, some academics claim that econometric studies of alcohol advertising expenditures come to the conclusion that advertising has little or no effect on market wide alcohol demand.
  • Research done to date may not be suitable: Survey research studies have failed to measure the magnitude of the effect of advertising on youth intentions or behaviour in a manner that is suitable for policy analysis. As a consequence, policy makers may introduce and/or change policy that is ineffective or not needed on the basis of research that was unsuitable in answering a particular question.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Cape, G. S. (2003). Addiction, stigma, and movies. Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, 107, 163-169.

Dalton, M.A., Sargent, J.D., Beach, M.L., Titus-Ernstoff, L., Gibson, J.J., Aherns, M.B., & Heatherton, T.F. (2003). Effect of viewing smoking in movies on adolescent smoking initiation: A cohort study. Lancet, 362, 281-285.

Distefan, J. M., E. A. Gilpin, et al. (1999). Do movie stars encourage adolescents to start smoking? Evidence from California. Preventive Medicine, 28, 1-11.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Does advertising of gambling increase gambling addiction? International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 3 (2), 15-25.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Media and advertising influences on adolescent risk behaviour. Education and Health, 28(1), 2-5.

Gunasekera, H. Chapman, S. Campbell, S. (2005). Sex and drugs in popular movies: An analysis of the top 200 Films. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 98, 464-470.

Nelson, J.P. (2001). Alcohol advertising and advertising bans: A survey of research methods, results, and policy implications. In M.R. Baye & J.P. Nelson (Eds.), Advances in Applied Microeconomics, Volume 10: Advertising and Differentiated Products (Chapter 11). Amsterdam: Elsevier Science.

Roberts, D.F., Christenson, P.G. Henriksen, L. & Bandy, E. (2002). Substance Use in Popular Music Videos. Office Of National Drug Control Policy. Located at: http://www.mediacampaign.org/pdf/mediascope.pdf

Wilde, G.J.S. (1993). Effects of mass media communications on health and safety habits: An overview of issues and evidence. Addiction, 88, 983-996.

Will, K. E., B. E. Porter, et al. (2005). Is television a healthy and safety hazard? A cross-sectional analysis of at-risk behavior on primetime television. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 35, 198-22