Bingo! Game gives researchers lessons on how to control gambling

Academics explore how the seemingly sedate game of housey-housey has attracted many different kinds of government intervention

July 21, 2016
Man playing bingo, Camden Town Bingo Hall, London
Source: Alamy

An academic has published the results of an in-depth three-year project looking at how issues of gambling regulation can be informed by one of the most popular but perhaps least talked about games that are played for money: bingo.

Kate Bedford, reader in law at the University of Kent, has “played bingo my whole life, both at home and with female family members at commercial bingo halls”.

However, she doesn’t know anyone who goes to casinos, and so she has long found it odd that “conversations and policy debates about gambling and how to regulate it are always about casinos”.

There are a number of reasons, in Dr Bedford’s view, why bingo has been almost ignored. It is enjoyed largely by “a distinctive demographic of older, working-class women – or First Nation/Native American players in North America – which struggles to be taken seriously. Conversations about law and policy tend to ignore that demographic.”

Furthermore, the game can straddle the boundary between the commercial and the charitable sector, as when, for example, it is used to raise money for church groups, village groups or parent-teacher associations.

After an initial pilot carried out in Thanet, Dr Bedford secured funding from the Economic and Social Research Council for three years’ research, which has just been published as The Bingo Project: Rethinking Gambling Regulation.

Some of the main results and the broader issues arising were also discussed at a conference, held at Kent last month, titled All Bets Are Off: Reflecting Critically on Gambling Regulation within and across Borders.

The Bingo Project focuses on the different ways that bingo is regulated in Brazil, Canada, England and Wales and the European Union and incorporates insights from more than 200 interviewees.

One bingo manager describes his job as “rob[bing] old ladies of their pensions”. An old-timer recalls “playing with old friends down the pub for slabs of meat”. The researchers also took part in games (they stress that “at no point was any ESRC money using for gambling”) and even witnessed “drag queen bingo callers simulat[ing] sex acts with players when particular numbers were drawn”.

In Brazil, the report explains, bingo has rather surprisingly been caught up in “corruption, organised crime and money laundering scandals”, “acquired…menacing connotations” and “been driven largely underground”, so the key question is “how trust can be rebuilt” and the game legalised again.

In the UK, as Dr Bedford puts it, it is generally seen as “soft, social, slow-paced and low-stakes”. It is precisely because it is perceived and treated by the authorities so differently in different places that it can help us develop “new ways of thinking about gambling regulation more generally”.

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