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The difference between "gambling" and "gaming"

You have to be in Vegas for a conference, and you decide to while some time away at the slots. Are you “gambling” or “gaming”?

Many people not associated with the industry would call it “gambling.” Inside the industry, the preferred term is “gaming.” The terms have coexisted for years, with “gambling” being the more familiar term for the activity and “gaming” used most frequently for the business.

Then along came videogames, and not the poker ones. People who role-play in video games like Call of Duty say they are “gaming,” a usage the The Oxford English Dictionary traces to 1955 in reference to war games.

The casino industry in recent years has tried to get people to call what they do at casinos “gaming.” But that creates confusion: When someone talks about “gambling,” it’s clear that the wagering games are meant. But “gaming” needs a context for a reader to understand whether the role-playing or stakes-playing version is meant. It’s one good reason to keep “gaming” reserved for the role-playing variety.

The Associated Press Stylebook says “gambling” is the “preferred term for playing games of chance. Avoid use of the term gaming except in quotations or proper names.”
To a question in its “Ask the Editor” section on what to call the industry of playing games online, whether role-playing or games like “Words With Friends,” AP said: “Gaming is generally used as a euphemism or synonym for gambling or wagering. Social games sector might fit better here.” (Emphasis added.)

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage also prefers “gambling” to the “euphemism of gaming”; Times articles often use “gaming” for the role-playing pastimes, though the stylebook does not address the question.

The American Gaming Association, which calls itself the “leading voice of the commercial casino industry,” challenges the belief that “gaming” is euphemistic, citing the OED, the book Fools of Fortune by James Philip Quinn, and Dictionary of Gambling and Gaming by Thomas L. Clark:

While some people assume the word gaming was created as a way to “re-invent” the casino industry, history tells a different story. The word “gaming”—defined as the action or habit of playing at games of chance for stakes—actually dates back to 1510, predating use of the word “gambling” by 265 years. The words “gambler,” “gambling” and “gamble” all were considered slang when they came into use in the 18th century, implying that the activity involved unduly high stakes. The word “gamble” was essentially considered a term of reproach, according to The Oxford English Dictionary, and would only be used by those who “condemn playing for money altogether.”

But more scientific minds believe calling “gambling” “gaming” is gaming the system.

A study that appeared in The Journal of Consumer Research in September involved, in part, having participants read identical news articles about betting online: Some participants’ articles called it “gaming,” while the others’ used “gambling.” The study concluded that people who thought of it as “gaming” were more likely to feel good about online betting than those who thought of it as “gambling.”

“Changing an industry label from gambling to gaming affects what consumers, especially non-users, think of betting online,” write authors Ashlee Humphreys (Kellogg School of Management,* Northwestern University) and Kathryn A. LaTour (Cornell University). “A label like gaming prompts all sorts of implicit associations like entertainment and fun, while a label like gambling can prompt seedier implicit associations like crime.”

It’s a good bet the gambling industry won’t like that study.

*Editor’s note: Humphreys’ correct affiliation is with the Medill School of Journalism.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.