Ironic and perplexing? You bet.

There are several things ironic and perplexing about the story I’m going to relate. Read it for yourself, from the Windsor Star:

One Ontario government agency is giving a researcher $500,000 to study how casino design affects gambling.

But another arm of the government — the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation — has forbidden her from entering a casino to do her work, says University of Guelph professor Karen Finlay.

And Finlay says the OLGC has tried to discredit her early findings that casino design can encourage irresponsible gambling.

“This is one of the ironic, perplexing things,” says Finlay, a marketing and consumer studies professor.

“I guess the skeptic might say you’re trying to do something when you’re really not doing anything. It’s like lip service.”

Finlay asked the OLGC for access to Fallsview Casino in Niagara Falls last year to observe gamblers and recruit participants for her research.

The gaming corporation had signed an agreement with the Ontario Problem Gambling Research Centre, which has been funding Finlay’s work, promising to co-operate with it.

The agreement is supposed to allow on-site observation and recruitment of study participants, according to Judith Glyn Williams, director of grants operations for the centre.

But access must be negotiated for each project and the OLGC took so long to decide on Finlay’s request that she settled for standing in the casino lobby and flagging patrons as they left. Her recruitment of participants wasn’t very successful, she said, because she couldn’t target enough problem gamblers.

The OLGC also tried to discount her work by expressing skepticism about it, she said.

OLGC spokesman Don Pistor acknowledged that the corporation was not able to respond to Finlay’s request in time for her research. But he said that although Finlay may not have received what she originally requested, both sides were satisfied with the final arrangement.

The degree of access must balance the needs of the OLGC and researchers, said Wilson Lee, spokesman for Minister of Public Infrastructure and Renewal David Caplan, whose portfolio includes casinos.

“The OLGC does need to operate a commercial enterprise,” he said. “It can’t do that if researchers are interfering with patrons.”

This time, with another $500,000 from the centre to continue her research, Finlay isn’t requesting access to casinos.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” she said.

Instead, she will conduct her three-year project, funded with slot machine revenue, using a “virtual reality simulation unit.”

Participants will watch 3-D video images of casinos and slot machines and wear a glove to give them the sensation that they’re in a casino. Finlay will study whether changing the settings changes the behaviour of the participants.

Researcher barred from Ont. casinos

What’s so ironic and perplexing, you might ask? A few things, from my benighted perspective:
1) Someone got a half-million dollars to study how casino design affects gambling patterns?

2) Someone got another half-million dollars (maybe Canadian dollars, but still) to have people wear a glove and watch 3-D movies? And it isn’t Michael Jackson? Seriously, call Dr. Clayton Forrester, because this sounds very MST3K.

3) Human brains can only process seven things at a time? I’m not a cognitive psychologist, but I’d really like to hear more about that. I’m not being sarcastic, either.

4) Dealing with flashing lights, bright colors, obnoxious people, and loud noise leads to “cognitive overload,” huh? As someone who has spent thousands of hours on the casino floor in neat 8-hour stints, I can thing of another word that describes the feeling: annoyance.

Seriously, I think that people with gambling problems should get help, and that the industry that profits from gambling should step up to the plate to assist them in getting that help.

But Finlay’s study seems so deterministic; people are powerless to make decisions about how much of their time and money to spend in a casino, she seems to argue, because of its design.

Does that mean that casinos impair the ability of people to make rational decisions? This seems like a slippery slope. If people are unable to control their gambling, what about those who don’t have money to gamble–are we to believe that they are unable to refrain from robbing patrons, or trying to steal their credits? Are they just “victims” of the casino, or criminals? Is anyone responsible for their actions?

If the granting agencies behind this happen across this post (really, anyone with a half-million, US or Canadian, to grant will do), I’ve got a boatload of projects at the Center for Gaming Research that could use funding. How about financial data for every casino jurisdiction from day one (well, back to 1946 in Nevada’s case, but that’s far enough) posted online? Detailed timelines of the proliferation of various forms of gambling, accessible to all? A comprehensive running report of all gambling legislation? These are just a few things we could probably do with a half-million dollars.

Now that I’ve injected the Center’s research plans into the mix, I don’t know quite where to take this.

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