I attended the town hall on video gaming in Forest Park on June 21. It was invigorating to see citizens motivated and impassioned about the future of our village.

I was embarrassed that I hadn’t done a literature search on existing research regarding the impact of legalized gambling on communities. (Research is my day job, I have no good excuse!)

It is very difficult to find any peer-reviewed studies on our exact situation, and I had to draw from studies that looked at gambling in general. Not at all an ideal comparison, but there were some corollaries that I think can help. (In the interest of not taking up too much space, I did not include personal impacts like bankruptcy or suicide rates.)

An article in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology described just how difficult it is to quantify the costs and benefits of gambling and pointed out that previous research is difficult to compare because of different methodologies used.

Of course, we’re not the only Illinois community struggling with this. It was interesting to see that several of the communities who voted against gaming cited a lack of control over future changes to the state Video Gaming Act and impacts on the family-oriented community.

There were some concerning studies about gambling in a video format generally. 

In “Addiction by design: machine gambling in Las Vegas,” author and anthropologist Natasha Schull described how video gaming is designed to pull players into a “machine zone,” a trancelike state where players become addicted not just to winning, but to playing. A study done in Canada and published in the Journal of Gambling Studies (2015) showed that video gambling was the most harmful form of legal gambling, with a significantly stronger link to problem and pathological gambling.

There were studies that showed positive impacts of legalized gaming on communities. One detailed study on the impact on a town in Mississippi in 2011 showed that the establishment of a casino significantly improved the residents’ financial and social lives. (The study did not include crime rate, problem gambling, quality of the educational system, or changes to local businesses.)

A rigorous study done in 2001 to assess the impact on communities in towns with new casinos found that after the casinos were established, community members’ impressions of whether it had had a positive or negative impact on quality of family life were sharply split. 

The study ends with the quote: “Jurisdictions contemplating the legalization of casino gambling as a panacea for their economic troubles should carefully consider the tradeoffs involved relative to quality-of-life issues and, in particular, the lack of agreement within the communities on the effects of casinos on the quality of family life.”

Unfortunately, we’re in a position where we’re trying to compare a quantitative outcome (income generated) with a qualitative outcome (impact on the character of our village) and there are no good mixed-method studies that can give us a clear answer.

At the town hall discussion on June 21, there was a lot of talk about compromises. There were several suggestions regarding requirements that could be proposed but no guarantee that they would be enforceable or unchallenged in what could be expensive litigation.

It would be terrific if during the village-sponsored in July, the options for compromise are explained. Would the village be able to: regulate gambling signs, charge a fee for the machines, require businesses to be open for two years prior to installing games, limit the amount of space dedicated to the machines in an establishment, require a certain percentage of the business to come from food, etc.? And how binding would those regulations be? Could they be challenged in court? How much could a court challenge cost the village? And what happens if video gaming is approved but later citizens would like to again ban it? 

What would be the mechanism to repeal approval?

I’m going to keep looking for more peer-reviewed research in the hopes I can find some non-anecdotal information to help me decide how to vote if the referendum ends up on the ballot.

As was mentioned during the town hall conversation, this is not a “benign” decision. There are very real consequences and we would do well to take the advice of the 2001 study in Social Indicators Research (mentioned above) and carefully consider the tradeoffs.

Amy Binns-Calvey is a resident of Forest Park.

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