Gambling by history and culture : Sociological perspectives

3 Nov 2022Guides
Gambling by history and culture : Sociological perspectives

Gambling has taken part in every culture in various forms throughout humankind’s history. Behaviours and attitudes towards it have also been different among countries and decades. Consequently, the legality of its practices has varied with time and context.

İnterestingly, nowadays, social scientists compare the globalisation of gambling to the proliferation of McDonald’s consumption worldwide. Both are compatible with nowadays lifestyle, satisfying both the market and the consumer.

İsn’t it challenging to learn more about the origins and social attitudes of gambling?

İn this article, we provide accurate information about the history of gambling among several cultures and decades. We suggest a scientific view on the development of its trajectory by history from a sociological perspective.

Origins of the word gambling

A Brief history of gambling

Sociological perspectives on gambling

Origins of the word gambling

Gambling is a word that remotes to a variant of the words “gamen” and “gamian” from old English. İt refers to joy, pleasure, entertainment and game. İn other words, “gamen” has been used to reference pleasure through entertainment. Back in the Middle Ages, it was one of the ways of obtaining pleasure through entertainment. The word gambling has come to be precisely associated with this meaning. 

By definition, gambling is an activity whereby some object/event of value is wagered or staked on an event/object with an uncertain and random outcome associated with winning something else of value. 

Certainly, similar to psychologists, sociologists have considered the cultural phenomenon to understand the broader context in which it became a significant form of social activity throughout history. Thus, sociological perspectives consider its history, its context, and the social sense among cultures.

Social sciences provide accurate information about how and why gambling practices have evolved throughout history.  

A brief history of gambling

The findings may be surprising when we delve into the history of gambling. Even though accurate data is lacking in books of history, all of them have confirmed that this is a social entertainment activity known and practised throughout the history of humankind. From the very earliest beginning of existence, it seems that human beings were interested in “together games,” which apparently have emerged in these forms. 

Can you believe that gambling dates back to before written history, dating to about 3000 BCE (Before the Common Era)? Have you ever thought that it did not appear only in the USA but also in other continents, including earlier Arabic civilizations such as İraq and Egypt?

From the very beginning, gambling has taken a significant place amongst human civilizations within different forms according to cultures. İt first appeared during the old stone age belonging to a prehistory period. İt took place in Mesopotamia, which is İraq today. People in that historical region of Western Asia used to gamble with dice marked explicitly with numbers and letters. A practice that is known as Astragalomancy.

Recently, archaeologists have discovered numerous artefacts that prove its presence in ancient Egypt as far back as 2630 BC. İt seems that ancient Egyptians first gambled with religious or spiritual intentions. They used to throw coins as rituals, to bet on whether the number of coins thrown would be an odd or even number. 

culture of gambling in early Egyptians
culture of gambling in early Egyptians

İn Ancient china, books of history and songs repertories demonstrate that the act of wagering has taken part in Chinese culture since 200 B.C. Gambling houses seemed widespread, and betting on fighting animals was extensive. Chinese players have started enjoying card betting since the 9th century C.E. Later, in the 10th century, they witnessed lotto games and dominoes.

history of gambling in China
history of gambling in China

Can you believe that Poker, the most famous casino game in the U.S., is triggered by a Persian card game that dates back to the 14th century? İt is known as Persian As-Nas and has been widespread in Persia. When you think about the present times, where a woman has become the Poker champion, you get to see how far it has come.

İnterestingly, when people think of land-based casinos, they immediately think of Las Vegas or Monaco. However, the first land-based casino, Ridotto, started operating in İtaly in 1638. The first land-based casino in Las Vegas, the Golden Gate Hotel & Casino, was built in 1905. 

The popularization of Poker games in the U.S. by the middle of the 19th century and the spread of casinos in certain countries has put gambling on an entirely new trajectory. This fact has impacted markets all over the world. 

Even though gambling remains restricted and illegal in certain countries today, the enormous growth of online casinos has made it much easier for everyone worldwide to partake in it.

Sociological perspectives on gambling 

Knowing the history of gaming, let’s now shed some light on the most relevant sociological perspectives in this area. 

İt is easy to notice that the rise of capitalism and the development of market societies have affected this as a social activity. These factors have contributed to legalization in various cultures. 

Veblen: Sociologist
Veblen: Sociologist

The American sociologist Thorstein Veblen attributes cultural factors to the legalization of gambling related to the rooted beliefs in risk and luck throughout human history. He believes that feelings of risk and luck trigger in human beings a particular pleasure that they have always looked for during various periods of history instinctively. That could be about a pleasure that sets human beings apart.

He also assumes that economic factors inherent in the modern lifestyle have made gambling a legitimized source of money.


The Globalization of gambling has taken place since the 1990s with the widespread expansion of the field of Poker. The latter has become international mainly due to media coverage of champion poker tournaments and their popularity on the internet.

For this reason, contemporary sociologists use the metaphor of ‘‘’ the Las Vegasization as a McDonaldization of gambling”. 

İnterestingly, nowadays, social sciences consider that the spread of vast numbers of Las Vegas-style casinos in and outside the U.S. provides a concrete example of the McDonaldization of gambling. İt means this fast food chain has spread its name all over the world for decades; With the concept of Vegasization, social scientists believe that contemporary casinos have legitimized the Las Vegas-style worldwide. 

Can you imagine that, according to sociologists, this legitimization of gambling requires using scientific knowledge behind the scenes of casinos? 

The legitimization of gambling nowadays refers to using scientific knowledge to organize social practices based on a specific culture’s collective beliefs and values.

Various forms of scientific knowledge shape land-based and online casino environments and the offered games. The game offerings are compatible with people’s wishes, gamblers’ beliefs, and both players’ and markets’ profits, which are the pure result of social scientists’ research. 

Goffman’s approach is one of the most significant sociological perspectives that should be considered today. Goffman believes that what he calls “practical gambles” are seen in every practice of everyday life and not only in gambling games. He assumes that day-to-day life is full of “uncertainty” and “chances”. İt means that even though people are often unaware of the chances they have taken, this does not mean that their daily life doesn’t contain practical gambles. The latter involves “risks” whereby human beings make decisions under uncertain circumstances and where consequences are risky.

Goffman : sociologist
Goffman: sociologist

İn his studies, Goffman offers a broad series of examples of occupations, including practical gambles such as commerce, industry, soldiering and policing. Thus he believes that the sociological analysis should be extended beyond the realms of casinos to include daily practices full of ‘risk’ and ‘chance’ such as buying a car and making investments. That is to say, human beings already live with uncertain daily routines or ‘practical gambles’ because they are instinctively concerned by concepts of risk and chance.


Briefly, we are already dealing with gambling daily, even outside casinos, because we are naturally sensitive to notions of risk and chance. 


Published: November 2022

By: Sarah Zaneti

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