Perhaps when one talks about casinos the collective immagination still thinks to Nevada, in particular to Las Vegas and to the casinos of the glittering Strip. But the numbers are clear, and they say that the real future of gaming is in Asia. An economic phenomenon, but also a social and cultural one, that we analyze with Gherardo Ortalli, Teacher of Medieval History at the University Ca’ Foscari in Venice, expert of gaming history and author of the book ‘Barattieri. Il gioco d’azzardo fra economia ed etica. Secoli XIII-XV’ (Barrators. Gambling between economy and ethics.Centuries XIII-XV) (il Mulino, Bologna, 2012).
Why, in your opinion, the casino and gaming market is experiencing such a rapid growth in Asia and especially in Macau?
“It depends on the new general stabilities of economy and politics. In general for Asia is valid its economic take-off and the growth of part of society who is able to spend increasing amounts of money for gaming and even gambling. About China, the traditional passion for gambling found in Macau its appointed place. Macau was under Portuguese sovereignty until 1999 and when it came under the control of the Popular Republic of China received a special administrative status. This means that in Macau gambling is legal while it is strictly firbidden in China and therefore this small coastal territory is the most natural outlet for the immense hinterland of Chinese players.”
And why to this growth corresponds a decline, at least at this phase, of casinos in Italy and, in general, in Europe too?
“In Macau the great development of casinos is very recent and this means that they are new or brand new structures, born and grown responding to the most modern and efficient parameters of big gaming houses. In the casino area of ancient tradition(and Italy is fully in this situation) remains quite modest (or old) the quality of gaming offer, the availability of related services, support facilities for stay, amusement, use of free time and different reasons of attraction. It reflects the weight of a past (maybe even a management one) which acts as a brake, especially taking into account that in a decline phase is more difficult to find the great funds needed for really significant investments, that can answer to a rapidly changing demand”.
In Italy the gaming institutionalization, as you tell in your book, took place in late Middle Ages. What historical and cultural cycle there was instead in Asia?
“In Italy as in the biggest part of Western Europe early in the thirteenth and the fourteenth century we begin to organize gambling according to the logic that is still at its base. The acknowledgment of that such prohibitions and moral condemnations are not enough to stop the practices of gambling, pushed the authorities to allow it in specific, very small and controllable places, where was tolerated (and in short secluded) what normally was forbidden. Governments, once this sort of compromise was achived, pressed by economic reasons which in those centuries were growing also for the need of funds required by working of increasingly expensive public bodies, began to make income with gambling. In very definite places where governments allow gambling, they began to take a share of what was played and gaming was put out to contract. Public gaming born now, with its taxation. The logic is still the same and the journey made is what I have been able to study in the recent volume on ‘Barrators’ and the birth of modern gambling. The Asian reality, regardless of moral and philosophical issues, reflects times and different ways in the development of its society and its economy. The trend is however that of an increasing (although slow and non-consistent) homogenization of behaviors “.
Do you think that in the future China will further legalize gambling, at present ‘confined’ in Macau, and that other Asian countries will focus on casinos?
“It’s hard to predict the future. What is certain is that in economically developed societies, when gambling is forbidden does not disappear, but remains in the underground. The decisions about it – forbid, tolerate, financially make the most of it – must take account of different needs (as I shown in the volume that I mentioned above): the ones of economy and morality, of public order and lawfulness, of almost innate drives for gaming in its different forms and risks of pathological excesses. The current one of Macau is basically a sort of compromise identical to that of medieval frauds: China prohibits, but then allows in Macau. Only if the current compromise will be convenient also in the future things will continue as today. However is possible a gradual evolution that opens the way to other public forms of money bet, and here there is an enourmous range of possibilities. It is enough to think on how many are now in Italy the ways in which the state can withdraw money on gaming in its various forms and expressions.”
How the figure of ‘Barrators’ changed in Italy and in the world by the point of view of their acceptability and social functionality?
“The barrators are a typically medieval class, tipical of centuries in which gambling was taking its first steps towards legalization. They were marginal groups characterized above all by their gambling, next to criminality, recognizable for a life on the lowest levels of society. Tolerated and even used for lowest services (for example as spies, sappers in wartime, executors of sentences and executoners or cleaners of lavatories), when public bodies between fourteenth and fifteenth centuries arrive at a clearer organization of money gaming, barrators tend to disappear. Who was on the edge of legality ends beyond the borders of the law.”
Do you believe that gaming in general, and Macau casinos in particular, can be an instrument of appeal from the tourist point of view?
“Casinos have been a great importance for the development of tourism in nineteenth and twentieth century. I think that their season as independent structures (even in attraction places) is ending. It seems to me that the great chances to bet money (also in electronic form) and the huge expansion of practices related to gambling today push no longer towards casinos, but towards forms of clearness organisation structured in a system, in a complex of increasingly complex and very articulate and multi-purpose structure for use of free time.”