Playing with Fire?

Mahjong is synonymous with gambling for many in this world. Most overseas media coverage of our game are small pieces on how China has clamped down on mahjong or officials have been caught gambling. In Japan, mahjong is often seen as a lower-class pursuit compared with shogi or go due to its persistent image of gambling and drinking in smoky windowless rooms. That reputation is relevant outside of East Asia even. A personal anecdote is a couple of police officers coming to our booth at PAX in Boston to ensure we weren’t gambling. (Grant’s face of true innocence and horror at the thought of gambling ever quickly reassured them.)

As a community we tend to approach this as a PR problem. It doesn’t actually apply to us. Any gambling that does happens is for pennies. Our focus is fixing everyone else’s perspective. However, indulge me while I try to turn this into something more introspective.

Gambling is a problem because it is addictive. We focus our eyes on mahjong gambling as if the gambling is the sole contributor to the destructive behavior. However, mahjong is not innocent in all this. Mahjong itself is very very addictive.

Lots of us have voiced very similar opinions that, if we think about it, addicted gamblers voice: “The game is rigged.” “I’m on an unlucky streak.” “I need my lucky charm.” Yet we keep coming back despite bad beat after bad beat like an addict. We get to shroud ourselves with excuses that mahjong is a game of skill to ignore the heavily luck based element.

These are the same sort of tricks that slot machines that offer you “options” use to try to make you feel a level of control over the results of a game.

That may seem an extreme analogy, but it is this feeling like you can be in control and the dangerous combination of two addicting triggers that lends mahjong gamblers to rapidly spiral into destructive addiction. To make it worse, they can blame themselves rather than the algorithm of a slot machine.

Basically mahjong–even the healthy kind–is training us all into addictive behavior. I’m not trying to scaremonger, but rather than treating it like an entirely existential problem and something to be tackled with PR, we should be forming healthy habits to prevent it becoming an internal crisis.

I see two elements to this…

  1. Watching for problematic addicts amongst our numbers. People who are foregoing self-care for the game. Or perhaps someone who is allowing their mahjong addictive behavior to spill out into other activities: alcohol, gambling, caffeine.
  2. Watching out for those who would want to exploit us. We are basically a group of ready-made addicts that someone would love to monetize. Whether that is through gambling directly or through gacha and similar.

Perhaps this isn’t an entirely coherent article but that’s because it’s not being discussed at all by the wider community. We all know that we don’t want to be associated with gambling, but we should be looking more to our friends and making sure that they’re not falling into its clutches. We’re more vulnerable than we like to think.

Do you have a thought or opinion? Let’s get this discussion going! Comments are ON!

1 Response

  1. lmm says:

    Most fun things are to some degree addictive – indeed it’s hard to draw a clear line between addiction and enjoyment. You contrast mahjong against go or shogi, but from what I know of chess players, the top flight players of those games will be people who are devoting a significant proportion of their life to them and sacrificing opportunities to do so. Similarly for a lot of hobbies; I did a 13+ hour bike ride in frankly dangerous conditions yesterday for a medal I’m pursuing. Addiction? Normal for a randonneur? Both?

    The randomness is a distinct factor. I know I get superstitious about mahjong in a way that I don’t about any other game, or real life. But I’m not at all sure that that translates into a greater potential for addiction; the great promise of an activity like chess (or cycling) is that if you put in the hours of work then you eventually will be the best, and if you’re not the champion yet then it’s simply because you weren’t trying hard enough. Whereas with mahjong it doesn’t matter how many hours you’ve put in, a certain amount will always come down to the luck of the tiles. For me that’s reassuring, and if anything it helps me keep healthy boundaries around my mahjong playing. I think.