Guest Column - Everything I needed to learn about video gambling I learned at the Arcade

by Pastor Steven Palm

When I was a boy, I loved visiting the arcades in Coney Island, Brooklyn with my Norwegian grandfather. My favorite game, Skeeball, taught me an early lesson about addiction. I was addicted to Skeeball. Even when I didn’t do very well, there was the constant reward of tickets. And as the tickets or “points” kept coming I would beg my grandfather for another dime. I would stand there for hours were it not for the fact that my Pop would eventually cut off the flow of dimes. Then came that most disillusioning moment where I went up to the counter with my hundreds of points and learned that I barely had enough tickets to buy a cheap plastic toy like what came in a box of Cracker Jacks in the 1960s. I didn’t begin to understand all that was going on with that game. I didn’t realize that its bells, buzzers and constant supply of ticket rewards were stimulating the release of dopamine… the same neurotransmitter that has been linked to addictions in over 40 years of medical research and scholarly articles. As an adult, I also began to reflect on another aspect of my childhood skeeball addiction. I learned to follow the money. How many dimes did my grandfather spend on those prizes worth less than a dollar?

Today, the stakes are much higher. Video Gambling is every bit as addictive. The game is every bit as rigged. But now, the losses are in dollars, tens and twenties, not dimes. And tragically, there are some for whom video gambling is a gateway activity to far more serious and destructive gambling addictions.

In a January 16, 2019 article in ProPublica co-published with the Chicago Sun-Times, the writers reached the following conclusion concerning “video gaming” in Illinois:

Meanwhile, video gambling companies have exploited the deeply flawed legislation to reap hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, while the cities and towns that bear the brunt of the social costs related to gambling receive a fraction of those proceeds.

They followed the money. It didn’t go to the cities that were hungry for revenue. The overwhelming majority went to the gambling companies that place the machines. Nothing has changed. They get millions… we get thousands.

Several members of the City Council have followed the money. They have come to the same conclusion. Video gambling offers minimal revenue and exposes our citizens and the good reputation of our city to real harm. And there is another group that has followed the money and the potential trail of pain and exploitation; the pastors of Geneseo. On two separate occasions video gambling has been proposed. In 2015 I personally signed a letter urging the City Council to reject video gambling. Every pastor in town signed that letter. Every pastor! And then in 2017 this came up again and once again every pastor signed a letter opposing gambling in Geneseo. Every pastor!

I am beginning to think of my other favorite arcade game. Wac-A-Mole. No matter how many times you whack the moles, they keep coming back. It seems that no matter how many times we pastors and the concerned citizens of Geneseo say no to gambling, it keeps coming back. It’s an intentional battle of attrition. However, those of us who believe that gambling will not improve the reputation of Geneseo, and that it will harm its people, will not give up trying. We love Geneseo too much.

Gathering signatures is a little trickier under COVID restrictions. We can’t just pass a letter around the table. The overwhelming majority of pastors in the Geneseo Ministerial Association, are strongly opposed to video gambling. The following pastors gave me permission to list their names:

Pastor Stephen Palm, Geneseo Evangelical Free Church, Geneseo Ryan Shannon, Geneseo Evangelical Free Church, Geneseo Pastor Jeff French, Faith Baptist Church, Geneseo Pastor David Murphy, First Baptist Church, Geneseo Pastor Melva England, Grace United Methodist Church, Geneseo Pastor Chris Ritter, First Methodist Church, Geneseo Pastor Keith Bradley, Lorraine United Methodist Church Pastor Stephen Mueller, Concordia Lutheran Church, Geneseo Fr. Daniel Gifford, St. Malachy R.C. Parish, Geneseo Fr. Lawrance Glenn, Trinity Anglican Church, Geneseo Cellia Rodriguez, “The Farm”, Geneseo Pastor Nick Billiet, New Life Fellowship, Geneseo Pastor Dustin Largent, SonRise Bible Church, Atkinson (Pastor Dustin lives in the city of Geneseo)

Ask your pastor how he or she feels about gambling and why? I do not mean to suggest that the members of the council who support gambling and the Mayor who broke the tie do not love Geneseo. Nothing could be further from the truth. However, we do have a vastly different view of gambling. We who oppose this see this as a “frying of the egg”. Once “gaming machines” are here, they are here to stay. We know that gambling already exists here. You can gamble on your personal computer. However, this is different. Should Geneseo enter the gambling business? Is this the image we want to project to those seeking a wholesome community to raise their families? Are there not better ways for us to close the fiscal gap that all our aldermen and city leaders are deeply concerned about?

One final thought. I have heard it said that “You can’t legislate morality.” My answer is, we do that all the time. The question is “What system of morality will we choose?” Gambling is exploitative; it’s wrong! So, I urge you to email or call your aldermen. I plead with you to show up on March 9th at 6 pm at Geneseo City Hall (115 S. Oakwood Ave) to share your concerns with the council. And if you can’t do that, email our City Administrator and Mayor Johnson and ask them to read your comments during the Public Comments. And finally, join me in urging them to find a suitably large venue where we can share our concerns. If that can’t be accomplished, then maybe the timing of this push is all wrong.

Pastor Stephen E. Palm, President of the Geneseo Ministerial Association and Sr. Pastor of Geneseo Evangelical Free Church.

Stephen Palm