Bingo

I took my last post about ethnography a little bit further for my latest assignment by visiting a bingo hall. The idea was to go somewhere I had never been before and observe how people behave. Apparently we were all supposed to feel ‘like a fish out of water’ – I certainly did!

I actually felt uneasy about going there in the first place, I was also first there out of my group so that didn’t help – standing outside for a while by myself. First thing I noticed was the smokers outside, all middle-aged woman standing by themselves. One was on the phone, in fact she asked me the time, it seemed she was waiting on someone. I don’t know why but I had it in my head bingo was a really social occasion. These woman standing by themselves took me a little by surprise. Thinking about it, I realized of course that they would not be allowed to smoke inside and perhaps their non-smoking friends were inside, or had yet to arrive.

Second was how huge it was, I mean I have seen bingo buildings before, I’ve just never really paid attention to them. This one was tall though, really tall, the one’s I’m used to are just huge buildings but only appear to be one floor, possibly two. It was hard to gauge how deep this one was as it’s on the high street but it just seemed to tower over everything. I wondered if maybe there were lots of halls in different floors?

Once my friends had arrived we went in – I took a quick snap of the entrance reception. Other than a small coffee bar, and some slot machines there was nothing else to do other than walk the stairs or indeed use the mini escalator (which excited me way too much).

The reception actually reminded me of a recent lecture I had on the ‘disneyization’ of culture. Our lecturer talked about how things like shopping have become leisure activities for us. Say for example you go to buy a wardrobe at Ikea, you can also have a meal and your children can play in the creche. The layout and facilities of shops nowadays mean you can have a ‘day out’ in them. (To me this seemed perfectly normal because i’ve grown up with this…I guess attitude, but I realize basic shopping wasn’t always like this) In the Bingo’s case, you could say that this areas basic function was for people to stay warm and wait for their friends or taxi to arrive. In fact, it’s basic, basic function was to let people walk in at street level before they went upstairs. Instead it has been invaded by a coffee bar and slot machines – giving people a more leisurely wait (and encouraging them to spend money the second they enter and just before they leave).

Once upstairs it was again pretty clear from the giant reception desk and lack of anything else other than more slot machines that we should go there. There wasn’t a que so we just went up and the staff were all very helpful. I liked how they asked us if we had ID before we filled in the form. This, together with their perfectly matching uniforms suggests they get proper training. Whilst filling in our membership forms I noticed some brochures on the wall that were aimed at newcomers. A member of staff then registered us and gave us proper credit card style membership cards, which I was not expecting. She also gave us a voucher for a free game the next time we come…

This time though we had to pay just fifty pence! The girl advised us that to get us started we should just play the early game then come back out and she would tell us what to play next. The lady who registered us then took us into the next area (filled with slot machines) and explained how to play. She was really good at explaining the rules and put me at my ease about playing.

Nevertheless I was still really nervous about walking into the hall, especially when after a quick scan I realized we were the youngest and the biggest group there. I instantly wished we’d split up until I realized that no one was actually looking at us. They were all far too engrossed in playing the game, heads down, all of them! it was like an exam hall!

Of course once I sat down and started playing I realized why! The numbers are called out at a very fast pace meaning your constantly looking at them. You actually have every number that is being called out, meaning it’s down to speed and tactics rather than luck. Of course, with all gambling the luck is a vital part and it come in to bingo too. You have to get a full horizontal row of five numbers which have been called out. So it’s just your luck as to what numbers get called out and what your cards like. Here is John with an example…

If you are lucky enough to get a full row then you shout out “HOUSE!” A member of the floor staff, who walk about the place with microphones, then confirms your win (or not in some cases). Unfortunately none of us won so I don’t know what happens after this point. The people seemed to stay seated so I presume you carry on playing and collect your booty at the end. This is something I really wish I had observed more, looked for a staff member perhaps coming over with money. I would defiantly watch out for this were I to go back.

Anyway, enough about Bingo, what about the bingo folks?

Well as soon as someone shouts “HOUSE!” the hall breaks out in a murmur with unashamed sighs and tutting. They don’t clap or congratulate the winner, they seem frustrated and quickly move onto the next page, awaiting the next game.

During this break between games I notice that nobody really talks to each other. Some do of course but generally they stay seated and kind of glaze over a little. Some even play extra games which are on the table! I notice that one older couple have brought in their books and newspapers to read! I also noticed that the ladies sitting next us have brought in food. A quick dart around the room tells me their tea/coffee was bought here as lots of other people have the same cup. They are eating their sandwiches out of the packed though so the lack of plates and scrunched up plastic bag suggests they brought them in. I discussed this with Rebecca later, who pointed out this sign on our table:

As I said before, the staff walk around the room so they are close-by when someone wins. These ladies seemed not to bother that the staff would notice them. Of course they were not flashing them around, they were neatly tucked in towards the table divider but they were not hidden. This suggests to me that the rules are not overly rigid, especially to regulars, which these woman seem to be. I guessed this because they knew how to use the digital bingo machines and knew that they could risk eating their own food.

On the subject of food, their is a canteen and a bar up at the back of the hall. During a break, John and I went for a walk up there but both were deserted, apart from a barman. From the menu, the food seemed quite cheap, you could even get proper meals. For example macaroni was about £3.50 – not bad!

Walking up to this area I was aware for the first time that people were looking at us. During the breaks everyone stays seated. I felt really awkward walking up there, discovering it was empty then slinking back. I would conclude that the bingo etiquette for food is you get your tea and coffee before you start. You then wait until the entire early session is over before venturing away from your table.

There are of course many explanations for this but I would say one of them is time. The hall is huge, literally huge, completely dwarfs my expectations. As you can see:

Most people seem to sit towards the entrance so perhaps it would just take too long to walk up there. The determined, straight faces of the majority of the people suggests they take it really seriously. They wouldn’t want to risk missing the next game for the sake of a drink!

This realization made me feel really dissonant – I’d been made. This place wasn’t for socializing, it was for playing bingo. (I should have realized this by the lack of people actually using the leisure areas at the reception area) I can only liken it to talking during church, you just don’t do it, you are respectful and concentrated on what’s going on. This place was serious.

I am reminded of an idea presented by Pierre Bourdieu, a French academic who wrote about the sociology culture and language. (I have been reading sections of the book Understanding Bourdieu, so expect a post about that soon!) He suggested that “working class people” did not go to places such as museums because they were not sure how to behave and because the institutions did not make themselves user friendly”. This theory is of course quite old but it’s not irrelevant, in fact it has an awful lot of relevance. One thing that is quite old though is his interpretation of ‘class’ which is a rather complex issue. From reading Bourdieu I can tell that he does not mean to cause offense when talking about class. He just uses the term to make distinctions – it’s us, society that have the connotations. Anyway, basically people who were taken to museums by their parents and schools were more likely to feel comfortable about going to one when they were older than people who had not been. I think the reason people take offense at this idea is because they see museums as being sophisticated. Therefore they think he is saying that ‘working class people’ don’t behave in a sophisticated way. He’s not, replace the word ‘museums’ with ‘seaside’, read the sentence again. He’s simply saying that people don’t know how to behave when they go to a new place.

Replace ‘museums’ with ‘bingo’ and his idea applies perfectly to my situation. I had no idea how to behave in a bingo hall to the point that I kind of didn’t want to go in the first place. This was because I had never been taken to a bingo hall with my school or parents therefore I didn’t feel comfortable about going.

This theory seems very simple now, almost instinctive. The word ‘class’ made it debatable; made it complicated. The reason we feel uncomfortable going to new places is also down to us complicating things. How do we do this? One means, Bourdieu points out, is through “discourses”. A discourse is the way people talk about and write about something as well as the way people are expected to act around it. Say the something was a poisonous chemical, people would talk very seriously about it and act very cautiously. A scientist would also be very knowledgeable about it and use language that only a fellow scientist would understand. This language would not be understood by a lot of people and so disregarded. This point can be applied to everything, Bourdieu applies it to art in particular.

“the ‘truths’ of the aesthetic so dearly held by by Bourdieu’s ‘cultivated classes’ may be no more than a kind of illusio – a ‘truth’ believed only by those who already have an investment in the ‘game of culture’, and disregarded by those outside the field.

The ‘illusio’ that is created is a way of distinguishing who is knowledgeable about this thing. Very often this ‘illusio’ is used to exert power and status and determine, for some people, who they associate with. This is of course reminiscent of class distinctions consequently making the whole thing complicated and rather contentious. This is then off-putting to outsiders and goes towards forming their perceived opinions about that thing. This of course is then part of the reason they feel uncomfortable about going to new places they don’t know much about – but the people there do.

Funnily enough, one thing that  did make me feel more relaxed, during bingo, was the language. Of the conversations I overheard most seemed just general, personal chit chat. Nobody was quoting famous bingo players or saying anything I didn’t understand – they were talking about Emmerdale. The caller didn’t speak entirely plainly though, he flourished his language.

“all the three’s, thirty three”

“on it’s own, number two”

“Get poppin your pound coins”

He also encouraged us to play more by telling us about special offers and how there was a big win yesterday so “luck was in the air”. This did help to take away from the seriousness of the engrossed players. It made things seem more fun and helped make me feel more comfortable. All of the chatter was bingo based though, reaffirming that the focus was on the game. I thought their would be banter with the players and it would feel a bit like entertainment. Nope, it seems the callers not there to entertain people, he’s just part of the game.

Another, quite sad factor, that proved to me this wasn’t a social occasion was the number of people there on their own. They were mostly older woman and they even sat dispersed from each other. A few of them hadn’t even undid themselves, they still had their coats on and bags round their shoulders. They hadn’t made themselves comfortable and this made me feel quite uncomfortable. I looked around and sure enough, even some of the couples sitting together still had their jackets on. This made me think of a bookies where people just walk in off the street.

This then made me look at the decor or the place, it reminded me of a cinema or bowling alley. The dazzling pattered carpet seemed to have inspired the wall paintings. The shiny laminate wood together with the big pillars and ornate shaped lights were completely unnecessary and dated. I wish I could think what the word is for this style, but it was very bold, bright and seventy’s. It’s what I imagine Vagas would be like, on a grander scale of course. The thing that got me the most was the lack of natural light and the overindulgence in neon lights! Some of the lights dimmed during gameplay but came back on in full fluorescent force during the breaks. The whole atmosphere felt so fake and so detached from the outside world. There wasn’t a focal point the tables were not even facing the caller. Even if you were, he wasn’t in a particularly grandiose setting anyway.

Because place was so vast and ‘samey’ you didn’t feel overwhelmed by the space. Apart from the bar, canteen and slots, the space was filled up with tables. The sheer amount of them meant you couldn’t really notice them all. I wonder if this was part of the reason so many people felt comfortable enough to go on their own? The seating arrangement did have an element of separation though. Their was of course the upstairs space, which was largely empty on this particular Tuesday night. If you really wanted to be on your own, it was the place to be. Downstairs, there were some tables on the higher stage level close to the caller. If you wanted more distance however their were the ones on the main floor. This was also sectioned off towards the side with what appeared to be a quieter area. The further away from the stage the less amount of people sat at each table. These people also sat further away from each other. It seemed that where you sat determined the social element your game of bingo had.

One last thing I noticed was that people would hold up money in the air! This was the ‘silent call’ for staff to come over and give them change. It wasn’t the staff with the microphones though, their were specific staff members with trays full of pound coins. The fact that their are actual designated staff appointed to this task shows that its a normal bingo behavior. I can’t help but notice this reinforces the idea of the canteen, people don’t even wast time away from their tables to get change. It comes to them. In fact, so does another lady who collects their cups!

This ‘change’ service puts further emphasis on the gambling nature of this place. You can play table games during the breaks as well! You need pound coins for this of course but you can get plenty of those without leaving your seat! From the leisure activities to the decor to the enclosed atmosphere to the silent rules to the service to the language – everything is designed to put the focus on the game.

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