Marty Byrde, King Dice, and gaming’s enduring image problem

Marty Byrde, King Dice, and gaming’s enduring image problem

  • David G. Schwartz
April 1, 2021 11:19 PM
  • David G. Schwartz

The casino gaming industry is in a funny place. For those of us inside the bubble, it’s a business brimming with regulations, compliance, and integrity. For those outside it, though, casinos are still, for lack of a better word, seedy. On one hand, we can point to the unprecedented spread of legal casino gaming in the United States as evidence of the industry’s robust legitimacy. On the other, as two examples from current popular culture demonstrate, there’s a lot of work left to be done.

This is an admittedly personal and anecdotal sampling of pop culture sentiment about casino gambling, but it does seem to represent a persistent strain of thought.

The first is a Netflix original series, Ozark, which catalogs the travails of money manager Marty Byrde and his family after an emergency relocation from Chicago to Missouri’s Ozark region. Through a series of harrowing events, Byrde finds himself forced to launder money for a deadly Mexican drug cartel while simultaneously dodging the FBI, navigating the machinations of local criminals, petty and otherwise, and attempting to keep his family together.

Cuphead: Don’t Deal with the Devil

It’s a riveting drama that tells the story of people pushed beyond their limits that deserves the recognition it has received. But its portrayal of casino gaming is certainly not one that industry folks might welcome. Without spoiling important elements, Byrde lobbies for and opens a casino as a conduit to launder money more efficiently for his cartel overlords. The casino business is depicted as predictably corrupt, with bribery and mob ties supplementing the core function of money laundering. While the casino business’s shadiness provides incidental color to the show rather than being a focus, the portrayal of gaming in Ozark tells us that those who create entertainment believe that audiences will find a casino structurally linked to criminal activity a credible plot device.

As a side note, it might be worth it to get together a small panel of Missouri casino regulators executives at the next Global Gaming Expo to discuss what the filmmakers got right and wrong.

My second example of an unflattering depiction of gambling comes from Cuphead: Don’t Deal with the Devil, a run-and-gun action video game released in 2017 that I’ve just gotten around to playing and (this is a point of pride with my kids) beating. This is a gorgeously designed game animated in the style of 1930s cartoons with a soundtrack to match.  And, as it happens, gambling is central to the story.

According to a cutscene at the game’s start, two young brothers, Cuphead and Mugman, one day end up “on the wrong side of the track” and find themselves in “the Devil’s Casino.” Encouraged by King Dice, the casino’s “sleazy manager,” the pair enjoy a winning streak at the craps table before the Devil himself arrives and raises the stakes: if they win the next roll, the boys win all of the money in the casino; if they lose, they forfeit their souls. Cuphead, “blinded by easy riches,” rashly agrees, and predictably rolls snake eyes. In lieu of surrendering their souls, Cuphead and Mugman are given the option of collecting the souls of “runaway debtors” for the Devil, which sets up the game’s action, as the player must beat a series of adversaries to advance.

Cuphead, as a video game, is fun. There’s a real charm to the artwork and soundtrack, and the gameplay — while it can be frustrating as you struggle to master it — is incredibly enjoyable. After defeating 17 bosses, including a homicidal flower, a playful dragon, and a Prussian-helmeted rat, and crossing the railroad tracks, the player finally enters the casino, where King Dice awaits.

Before confronting King Dice, the player must beat nine casino-themed mini-bosses, including the Tipsy Troop, a trio of intoxicated alcoholic drinks, and Mr. Wheezy, a giant cigar. Other mini-bosses include a stack of chips and a dancing roulette wheel.

Certainly, there’s nothing in Cuphead that’s going to directly inform public policy—it’s unlikely that legislators will be demanding inquiries into whether their states’ licensees are trafficking in souls—but I find it notable that casino gambling is depicted as such a filthy, unglamorous pastime, and the casino business as irredeemably predatory. The game accepts as the basis of its narrative that casinos target minors (Cuphead and Mugman are explicitly referred to as “boys” in the introduction, and they live under the tutelage of Elder Kettle, implying that they are not yet adults), that they are places where harmful habits are encouraged, and that they are predatory, with the Devil winning the souls of unfortunates in his casino. One character even remarks that since the casino has opened, all of their island’s money is ending up inside of it, leaving nothing for other businesses.

Judging from Ozark and Cuphead, then, casino gaming still has an image problem. If anything, it’s worse than the stigma the industry faced as it was expanding in the 1990s, as proponents could credibly argue that organized crime had been driven from ownership and that Las Vegas provided ample evidence that casinos could drive employment and tourism while bringing in tax money. Ozark tells us that it’s believable that organized crime isn’t as far removed as we think, while Cuphead just says that casinos are unhealthy.

With such a wide proliferation of casinos in the United States, it’s tempting to think that all of the industry’s image issues are in the past. But as these two cases show, there is still plenty of room for improvement.