Hooked on revenue

There can be no question the Oregon Lottery has, since its inception in 1985, brought buckets of money into state operations — more than $7 billion all told. Schools, business development, public parks, even salmon restoration have benefited. But neither can there be any question we're hooked on it. It's near-impossible to imagine squaring up the budget without such easy cash.

That's why the Oregon Lottery folks constantly troll for new games that vary the gambling experience and keep folks ponying up dollar bills. And that surely helps explain the fiasco called The ORcade, a first-of-its kind Internet site scheduled for launch this month but withdrawn this week for fear it would engage the wrong young audience.

The decision to pull back on The ORcade was wise and attended by the prompt resignations of three top Lottery officials linked to its creation and defense. But that's not where this sorry episode should end.

The ORcade, an online site with fanciful "Joe Camel" graphics offering a second chance at losing Scratch-it tickets, needs no toning down. It needs deep-sixing. And its removal forever from the palette of lottery games available to Oregonians provides just the moment for our leaders to ask: Where to next with our state-sponsored gambling habit?

A powerful convergence needs immediate reckoning: Oregon and most states by now are well-entrenched with lotteries and utterly dependent upon them for revenue. Yet the rise of mobile and PC-based technologies — comprising hand-held devices such as smartphones and tablets — defines the growth frontier of gambling here and worldwide. The crossing of those two trend lines forms an X where The ORcade reared its animated head and signaled: Danger ahead.

The first part is merely sobering. Unless we wish to recognize that more poor people than others gamble their money away or argue that the lottery is a regressive tax, then the lottery is here to stay — and the Oregon Legislature has been clear it is.

But the second part is flat-out disturbing. Gaming specialists and researchers tell us: The environment of the gambling experience is all-important. That's a big reason revenue fell when Oregon banned smoking in bars, where video poker is its fullest engagement amid beer and cigarettes. Megabucks or Scratch-it tickets at the Safeway? Those are what the experts call static, paper-based gaming experiences — old-fogey engagements promising little revenue growth.

The gaming industry approaches the Internet with hunger, anticipation and robust investment. The Internet is found anywhere — on the move, in the privacy of one's home — and it is where gambling's new, younger customers are and will be. The open-24-hours-a-day Internet offers surprise, variety and, in the minds of some developers, simultaneous social networking opportunities that can transform gaming into a thrilling shared experience.

The Internet, which like the lottery is here to stay, is becoming the most promising environment in which to experience gambling. Embracing it as we have for so many wonderful, productive purposes will bolster any lottery's revenue-producing potential.

But is it where we want to go?

No — not yet, anyway. With age verification technologies still beatable, signing on to a lottery site would be an easy, faceless and potentially underage event. Much is to be learned, meanwhile, about a Web-based lottery experience — for starters, whether it would ensnare folks who otherwise would not gamble at all.

The legislative and constitutional mandate for the Oregon Lottery is clear — to maximize revenue. Until that changes, if ever, lottery employees must scout for new games that keep the money rolling in.

Yet those games should be safe. If anything, The ORcade fiasco illustrates that the lottery's leaders must do a better job of estimating the lottery's collateral damage before it takes place.

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