Video gaming saga shows high-level power struggle
Following the ups and downs of video gaming in North Carolina over the past seven or so years has been challenging at best.
The issue has been often likened to the Whac-A-Mole game. For those who don’t remember the game concept, the player has a mallet and the goal is to club the plastic mole that pops up in various holes across the board. The problem is, every time one mole is knocked down, another one pops up. At the end of the game, there is always a mole on the surface.
The imagery is an apt one for the tug-of-war in North Carolina between state lawmakers who have strived for years to make video gaming illegal and the industry promoters who seem to have endless ways to skirt the General Assembly’s intent.
When the original gaming software was banned, the industry switched to phone cards where players signed up to play the same games online.
When the loophole for sweepstakes gaming was plugged, the industry went to court and won a case claiming, among other things, the ban against gaming violated freedom of speech. The ruling cleared the way for the games to start anew until a court decision was rendered.
As the issue worked its way through the court system, most cities and towns across the state decided if the gaming was to occur, at least it could be taxed, and enacted ordinances to license the machines. Counties had no such authority, so gaming establishments opened outside incorporated town limits paid no fees.
Much to the surprise of those working to stop the gaming industry, an appellate court agreed with the free speech principle. It wasn’t until the N.C. Supreme Court overturned the decision that law enforcement officials moved to once again, ban the machines. That happened in Haywood in early 2013.
Then late last week, a judge down east signed a restraining order preventing law officers from enforcing the ban, a reaction to industry claims that new software meets the letter of the law. This prompted a number of gaming establishments to reopen, including several in Haywood County. The issue was resolved in four days when a judge ruled that law enforcement could act to close down the gaming operations.
There’s no indication the gaming industry is giving up. There’s big money to be made in offering the games at all levels, except perhaps for the players.
As the struggle continues, it will be interesting to see if the political powerhouses in the state can trump the money powerhouses.