TAR HEEL VIEW: Cafe? No way. Call sweepstakes centers what they really are

They’re as popular as they are controversial, they’re growing like kudzu in eastern North Carolina and local governments struggling to regulate them first have to grapple with what in tarnation to call them.

We’re talking about gaming centers — or sweepstakes parlors, if you prefer, or those businesses often euphemistically referred to as “internet cafés.”

The Wilson County Board of Commissioners declared a moratorium on permits for new gaming centers last week, but it’s not an effort to block the businesses from locating here. The pause simply allows county planning staff to amend the unified development ordinance with an accurate zoning category.

Currently, only two categories come close to describing the businesses — “internet/cyber cafés” and “amusement arcades.”

Let’s be candid about exactly what goes on inside these storefronts: Patrons play electronic games for a chance to win money.

Whether they’re primarily games of chance or games of skill and whether the gaming software is illegal or successfully skirts North Carolina’s prohibition on private gambling remains the subject of intense debate.

Compare our stripped-down, simplified definition to the two zoning categories Wilson County currently has available.

“Internet café” or “cybercafé” sounds like a place to nurse a hot cup of joe and hog free Wi-Fi, the kind of place frequented by bloggers and aspiring screenwriters.

A café is a coffee shop. That’s what the word means. As Merriam-Webster’s explains, it’s “a usually small and informal establishment serving various refreshments such as coffee.”

We’ve never seen an espresso machine or a French press in one of these gaming centers. Customers are there for the rush of winning cold, hard cash, not the caffeinated jolt of a cool iced mocha.

As for the “internet” in “internet café,” the usage here is misleading at best. Some terminal-based games are connected to the internet, and sometimes players purchase prepaid phone or internet time in order to receive gameplay as a value-added bonus, but no one goes to these businesses to check their email or research their family tree.

The term is pure euphemism — a phrase with positive associations deployed strictly for PR purposes. Stopping by the “café” on the way home from work sounds more socially acceptable than frittering away your paycheck at a “sweepstakes hall” or “gaming parlor.”

It’s worth noting that even lobbyists for the video sweepstakes industry, the folks who want these games legal, regulated and taxed, don’t use the silly “café” jargon in their name. The public policy and governmental relations group is known as Internet Based Sweepstakes Operators.

County officials could call the businesses “amusement arcades,” but that would be just as ludicrous. The only thing a sweepstakes center has in common with an arcade is that, just like Whack-a-Mole, every time state legislators outlaw a specific type of game, three new variations hit the market.

As we’ve said in this space before, electronic sweepstakes games are almost certainly here to stay. Efforts to make them illegal never seem to stick, and North Carolina would be better off taxing and regulating this successful industry than alternately ignoring it and making halfhearted, ineffectual attempts to shut it down.

Free people should be free to gamble. We have a state-run lottery to help fund education. Lawmakers opposed to private gaming have only succeeded in helping the sweepstakes industry avoid taxation by forcing it to operate in legal gray areas.

But if we’re going to have terminal-based sweepstakes gaming — and by all indications, we are — government ought to be able to accurately define, describe and categorize it for zoning purposes. That isn’t too much to ask.

County officials are adding a new term to the unified development ordinance and plan to call the businesses “gaming centers.” That sounds fair to us. It’s accurate, concise and avoids the squirrelly euphemisms that provide more confusion than clarity.

Visit the businesses or don’t. Support efforts to fully legalize them or lobby your lawmakers to ban them. But whichever way you feel about gaming centers, let’s at least try to agree on what to call them.

The Wilson Times