Mecca Bingo – An ethnographic study

This is my fourth post for assignment 3, head back to Edinburgh Zoo – An ethnographic study (part 2) if you haven’t read it already.



“A fish out of water”


For this study the suggested locations were bingo, a casino or a football match and we were to pick one that we had never been to before. I joined up with a group of students (Shelia, Beth and Hannah) and went to play bingo!

We weren’t merely there for the thrill of dabbing numbers, we were there to observe the behavior of people around us and our own thoughts and feelings on this new experience.


I used a universe of chairs analogy in my previous zoo post to describe the connections between ethnography and design, this time I’m going simply for why it is important to me to study human behavior in relation to my path of design.

I don’t know what people want. I am people. I know what I want. Does what I want reflect what people want?

When I am creating, I create for myself. I know this now. During tutorials and crit sessions I like hearing what people have to say about my work (be that positive or negative) and I do like to be given advice; whether I follow it or not is another matter. It the advice doesn’t fit into what I want to do, I wont do it. But, if I want to be a successful designer there is no point on working on projects that are specifically tailored to me (otherwise I would be my only customer). So, by studying humanity, in everyday life settings, I can correlate my own ideals and my own wants with the rest of the world (or at least the part that features my market).

If I think of any project that I’m doing now, or in the future, as a problem that needs solving there are always ways in which I can boost my performance of reasoning. These ideas are laid out best by Tim Brown:

“the continuum of innovation is best thought of as a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps. We can think of them as inspiration, the problem of opportunity that motivates us to search for solutions; ideation, the process of generating, developing and testing ideas; and implementation, the path that leads from the project room to the marker. Projects may loop back throughput these spaces more than once as the team refines its ideas and explores new directions.”*1

Brown is suggesting a process that ensures full use of resources and thinking in order to be most efficient as designers.This study of ethnography works its way through each of the three i stages. We are looking for inspiration within the environment we are studying; looking for problems to solve. We are already creating ideas to these problems and working out solutions to things we have discovered. We are also implementing, the problems that we are seeing are flaws in a previous design, although the design is not one that we personally implemented we are figuring out if it is working within it’s surroundings.

Through observation of human nature the link between the designer (me) and the client (you) increases in strength and therefore increases in value and work-ability.

“What people say is not what they do.”*2

I’m not see we are all liars, but your perception of what you do may not match up with what you actually do whether you know about it or not. For example: I went out for dinner with my family and yes I had a nice time within their company and it was a good night, however the meal that we had was average; but later, when I was on the phone to my Grandma, and she asked me how dinner was I said it was really nice. Which is both true and a lie at the same time. So, ethnography goes beneath the surface of what people say to discover more about our world and our habits.

It is important to look beyond the obvious factors and really delve into little niches of peoples lives, not leaving any stone unturned within my observations. Problems become clear through observation, as do solutions. Watching people in their daily lives, in their own environments allows us as designers to see people interacting with design and to figure it if it is working and if it isn’t how we can fix it.


For this study, our area of focus is general. We pick up on things that interest us and what is obvious to us. I might not notice everything going on in the bingo hall but I will still gain an understanding of how it works due to my own feelings and the behavior of those around me and how they interact with the design of the hall.

Walking up the stairs I was a little nervous going into the Mecca bingo building. The only other timed I had ever played bingo was at brownies to win a tube of smarties! I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect; of course I knew how to play bingo, but I didn’t know if it would be different than what I knew or if there were rules I was yet unaware of. I don’t know if it is because I am very self-aware or if it is just human nature but I am always worried of embarrassing myself in new situations.

Walking up to the information desk, I had no idea that we would have to sign up to mecca bingo before we could even get into play. It is free to sign up, and there are various gifts they give new members: a free dabber (mine was purple yay!), a free pass for you and a friend to come back to play and an online discount. I would have been reluctant about signing up if it wasn’t free, because I assumed that this would be the one and only time that I would play bingo. But as a group we all basically said that we would come back, especially since we were given a free pass. Clearly this is working for mecca bingo; I never thought I would go back, but I am drawn in by something free (as is the majority of humanity: we all love free stuff, we all love a bargain).

Next we were onto buying our tickets. The worker behind the counter asked us what we wanted and reeled of some bingo jargon. I was confused. I didn’t know what I wanted, I didn’t know the options. We told him we were new and he again reeled of some bingo jargon, handed us some books and asked for £9. We were new. We paid without asking. Did we want to be accepted into bingo? Or we were we just being following sheep and doing as we were told? Either way, we wanted to get going and win our money back!

Before you even get into the bingo hall you pass through a large room, like a mini casino, full of slot machines and games. We had to rush through because we wanted to get a seat before our bingo game started (we were running a little late), but all the flashing lights, clatter of coins and exciting noises were already filling me with an urge to win money! It wasn’t quite Vegas but I think if we had had time we would have been drawn in by these machines and lost some pennies because of it. Games like this induce disorientation and over stimulation; we are lulled by the sounds, the smells and the flashing lights and all are tricks to part us with our money. I know this and I was still tempted.

The bingo hall was a stark contrast.

It was calm and relativley quiet. With no flashing lights and only a few quieter machines and not much chatter or laughing glee but rows and rows of tables and chairs, with people dotted about at random. With a large screen and stage on one wall and a bar upon another. The furnishings were comfortable but hideous and unstylish, it was standard cheap material like that of a bus or a hospital waiting room. The colours were however quite warm and inviting and if you ignored the colour clashes and horrible patterns it became relaxing. It wasn’t pretty but it wasn’t offensive. Shelia, a native Dundonian, told us that it used to be an theater; which became apparent due to the upper and lower balconies as well as the wall made up stage and the foyer leading into the main area of play.

We didn’t know proper bingo etiquette. But everybody was sitting down at tables so we found our way to a table and sat down. We didn’t have much time to settle before an announcer from the stage started introducing the game. We were told which book we needed and which colour of page, they proceeded to explain that this round we were looking for one line and could win £10 for the next round it was two lines and we could win £20 and the third and last round was for a full house and that could win us £40, before moving onto a new page in the book. We were all nervous and still, although that had been explained to us, a little unsure of what to do. And then they started calling out the numbers. We looked at each other scared, cursing under our breaths as we missed numbers. The game was face paced and although we quickly worked out that the numbers are arranged in rows it was still difficult for us to catch up. After a few rounds we did settle into the pace, and with more experience learnt how best to sort through the numbers and increase our chances of winning.


Just as with the zoo (and any other social setting) their are a set of unwritten rules that must be followed.

Unwritten Rules of Mecca Bingo:

1. no chatting during game play.

2. keep quiet during game play. Making noise earns you dirty looks and a “shoosh”

3. no interaction with anybody during game play.

4. do not distract or draw attention away from the game.

5. everybody participates. You don’t sit out for a game and chat or have a drink. You must play!

6. You must sit as far away from people you don’t know as possible.


There was a break half way through and our first chance at observation. The game was so face paced and we were all new and keen to fit into the swing of things at bingo that it was hard to concentrate on anything other than what was in front of you.

We started writing up some notes of how we felt about our experience. We sat quite silently to do this and after a while stopped scribbling away furiously to discuss our observations with each other.

One of the first things we observed were the demographics of the bingo hall. Monday night appeared to be one of their quiet nights, as the upstairs hall was closed off and the downstairs (where we were sitting) was only about a quarter (maybe just under a third) full. There were slightly more women than men which came as no surprise to any of us but what did surprise us was the amount of younger people there. We had all made the assumption that bingo was full of little old ladies with blue rinses and curlers but that was just a joke of a stereotype.

Which fits in with Bourdieu’s theory:

“design and structure of capital institutions tend to exclude people who do not have the appropriate background or capital, and that they perform this exclusion while giving the appearance of being available to everyone.”*3

Because we assumed that we would be out of place sitting in with old ladies bingo isn’t somewhere I thought I could go. But, we fitted in with everybody else. Anyone can play bingo (over 18 of course) and bingo is open and advertises to everybody but it is still seen as a certain type of person how frequents such establishments; just as people who haven’t been brought up visiting galleries aren’t tempted to go in (even though most are free) because they don’t feel like it is their “type of place” nor are inclined to try through fear of committing some form of social embarrassment.

Shelia also pointed out that in her mother’s day it was lower classes of women who were seen to play bingo and although her mother was not a snob she wouldn’t have played bingo. Now, it was clear that there wasn’t a specific class of people playing bingo; if I had to estimate it I would say working and middle class (like the zoo but with no families!). There was no distinctive dress code, everybody was dressed casual. Some of the younger students had more club wear/night out clothing on, suggesting bingo was their pre-drinks venue. Will bingo become a trend for students pre-drinking and winning money for a night out?

We also found it a little odd that there were quite a lot of people sitting alone. Is bingo a place where you come alone? or is it more social? We compared it to going to the cinema; there is a social aspect to it, you are watching the movie together and can then discuss it later and maybe go for dinner beforehand. Just as with bingo you can come with people and play together but everybody has their own separate books and there is so much concentration that you don’t speak much during games but there is room for discussion after and maybe go out to the pub after or to dinner beforehand. And like the cinema you can go alone. The social aspect is only a small part of it and isn’t somewhere where you might feel strange by yourself. It lead us to ask about the people sitting by themselves, is it for fun? some downtime? a habit? or a gambling addiction?

We talked about the game being so fast paced. Obviously we had all struggled with it to begin with, but eventually got into the rythmn. We discussed why it was quick and reasoned that it was part of the need for adrenaline; if the game got people more excited quicker and then it was over abruptly without satisfaction if you weren’t luck enough to win (like bad sex) it would be more likely that you would play again for another rush and another chance to win money. We had thought about maybe having a little separate room for beginners that explained the game to you and started off slowly and built up to the pace of the game, before heading out into the main hall. Something like this might bring in people who would otherwise not play bingo if it was advertised well. But time is money: fast games bring the most amount of money to the house.

There is a lot of fluctuation with emotions during the games. A little confusion to start with, adrenaline flowing with the pace and excited anticipation as you get more numbers, more excitement as the money pot increases and as you see lines and patterns form on your paper and then somebody shouts “HOUSE” and like a blow you fall back to the ground a little dazed and disheartened as you realize you haven’t won but then it is on to the next game so quickly and the cycle starts again.


It was an interesting new experience, and I did learn something new.

I used my snooping skills to discover little bits and pieces about humanity and my design skills to relate them back to my practice. Life should be full of new expereiences, we are constantly learning.

If you have never been to bingo before, I suggest that you go! You will enjoy yourself, and even if you never go back in your life it is beneficial trip! And if you have been to bingo before, why not try something new? Go to a rock concert, a casino, a gold match, a football game, into a vintage store, go anywhere! Go everywhere!


*1 Change By Design – Tim Brown

*2 Ethnography Primer – AIGA

*3 Understanding Bourdieu – Webb, Schirato and Danaher


Chloe out.


Follow on post from this is Dundee Train Station and Armstrong’s vintage clothing store – An ethnographic study


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