As head of social and recreational gaming research at University of California, Los Angeles, Brett Abarbanel enjoys the flexible lifestyle that comes with a career in academia. The best part of her job is the ability to share her research through speaking engagements at international conferences and seminars on gaming—though she often finds herself convincing others that not all gaming research focuses on problem gambling.
“I always aim to be relevant in the industry,” says Abarbanel.
A longtime poker enthusiast, Abarbanel’s primary interest has been on the social aspects of gaming, specifically the user experience for both live and online gambling. In fact, as part of her early research, she played in the World Series of Poker to document gender disparities in gambling for her paper titled “Chicks with Decks: The Female Lived Experience in Poker.”
Abarbanel grew up on the California coast in Del Mar, where one-quarter of the small city is home to the historic thoroughbred racetrack that bears its name. During the summer months, she worked at the fairgrounds, where her interest and skills in poker began to take shape. Her talents took her to Brown University, where she earned the coveted Hartshorn Hypatia Award in Mathematics before completing her a degree in statistics.
In a decisive move, Abarbanel left the East Coast for Las Vegas to pursue a career in gaming. She reached out to Bo Bernhard, then director of research at the UNLV International Gaming Institute, regarding a research position. She landed the job, and while under his guidance, completed her M.S. and Ph.D. in hospitality administration.
“I would not be where I am today had it not been for him,” she says. “Finding the right mentor is huge.” For her, it changed everything.
Three years ago, Abarbanel met Richard Schuetz while attending a meeting of the California Gaming Control Commission. Though they no longer have their monthly meeting, as he is now the executive director for the Bermuda Casino Gaming Commission, she continues to credit him with improving her research. The mentorship provided exposure to the regulatory side of gaming, ultimately expanding her framework to consider policy implications as part of any new research project.
Aside from the ongoing challenge of funding her own research, Abarbanel spends a majority of her time in service to others. Her connections in the global gaming industry have allowed her to recruit recent post-doc graduates into academic positions worldwide. She also mentors graduate students pursuing their own work.
Abarbanel challenges her graduates and other young professionals, believing that above all else, “you must be confident,” and “know what you’re capable of.”
She sees a unique opportunity arising for the next generation of emerging leaders in gaming, believing that the industry currently “lacks a millennial perspective into the user experience.” Her advice to those up for the challenge: “Network as much as possible and understand the games.”