Do androids dream of electric greyhounds?

In the world of simulated dog racing, animals are spared but the humans are not

There’s perhaps no better manifestation of mankind’s hubris than muzzles on virtual greyhounds.

If you visit the gaming room of an Australian pub, you might see something weird alongside the usual sport and racing broadcasts—virtual horses and dogs. Trackside, an “animated racing game” offered by the TAB, is one of the most popular forms of gambling in Australia. It can often be a bit surreal, watching one screen with real horses lining up and entering the gates next to another screen where digitised horses with random names do the same.

Why would you want to watch— let alone punt­—on a simulation when you’ve got the real thing on hand? And why put muzzles on dogs that don’t ever stand a chance of biting someone and aren’t governed by the Dog Act 1966 (which is, admittedly, a hilarious name for an act of Parliament)?

The advantages of virtual racing for a bookmaker are obvious. It costs next to nothing to run these simulations, which aren’t affected by weather or human error. Punters don’t need to make it to a stadium or be awake at a certain hour—indeed, simulations run 24/7 and often fill the blanks between real races in gaming programming. It gives consumers more content to gamble on, and therefore, gives them more chance to win it big—or lose big too. But there’s another feature of virtual racing that’s not widely discussed—that it’s better for animals.

Australians gamble more than any other nation on Earth, and many argue this proclivity is encouraged by a system of animal cruelty. Mike Baird’s resignation as Premier following his failed 2016 bid to ban greyhound racing in NSW demonstrates how rabid our love of breeding animals for entertainment can get. Australians love a punt – but why does a punt necessarily need to be at the expense of animal welfare? With virtual racing, no animal is reared, and no animal is forced to perform for human enjoyment. And while the simulations try as hard as possible to represent the real thing—even displaying muzzles on electronic greyhounds—there’s zero chance of animals facing abuse.

But while this is a positive for animal rights, it’s arguably less ethical for gamblers. Superficially, the outcome is the same whether the race was “real” or not—someone comes 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and you can bet on this result. But with real horse or greyhound racing, there’s at least a veneer of predictability. The training regimen of a stable, the skill of a jockey, the weather on the day—punters can still purport to have a method or some sense of increasing their odds based on research and observation, as minimal or artificial as this may be.

With virtual racing, any artifice of strategy is unabashedly thrown asunder. Virtual racing is effectively just a visualisation of a number generator; no different to playing the pokies. In fact, thanks to over-rounding and the high rate at which races can be held (a computer can generate races endlessly) the house enjoys a not-insignificant advantage.

The gambling industry relies on trickiness, if not outright deception, to make money. Products like Trackside imitate actual racing, to the same extent that they feature recurring ‘horses’ with recognisable names, often drawn from real-life winners – think Makybe Diva and Prince of Penzance. But as realistic as these simulations are, they’re not the real thing. They’re a carefully-crafted clone designed to engender an emotional connection from gamblers in order to get them to sink more cash. So while virtual racing is conceivably a more ethical form of gambling, who’s it more ethical for?