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Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas

by Natasha Dow Schüll

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1281173,218 (3.83)None
Recent decades have seen a dramatic shift away from social forms of gambling played around roulette wheels and card tables to solitary gambling at electronic terminals. Slot machines, revamped by ever more compelling digital and video technology, have unseated traditional casino games as the gambling industry's revenue mainstay. Addiction by Design takes readers into the intriguing world of machine gambling, an increasingly popular and absorbing form of play that blurs the line between human and machine, compulsion and control, risk and reward. Drawing on fifteen years of field research in Las Vegas, anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll shows how the mechanical rhythm of electronic gambling pulls players into a trancelike state they call the "machine zone," in which daily worries, social demands, and even bodily awareness fade away. Once in the zone, gambling addicts play not to win but simply to keep playing, for as long as possible--even at the cost of physical and economic exhaustion. In continuous machine play, gamblers seek to lose themselves while the gambling industry seeks profit. Schüll describes the strategic calculations behind game algorithms and machine ergonomics, casino architecture and "ambience management," player tracking and cash access systems--all designed to meet the market's desire for maximum "time on device." Her account moves from casino floors into gamblers' everyday lives, from gambling industry conventions and Gamblers Anonymous meetings to regulatory debates over whether addiction to gambling machines stems from the consumer, the product, or the interplay between the two. Addiction by Design is a compelling inquiry into the intensifying traffic between people and machines of chance, offering clues to some of the broader anxieties and predicaments of contemporary life. At stake in Schüll's account of the intensifying traffic between people and machines of chance is a blurring of the line between design and experience, profit and loss, control and compulsion.… (more)
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The best book on the techno-human intersection I’ve read in a long time, and also highly depressing. If you’ve read Temple Grandin on humanely getting cattle through the slaughtering chutes, you might recognize the same spirit in this depiction of best practices for casino design: “‘passageways should keep twisting and turning through gradual, gentle curves and angles that smooth out the shifts in direction.’ Aisles leading into gambling areas ‘should narrow gradually, so walkers do not notice the approaching transition until they suddenly find themselves immersed in the intimate worlds of gambling action.’” The games themselves are designed to create a false sense of efficacy in the gambler—players who feel they can have an effect on outcomes will keep playing longer. And they are designed to create a false sense of the odds of winning and the magnitude of wins: reels are programmed so that there are fewer opportunities to win than it looks like there should be based on the number of symbols on the reel; reels are programmed to stop so that it often looks like there was a near miss (and regulators ignored the deceptive potential, because it was good for the industry); “teaser” reels display before you play with more winning combnations than actually available; and then payoffs less than the original bet are rewarded with “winner!” notifications, creating “a sense of winning” and allowing people to play longer and more smoothly as their money drops to zero. It was pretty chilling to read that the most recent “subtle yet radical innovation is precisely [new machines’] capacity to make losses appear to gamblers as wins, such that players experience the reinforcement of winning even as they steadily lose.” Gamblers “collude in the delusion,” turning off their rational knowledge as they play to what’s known as “extinction.” They play to play, not to win, seeking a zone of nonbeing/noninteraction with the human world.

Casinos then collect information about each player, tracking to make sure they’re losing on target and offering coupons, meals, etc. at the moment that the gambler might decide to cut her losses and leave. Now technology allows this to be done in real time: customer reps carry devices that indicate when a consumer at one of the machines is reaching a pain point and needs a boost to keep playing. The casinos are removing the emotion and guesswork; the gamblers are living in it, creating a “profound imbalance” between the parties’ abilities to know and understand each other, and change in response to the other’s actions.

Schüll situates this in the context of a modern economy that demands ever more surveillance and control of the self from each worker: “individuals must be extremely autonomous, highly rational, and ever-alert masters of themselves and their decisions; constant contingency management is the task.” Gambling is both an escape from this constant choice-making and a retreat into it, distilling choice into something simple and smooth. Schüll’s player informants, mostly problem gamblers, repeatedly state that they don’t want human contact; she suggests that gambling takes them away from painful demands and painful absences, reducing uncertainty if only to the certainty of loss.

When Schüll turns to managing problem gamblers, she finds the same data-driven and choice-based dynamics. Both gambling therapies and casinos are “geared around the idea that behavior can be modified through external modulation; like gambling machines, therapeutic products are designed to be ‘user-centric’ and amenable to custom tailoring.” Moreover, both aim to provide a psychic state of balance that insulates people from shocks internal and external. Even consumer protection aims target consumer misperceptions, or target machines that are designed to exploit consumers’ rational expectations. However, the machines aren’t designed for rational appeal; she describes many of the strategies promoted by the industry as “like trying to talk sense into alcoholics who are passed out.” The gambling industry is interested in consumer protection as a way to limit its potential legal liability/additional regulations; locating the “problem” in the gamblers is a way of claiming innocence of their own activities. So the industry advocates concentrating on helping specific people, rather than indirect behavior modification—when its economic foundation is indirect behavior modification, as noted above. Schüll details nascent attempts to create responsible gaming devices that will slow play through “voluntary acts of self-governance,” but it’s hard to imagine they’ll work if nothing else changes, especially since they rely on the same ideology of self-management—indeed, there’s some evidence that addicted gamblers use self-monitoring as part of their addictive behavior. It’s difficult to “appeal[] to personal responsibility through the very same machine interface that short-circuits personal responsibility in the first place,” but it’s part of a system that offloads risk and the duty to manage risk onto individuals.

Schüll almost amusingly recounts how casinos started to worry that their careful data collection would be used against them, since they’d be able to see how much of their business came from problem gamblers or people exhibiting addictive behavior (extended play hours, multiple ATM visits, maxing out credit cards, etc.). Would they be liable for tracking players? Or for not doing so? Anonymizing data became a self-protective measure.

The final level of addiction is governmental: casino revenues are so attractive that governments find the temptation too hard to refuse. “Some have gone so far as to enumerate the classic defense mechanisms of addiction by which industry stakeholders, caught in the maximizing momentum of a drive for revenues, rationalize their actions: ‘blaming others, belittling contrary viewpoints, disavowing responsibility for negative outcomes, preferring to avoid conflict, and not tolerating straight talk, honesty, or directness.’” Schüll is great at expanding focus from the individual gambler (where the industry wants us to look) to the larger structures interacting. Collective action and inaction got us here; the question is whether, going forward, the collective that does the shaping will be the corporation or the people. ( )
1 vote rivkat | Jan 30, 2013 |
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Recent decades have seen a dramatic shift away from social forms of gambling played around roulette wheels and card tables to solitary gambling at electronic terminals. Slot machines, revamped by ever more compelling digital and video technology, have unseated traditional casino games as the gambling industry's revenue mainstay. Addiction by Design takes readers into the intriguing world of machine gambling, an increasingly popular and absorbing form of play that blurs the line between human and machine, compulsion and control, risk and reward. Drawing on fifteen years of field research in Las Vegas, anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll shows how the mechanical rhythm of electronic gambling pulls players into a trancelike state they call the "machine zone," in which daily worries, social demands, and even bodily awareness fade away. Once in the zone, gambling addicts play not to win but simply to keep playing, for as long as possible--even at the cost of physical and economic exhaustion. In continuous machine play, gamblers seek to lose themselves while the gambling industry seeks profit. Schüll describes the strategic calculations behind game algorithms and machine ergonomics, casino architecture and "ambience management," player tracking and cash access systems--all designed to meet the market's desire for maximum "time on device." Her account moves from casino floors into gamblers' everyday lives, from gambling industry conventions and Gamblers Anonymous meetings to regulatory debates over whether addiction to gambling machines stems from the consumer, the product, or the interplay between the two. Addiction by Design is a compelling inquiry into the intensifying traffic between people and machines of chance, offering clues to some of the broader anxieties and predicaments of contemporary life. At stake in Schüll's account of the intensifying traffic between people and machines of chance is a blurring of the line between design and experience, profit and loss, control and compulsion.

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