Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas by Natasha Dow Schüll (2012, Princeton University Press).
This important book is based on research which the author, an anthropologist and associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, conducted during several extended visits to Las Vegas between 1992 and 2007. She began with an interest in the architecture, interior design and management practices evident during the casino building boom at that time, later becoming increasingly interested in the experiences of local people including those with gambling problems. But what makes this book so fascinating is the further development of her research to focus on the design of the machines they were playing. She describes reading through years of machine manufacturers’ trade magazines, press releases and annual reports, attending gambling industry expositions and conference panels and interviewing industry representatives.
A major theme of this important book is the author’s conclusion that modern gambling machines are designed to encourage continuity of play. Chapter 2 provides details of the way in which technology has been harnessed to do that by using a kind of behavioural engineering. This breaks down into three related operations: firstly, accelerating play by replacing pull-handles with electronic pushbuttons and later with touchscreens (increasing plays from a possible five per minute to several hundred); secondly, extending ‘time-on-device’, as the gambling industry calls it (‘The key is duration of play... I want to keep you thereas long as humanly possible’, one consultant told her); and thirdly, intensifying financial flow which has been greatly enhanced by rapidly advancing technology over the last 25 years (including developments such as ticket-in/ticket-out (TITO) and player loyalty cards linked to credit and debit facilities).
Schüll argues convincingly that the industry has deliberately ‘migrated’, to use their term, players towards low volatility games that provide more frequent but mostly smaller payouts (time-on-device or play-to-win-to-play games) because they are more profitable for the industry. The industry prefers to think of this as a process of the players themselves ‘maturing’ in their requirements. As one representative remarked, ‘Some people want to be bled slowly’. Players adapt to the greater speed and reward frequency of such games, including multi-hand games of video poker, and video slot machines with multiple paylines, popular in Australia. Such machines pay out something frequently but often the amount paid out is less than the initial bet, a form of quasi-winning or what has been called ‘losses disguised as wins’ or LDWs. As one game designer said, ‘The best way for me to get all of her money is not to take her first $20 quickly like that; instead, I need to keep giving her back most of what she bets, so she'll keep playing until it’s all gone’. As one representative admitted, ‘Our best customers are not interested in entertainment – they want to be totally absorbed, they want to get into a rhythm’.
One of the most intriguing, and alarming, sections of the book delves into the way in which modern gambling machines and the random number generator (RNG or Really New God as it is sometimes called in the industry) software which controls outcomes are designed to encourage an over-inflated perception of the likelihood of winning. Making sure that players experience a greater than chance frequency of near misses is one of the commonest ways of doing that, whether by using ‘unbalanced’ reels in the case of multireel video slot machines or by ‘weighted’ reels in the case of machines with physical reel stops (the latter are themselves an illusion since there is nothing mechanical about such machines anymore).
Does all this, and much more that is described in the book, amount to manipulation? Throughout, the author raises the question of the extent to which designers, marketers and managers of gambling machines should be held accountable. In her conversations with them, ‘Although a few professed uneasiness about the possible relationship between gambling addiction and their own architectural, design, or marketing practices, most drew a strict line between the two... tend[ing] to cordon off the problem of addiction from their own vocational practices’. Her conclusion is that, ‘Industry designers actively martial technology to delude gamblers – at times worrying about their delusionary tactics... and at other times defending these tactics by insisting that they give gamblers “what they want”’.
She is in no doubt that it is the industry that has ‘the upper hand’. Inside the machine is a ‘mystery chip’ which is beyond players’ understanding. The ‘paytable and reel strip sheets’ (PAR sheets, sometimes also referred to as ‘probability accounting reports’, which provide details of the configuration of a game’s reels, pay combinations, payback percentages, hit frequency, volatility index, confidence level statistics, etc) are a matter of commercial secrecy. Normal principles of consumer protection would require that consumers be given adequate price information. Players are not shown the odds of achieving certain combinations of symbols. There may be an indication of the ‘theoretical payout percentage’ or ‘return to player’ (RTP) but that is deceptive because it seriously underestimates the real ‘house advantage’ because it takes no account of the reality that most people do not simply stake once, but repeatedly. This ‘churn effect’ makes all the difference. In the language of product liability law it is not unreasonable to argue that if gambling machines are played ‘as intended’, overspending is a normal consequence. A further significant development is player tracking and the software to analyse the data which allow the industry to know more and more about the players whilst the products becoming increasingly complicated and unfathomable.
The industry is resistant to technological approaches to harm prevention such as machine modifications aimed at reducing the speed of play, reducing duration of play, or reducing the size of bets. For example, the American Gaming Association (AGA) has suggested that, ‘[policies should] concentrate on helping the people who have the problem, rather than trying to modify their behavior indirectly’. This Schüll finds ironic since, ‘To energetically invest in technologies that can guide consumer behaviour while casting “normal” consumers as self-determining subjects whose responsibility holds strong throughout their interaction with those technologies raises a contradiction that is hard to ignore’.
She refers to ‘a strong industrial-academic alliance [that] had formed around the understanding of gambling addiction as a discrete disease entity rooted in individual predisposition’. The National Center for Responsible Gaming (NCRG), which has funded most of the gambling addiction research in the USA, was founded by AGA, and its board of directors has included representatives from many of the largest companies in the industry. The Institute for Research on Pathological Gambling and Related Disorders at Harvard Medical School, also set up by AGA, ‘fund[s] virtually no research on the industry’s products and the role they might play in problem gambling... [and] the lion’s share of NCRG monies support investigations into the genetic, neuroscientific, and psychological determinants of the addiction’.
Much of this excellent book can be seen as an effort to redress that lopsided focus by redirecting attention to the design of modern gambling machines themselves. As the author says, ‘... the story of “problem gambling” is not just a story of problem gamblers; it is also a story of problem machines, problem environments, and problem business practices’.