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Addiction by Design

Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas

Natasha Dow Schüll
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Addiction by Design
    Book Description:

    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 Designtakes 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 Designis 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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3465-5
    Subjects: Anthropology, Technology, Psychology, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Note on Informant Anonymity
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. INTRODUCTION: Mapping the Machine Zone
    (pp. 1-28)

    On a weekday evening in the fall of 1999, Mollie and I sit at the floor-length windows of a room high in the South Tower of the Main Street Station Hotel and Casino in downtown Las Vegas. Blinking brightly below us is a four-block stretch of Fremont Street, the city’s former central artery of casino life. At the top of Fremont begins the long flicking perpendicular of Las Vegas Boulevard, otherwise known as the “Strip,” a corridor of commercial gambling that extends for five miles in a southwesterly direction until it reaches the edge of the city and fades into...

  6. Part One: Design

    • [PART ONE Introduction]
      (pp. 29-34)

      2000. In the parking lot of a hospital complex in northwest Las Vegas, not far from a cluster of dilapidated casinos off downtown’s “old Strip,” a small group of paramedics stands around an ambulance drinking coffee and smoking. More often than not, they tell me, a call from a casino means that a patron has experienced a heart attack while playing a gambling machine. Given the notorious difficultly of getting in and out of casinos, such calls are met with collective dread. The head paramedic, on a break from training a new group, enumerates the obstacles surrounding entry: “The easiest access...

    • 1 INTERIOR DESIGN FOR INTERIOR STATES: Architecture, Ambience, and Affect
      (pp. 35-51)

      It was not uncommon, in my interviews with casino slot floor managers, to hear of machine gamblers so absorbed in play that they were oblivious to rising flood waters at their feet or smoke and fire alarms that blared at deafening levels. As the casino surveillance tapes showed, the activity can keep a group of gamblers unaware of their immediate surroundings, each other, and even a dying man at their feet. Mollie witnessed this extreme of unawareness one night as she searched the aisles of a casino for a machine to play and came upon a small crowd gathered around...

    • 2 ENGINEERING EXPERIENCE: The Productive Economy of Player-Centric Design
      (pp. 52-75)

      While sophisticated architectural and ambient qualities of casino environments work to draw patrons to gambling devices, the devices themselves work to keep patrons playing, and to keep the zone state going. Instead of moving people though space, the aim is to anchor them in one spot and manage their play through time. Machines “harness technology forcontinuous gaming productivity,” as casino management consultant Leslie Cummings puts it. She explains:

      While the term productivity often refers to measures such as output per worker . . .gaming productivityrefers to wagering action (play) per patron per interval.Expeditingrefers to advancing...

    • 3 PROGRAMMING CHANCE: The Calculation of Enchantment
      (pp. 76-100)

      Interior design may guide casino patrons to gambling machines and an optimally configured interface may increase their spending and lengthen their stay, but the hidden processes by which the machines deliver wins and losses are what set continued play in motion. Rose became a slot machine mechanic with the hope that an education in the machines’ inner workings might release their hold on her. Above, she attributed the failure of this project to that “one little mystery chip” that nobody had explained to her. The chip in question contains the game’s script for chance—the interlocking set of calculative operations...

  7. Part Two: Feedback

    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 101-106)

      A gambler named Darlene posted the following activity log to an internet recovery site for gambling addicts:

      3 a.m., was nearly alone, had to go to the bathroom, didn’t want to leave the machine

      5 a.m., still there, choking on smoke, starving, cramping from bladder pain, butt hurting from sitting

      6 a.m., finally got up, put my coat on but still couldn’t leave. Got attendant to watch machine while I peed. Almost cried with relief. Looked at myself in bathroom mirror, was shocked at what I saw. I do not ever want to look on the face of that woman...

    • 4 MATCHING THE MARKET: Innovation, Intensification, Habituation
      (pp. 107-136)

      As Mollie and I sat at the window of her complimentary room at the Main Street Station in 1998, she reviewed the progression of her gambling. It had started in the mid-1980s, when her husband showed her how to play video poker on a handheld machine. “I honed my skills on that amazing little machine, skills like knowing which formulas to use to make decisions, like whether it’s better to keep the king or the queen if you’ve got two fours. I became hooked, really hooked.” From there she graduated to actual video poker machines, then to a version called...

    • 5 LIVE DATA: Tracking Players, Guiding Play
      (pp. 137-165)

      Randy Adams’s name kept popping up. “He’s the man, he’s Mr. Inventor,” said Marcus Prater at Bally. “He’s the idea guy,” said his colleague at Anchor Gaming.¹ “Randy Adams really knows how to get in the head of a fifty-year-old woman and figure out what she wants,” commented a panelist admiringly during a presentation at the 1999 World Gaming Expo. I contacted Adams’s secretary after watching a rerun of Geraldo Rivera’sLas Vegas, the American Fantasy. In the program, after interviewing local psychologist Robert Hunter, Rivera launched into a baritone description of the gaming industry and its henchmen, who had...

    • 6 PERFECT CONTINGENCY: From Control to Compulsion
      (pp. 166-182)

      The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi popularized the term “flow” to describe states of absorption in which attention is so narrowly focused on an activity that a sense of time fades, along with the troubles and concerns of day-to-day life. “Flow provides an escape from the chaos of the quotidian,” he wrote.¹ Csikszentmihalyi identified four “preconditions” of flow: first, each moment of the activity must have a little goal; second, the rules for attaining that goal must be clear; third, the activity must give immediate feedback so that one has certainty, from moment to moment, on where one stands; fourth, the tasks...

  8. Part Three: Addiction

    • [PART THREE Introduction]
      (pp. 183-188)

      A customer comes through the blue glass sliding doors and sits at one of the twenty video poker machines that line both sides of the corridor entranceway to the supermarket. On a stool behind a high desk in the corner of the slot department, Jan rolls open her drawer to check the jackpot log and calls out to the newcomer, “Betty, that one hit three times today, and a royal flush at four o’clock!” Betty moves to another machine.

      Jan is in her forties, plump with close-cropped, curly brown hair, wearing glasses and a dental retainer. She has spent two...

    • 7 GAMBLED AWAY: Liquidating Life
      (pp. 189-209)

      Patsy, a green-eyed brunette in her mid-forties, began gambling soon after she moved to Las Vegas from California in the 1980s with her husband, a military officer who had been restationed at Nellis Air Force Base. Video poker machines had been introduced to the local gambling market in the late 1970s, and she discovered them on her trips to the grocery store. “My husband would give me money for food and milk but I’d get stuck at the machines on the way in and it would be gone in twenty minutes. . . . I would be gone too, I’d...

    • 8 OVERDRIVE: Chasing Loss, Playing to Extinction
      (pp. 210-234)

      The place of control in gamblers’ stories is often inconsistent. Lola told me that she played video poker because she wished to be “in control,” and then moments later confided, without a sense of contradiction, that she wished she were a robot, free of self-directive capacities. Randall, above, claims to have played video poker machines to “determine” his day—but he was also “determined” to stop playing them, in spite of the uncanny assertiveness with which they thwarted his efforts. The paradox plays itself out over and over in the narratives of compulsive gamblers: at the same time that they...

  9. Part Four: Adjustment

    • [PART FOUR Introduction]
      (pp. 235-238)

      Terry, a small woman in her early sixties with short gray hair and deep-set blue eyes, lives in a ground floor studio unit of the Archie Grant Projects in north Las Vegas. It’s evening and the only light in the apartment comes from the lamp between our two chairs and the television screen in front of us. She smokes 120s, ashing them into a large, black cigarette tray on her lap; it seems as if every fiber of the carpeted, curtained space has been infused with smoke. Terry’s nasal oxygen inhaler is held in place by thin plastic tubing that...

    • 9 BALANCING ACTS: The Double Bind of Therapeutics
      (pp. 239-256)

      A Gamblers Anonymous meeting is underway on the second floor of a small commercial plaza a few miles east of the Strip. A real estate agent in a maroon pants suit and a braided gold necklace tells the group that she leaves her home every morning unsure if she will gamble or not. “In between my appointments, something might push my buttons and trigger me to play at any moment. I’m not sure what would set me off. It feels dangerous out there.”

      A middle-aged man in blue jeans and a sweatshirt picks up on this sense of danger. “I...

    • 10 FIX UPON FIX: Recipes for Regulating Risk
      (pp. 257-289)

      In 2004, five years after I heard the Australian firm Aristocrat’s Stuart Bull speak of the market’s growing “tolerance for technology” in the conference rooms of the Las Vegas Convention Center, I heard another Australian gambling executive speak of a growing “intolerance” for his industry’s technologies.¹ “Australian products are the best in the world technically—we lead the market in games. But we also lead in worry over what’s good for people.” He cautioned his North American colleagues: “Beware—there is real discussion in my country about slowing down reel speeds, making machines shut down after a certain period of...

  10. CONCLUSION: Raising the Stakes
    (pp. 290-310)

    The 2007 meetings of the National Center for Responsible Gambling opened with a town hall forum, held in a vast room in the conference facilities at the back of the Paris casino resort. Howard Shaffer presided over the gathering, whose purpose was to “challenge conventional wisdom” about problem gambling. Some four hundred were in attendance, a group comprising health professionals (24 percent), academic researchers (24 percent), gambling industry members (27 percent), government officials (14 percent), and representatives from other professional areas (11 percent). “It’s good to have all the stakeholders in the same room,” said Shaffer, neglecting to note the...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 311-384)
  12. References
    (pp. 385-424)
  13. Index
    (pp. 425-442)