GAMBLERS CAUGHT IN 'MACHINE ZONE'
Slot machines have become so sophisticated
NATASHA DOW SCHULL
All forms of gambling are not created equal. Mainers should take this into account when deciding how to vote in November's referendum for a casino in Oxford County.
At the request of the Maine group Casinos No!, I wanted to share my research as a social anthropologist on this social trend.
My studies of gambling have focused on a dramatic turn that has taken place in recent decades from social forms of gambling played at tables – poker, blackjack, baccarat – to asocial forms played alone at video terminals, now the most popular form of gambling.
If voters endorse the proposal to allow an unlimited number of slot machines at an Oxford County casino, residents will be exposed to devices that have been carefully and specifically designed to make them lose as much money as possible.
It's important for voters to understand how these machines work.
Every feature of a slot machine – its mathematical structure, visual graphics, sound dynamics, seating and screen ergonomics – is calibrated to increase a gambler's "time on device" and to encourage "play to extinction," which is industry jargon for playing until all your money is gone.
The machines have evolved from handles and reels to buttons and screens, from coins to credit cards, from a few games a minute to hundreds.
Although gambling machines must by law use random number generators, the results are fed through complicated mathematical algorithms that give game designers a great deal of control over outcomes – leading some to suggest that these algorithms are a high-tech way to "load the dice."
Using advanced computer chips and integrated circuits, the machines are designed to exploit aspects of human psychology, and they do it well.
In the eyes of the casino industry, this may look like success, but it comes at great expense to players.
The rise in slots gambling, fueled in large part by these technological developments, has led to much higher rates of gambling addiction.
This is evident at Gamblers Anonymous meetings in Las Vegas, where the vast majority of participants are machine gamblers.
These gamblers are motivated more by a need to escape reality than any desire for entertainment and excitement.
Without the presence of social elements such as other players or a live dealer, they are able to exit the world and enter a state where everything fades away.
Slot machines so completely concentrate players' attention on a series of game events that anything troubling about their life situations – physically, emotionally or socially – gets blotted out. Players enter what's known as the "machine zone," where even winning stops mattering.
In fact, it can be unwelcome because it interrupts the flow of play. Such players only stop when their credits are consumed.
Discussion of problem gambling typically focuses on individual gamblers and their "predisposition" to addiction.
This focus ignores the fact that some activities are more addictive than others. The aim of the gambling industry is to increase its bottom line, not to create addicts.
But in effect, its efforts to make slot machines so effective at extracting money from people yields a product that, for all intents and purposes, approaches every player as a potential addict – in other words, someone who won't stop playing until his or her means are depleted.
The pro-slots contingent promises increased money for the state, but it's important to understand where that money comes from.
The revenue from slot machines comes not from entertaining but by exploiting people.
Should the government, whose role is to protect its citizens, become a partner in this ethically dubious enterprise?
Maine voters should think twice before allowing more slots in their state.
Natasha Dow Schull of Cambridge, Mass., is an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her book, Machine Zone: Technology and Compulsion, will be published next year by Princeton University Press.