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William Thomas
William Thomas

Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling In Las Vegas

Addiction by Design is a 2012 non-fiction book by Natasha Dow Schüll and published by Princeton University Press[1] that describes machine gambling in Las Vegas.[2] It offers an analysis of machine gambling and the intensified forms of consumption that computer-based technologies enable and the innovations that deliberately enhance and sustain the 'zone' which extreme machine gamblers yearn for.[3][4][5]

Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas

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An anthropologist looks at the new "crack cocaine" of high-tech gambling 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.

Acknowledgments vii Note on Informant Anonymity xiii Introduction: Mapping the Machine Zone 1 Part One: Design 1. Interior Design for Interior States: Architecture, Ambience, and Affect 35 2. Engineering Experience: The Productive Economy of Player- Centric Design 52 3. Programming Chance: The Calculation of Enchantment 76 Part Two: Feedback 4. Matching the Market: Innovation, Intensification, Habituation 107 5. Live Data: Tracking Players, Guiding Play 137 6. Perfect Contingency: From Control to Compulsion 166 Part Three: Addiction 7. Gambled Away: Liquidating Life 189 8. Overdrive: Chasing Loss, Playing to Extinction 210 Part Four: Adjustment 9. Balancing Acts: The Double Bind of Therapeutics 239 10. Fix upon Fix: Recipes for Regulating Risk 257 Conclusion: Raising the Stakes 290 Notes 311 References 385 Index 42Show MoreWhat People are Saying About ThisSuchmanA gripping, insightful, and poignant analysis of the psychological power of machine gambling, read through the lens of an extraordinary collection of narratives and theoretical sources. Schüll illuminates the multiple, intersecting logics of the industry as a sociotechnical assemblage, showing how casino design, gambling machines, and gamblers are drawn together into a kind of integrated circuit aimed at maximizing the gamblers' entrainment and the industry's profits.— Lucy A. Suchman, author of "Human-Machine Reconfigurations"

"Schüll adds greatly to the scholarly literature on problem gambling with this well-written book. . . . Applying an anthropological perspective, the author focuses especially on the Las Vegas gambling industry, seeing many of today's avid machine gamblers as less preoccupied with winning than with maintaining themselves in the game, playing for as long as possible, and entering into a trance-like state of being, totally enmeshed psychologically into gaming and totally removed from the ordinary obligations of everyday life. . . . The book offers a most compelling and vivid picture of this world."

One explanation is that TikTok is a good corporate citizen that helps its users maintain responsible screen time habits. Another explanation comes from Natasha Dow Sch\u00FCll\u2019s excellent book Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas (2012). Sch\u00FCll talks about gambling machines, people who use them, and the addictions that develop between the two. I think the conclusions she draws are applicable not only to the gambling industry, but also to other peddlers of vice like TikTok.

But machine gambling is not like other kinds of gambling. The book overflows with metaphors straining to describe how machine gambling is the supercharged version of table games like poker, blackjack, and roulette. Machine gambling is deforestation ruining the rainforest of diverse table games. Machines are invasive kudzu outcompeting and killing the native table games. Machine gambling is the crack cocaine to table games\u2019 cocaine.

In about two decades, machine gambling went from being a side attraction to keep wives busy while their husbands played table games to the source of 85% of casino profits. You know how shopping malls have benches for husbands to sit on while their wives shop in stores? Imagine that those benches became the mall. (If you\u2019re reading this in 2025, shopping malls were, uh, a collection of permanent pop-up stores under the same roof.)

Machine gambling comes in the form of many games, but one example is enough to illustrate the pattern, so let\u2019s discuss slot machines. Slot machines are games with reels with a variety of symbols on them, like cherries, diamonds, or the number 7. (Fun fact: fruit symbols were initially used on slot machines during the prohibition era to disguise them as gum vending machines.) The game is simple. The player spins the reels. If they land to show symbols in a row, the player wins. Because of their simplicity, these machines are favored by new gamblers and tourists.

Another obvious optimization was to replace physical coins with a card system. Coins make fun jingling noises when players win, but that\u2019s about their only advantage over cards. Cards are quicker to use, less likely to cause blockages in the machine, and allow casinos to track their owners throughout their gambling sessions. Also, gamblers using cards don\u2019t feel like they are spending \u201Creal\u201D money, which means they end up spending more.

The primary objective that machine gambling addicts have is not to win, but to stay in the zone. The zone is a state that suspends real life, and reduces the world to the screen and the buttons of the machine. Entering the zone is easiest when gamblers can get into a rhythm. Anything that disrupts the rhythm becomes an annoyance. This is true even when the disruption is winning the game. Many gamblers talk about how winning the game brings them out of the zone, and they actually dislike winning for that reason. For some gamblers, the very act of pressing buttons to play the game disrupts the rhythm. These gamblers use autoplay modes on games that offer them, and jerryrig an autoplay mode on machines that don\u2019t by jamming something into buttons to keep them pressed. They don\u2019t want to chase a win or pick their lucky numbers, they want to disappear into the zone.

Sch\u00FCll explicitly makes the comparison to Csikszentmihalyi\u2019s flow. Flow requires four elements: sub-goals, clear rules, immediate feedback, and challenge-skill balance. Gambling offers at least the first three. Playing through each individual game is a sub-goal. Each game has clear rules: bet money and press spin. Each game only takes a few seconds, offering immediate feedback. The last element, challenge-skill balance, is not fully present in gambling. Gamblers can increase the challenge of the games by playing more lines on slot machines, or by graduating to games that require more skill, like video poker. Still, gambling doesn\u2019t exactly require \u201Cskill,\u201D per se, but gamblers manage to achieve flow even without that element.

The book\u2019s description of machine gambling addiction forced me to rethink two stereotypes I had about gambling addicts. First, I used to think gambling addicts were bad with money. After all, why else would they waste so much money on a destructive habit? However, the addicts described in the book are not profligate spenders. Many of them economize in order to save up money they can gamble with. They are not reckless spenders in all areas of their life, just this one. Second, I used to think that gambling addicts \u201Clost control\u201D when they gambled excessively. But the addicts in the book use machines as a way to gain control in their lives. In front of a machine, the world is simple: they place bets and lose a little bit of money on each turn. The gamblers are in control of this machine world. It is the world away from machines where the prospect of losing control in frightening ways looms. Away from the machines, life is long and full of terrors.

Before I go into what the book says, let me set the stage about what the book leaves mostly unsaid. Good writers write with an intended audience in mind, but they also write with an intended foil in mind. They educate the intended audience and distinguish themselves from the intended foil. Sch\u00FCll\u2019s foil is the following idea: gambling addiction is a personal failing. In NRA-speak, machines don\u2019t create gambling addicts, gambling addicts create gambling addicts. Gambling addicts are formed when people lack self-control, take too many risks, or don\u2019t budget their time or money appropriately. The machines have nothing to do with it. If the machines didn\u2019t exist, gamblers would find some other self-destructive outlet. 041b061a72


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