While in graduate school, cultural anthropologist Natasha Schüll developed an acute obsession with casinos. This is understandable. Casinos occupy a special space in pop culture; they exist at the nexus of consumerism, vice, and possibility. The bright lights, the sense of adventure, the alluring jingle of success. What’s not to love? They are, in a word, seductive.
But it was the small details that attracted her, the interior design in particular. The serpentine layouts, the dull carpeting, the perpetual state of magic hour. “It was actually a pretty bleak line into that world,” she says. One particular object, however, grabbed Schüll’s attention more than any other. It was the lowly slot machine.
While years of Bond-girl-blown dice and the emergence of big stakes poker on television may color the public’s perception of casino culture, it’s the slot machines that are true workhorses, accounting for more than 75% of revenues for many large casinos and an even higher cut for small ones. “Casinos are really about the machines,” she says.
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Schüll’s new book Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas outlines the shift from the social dynamics of gambling to something much more solitary. Slots lull players into a complicity known as the “machine zone”; the increasing mechanization of slots allows casinos to manipulate players on the fly, tracking their everyday behavior and adjusting their experience manually. Our stereotype of the old lady playing the one-armed bandit has been replaced by the all-consuming “time on device.”
In the past year, critics of social games have accused companies like Zynga and others of treating their players like lab-rats. Ian Bogost called them “the Wall Street hedge-fund guys of games” and while the recent figures for Zynga have been less flattering, that’s merely mistaking content for form. It’s not what games social game makers are creating, but how they’re pushing them out the public and changing user expectations along the way that’s notable — and troubling. Perhaps we should not be surprised that Zynga recently filed for a license with Nevada Gaming Control Board to become to online casino behemoth they have always appeared to be.
That’s where Schüll comes in. She sees the emergence of slot machines as part and parcel of a larger shift away from others and towards our screens. “Texting, phones and personal computer are the ways in which people are focusing on their own little screens,” she says. “It’s part of this intimate sphere of being ourselves in the world.” Slot machines are just a reflection of our own transition from creatures of the crowds to those sucked in by screens. This is not in itself a bad thing, but it has shifted the way that slot machine manufacturers and casinos regard the machines, the their users. As slot machine companies began to study how the customers interacted with their device, they adopted the famous Goldman Sachs adage of being “long-term greedy.”
Schüll points to a metric called “Time on Device play” as emblematic of the state of modern slots. In the past, the jackpots were a chief part of the allure. You would plop down with a bag of quarters and hope for the big time. If you lost, you walked. Slot machines were limited to a single line and you pull the “one-armed bandit again and again,” she says.
But then something happened — screens. No longer limited to a single row of lines in the analog days, a video screen could now show dozens of rows adjusting the way gamblers perceive their risk. Penny slots are becoming the most popular form of the game; you put in 100 cents , lose some, but gain 15 cents back. This creates a morphine-line drip to keep gamblers attached, literally tethered in some cases, and allows casinos to extract more revenue from their patrons. It’s actually called “Costco gaming.”