I’m Losing Money. So Why Do I Feel So Good?

STEP into a Bonus138 casino and chances are good that slot machines are filling much of the space, as far as the eye can see. That dominant presence reflects the preference of many customers for machine gambling over human-mediated table games. Not surprisingly, electronic game machines contribute a clear majority of casino revenue in the states that permit them.

“You aren’t really there — you’re with the machine and that’s all you’re with,” one subject said, describing the zone “where nothing else matters.”

What may not be so evident is how a shift in casino gambling to screen-based games contributes to gambling addiction. It’s a story that would fill a book — and just such a book has arrived: “Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas” by Natasha Dow Schüll, an associate professor in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at M.I.T. The book offers a history of digital technology in casino gambling and shows how it grabs hold of players in ways never before available to equipment makers.

Professor Schüll, a cultural anthropologist, spent considerable time in Las Vegas casinos as part of her research. She met players who told her how they sought to enter a mindless state, a “zone,” in which all else is obliterated, and to stay there as long as possible.

In an interview, Professor Schüll expressed skepticism that players were making careful choices to keep playing each time they pressed the button. “It’s not just those who are vulnerable to addiction,” she said. “I don’t think any human being sitting there, two hours in, playing 1,200 games an hour, can be described as ‘making decisions.’ ”

This isn’t the only place where gamblers can reach such a state of mind. It’s also known to occur at table games and at the racetrack. But casino machines arguably supply the most immersive, distraction-free gambling experience.

Speed is one design element of modern gambling machines that helps preserve that zone. When the machines’ gear-driven handles were replaced by electronic push-buttons, the number of games that could be played in an hour doubled. On today’s video slots, played with credit cards instead of coins, players can complete a game in as little as three seconds. There is virtually no pause between plays, and virtually no opportunity to process what has just transpired.

The random-number generator at the heart of the electronic slot machines is neither visible nor well understood by many players. Some machines allow players to choose the exact moment when the reels stop spinning, but a sense of control is illusory. The outcome is determined when the reels start spinning and has absolutely nothing to do with what the player does or does not do.

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Kevin A. Harrigan, a research associate professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, has examined how electronic machines cause players to think that they’ve almost won — when they haven’t.

Multi-line slot machines, for example, invite players to bet on different pay lines at the same time. These can be more addictive than an older, single-line slot machine, which has just one pay line, because they produce not just clear wins and clear losses but also “false wins,” in which players receive less than they’ve bet.

In a typical multi-line slot setup, a player can bet on up to 20 different pay lines in a single game. If a player wins on 9 of the 20 lines, resulting in a net loss, the machine still celebrates the occasion with sound and video effects.

“It’s brilliant,” Professor Harrigan says. “I’m not a gambler myself, but I was playing ‘Money Storm’ in our lab and ‘won’ — nine lines were flashing — and it was cognitively difficult to appreciate that I had actually lost.”

THE American Gaming Association, the industry trade group, maintains that compulsive gambling on slot machines should be attributed to the psychological makeup of the players.

“Some people have difficulty gambling responsibly, as others are prone to use credit cards irresponsibly, or to drive cars recklessly,” the group said in a white paper in 2010. “The problem is not in the products they abuse, but with the individuals.”

The group says slot machines haven’t created more cases of pathological gambling as the number of machines has increased. It cites surveys that say the prevalence of such behavior has remained approximately the same over time.

But Jon E. Grant, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago, says these surveys may not be fully current and may not reflect the full extent of problem gambling. “The gambling problems of the people who are coming in for treatment, or who we see in our research, appear to be more severe than they were 10 or 15 years ago,” he says, and the popularity of multi-line slot machines is one reason.

Addiction specialists are concerned that the near-wins and false wins served up by digital gambling technology set off the same reward mechanism in the brain that is activated by actually winning a game.

In 2010, aiming to counteract this effect, the Queensland government in Australia enacted regulations that forbid display of a congratulatory message after a false win.

That’s a small improvement. An even better solution would be for machines to clearly label a loss as a loss.

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