Addiction Machines: How Slots are Designed for Compulsive Play
Posted Mar 04 2013 2:42pm
Your player card, please.
The image of the compulsive gambler has traditionally been the male poker player, drink in hand, recklessly betting the night away. Slot machines? Those were for amateurs, the out-of-towners, the meek and the mild. But that irritating clang and buzz coming from over the card player’s shoulder is not just the sound of new money—it’s the sound of a new technology tuned to a ruthless edge.
Digital slots and poker machines have become the new games of choice for pathological gamblers. In 1999, Harvard addiction researcher Howard Shaffer predicted that, “as smoking crack cocaine changed the cocaine experience, I think electronics is going to change the way gambling is experienced.”
Modern gambling machines drive the casino gambling industry, and generate far more revenue than “table” gambling. Because of the manner in which they “facilitate the dissociative process,” as one psychologist puts it, excessive gambling is built into the design and structural characteristics of the technology itself. One physician has even suggested that machine gambling produces a trance state by closely matching human breathing patterns with its “basal slot play rate.” We don’t have to wait for the Singularity to observe the merging of man and machine.
By 2000, digital gambling machines were generating twice the revenues of “live” games. Today, the modern slot machine “drives the industry,” said the president of the American Gaming Association in Natasha Dow Schull’s book, Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. They are allowed, in one form or another, in at least 41 states. Journalist Marc Cooper, who covered Las Vegas in his book, The Last Honest Place in America , said in 2005: “The new generation of gambling machines has, predictably, produced a new generation of gambling addicts: not players who thrive on the adrenaline rush of a high-wager roll of the dice or turn of a card but, rather, zoned-out ‘escape’ players who yearn for the smooth numbness produced by the endlessly spinning reels.”
“A gaming machine is a very fast, money-eating device,” according to a spokesperson for Bally. “The play should take no longer than three and a half seconds per game.” Gambling engineers attempt to fine-tune the “capacitive logic of haptics,” by, for example, designing chairs that tingle and pulse in response to events in the game. The ideal is to achieve an “embodied relation,” in which a gambling machine becomes an extension of the gambler’s own cognitive capacities and spatial skills. Professor Schull of MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society sees a digital gambling machine as “an interactive force that powerfully exerts its program for ‘player extinction’ and in so doing constrains the possible outcomes of play.”
At the simplest level, gambling machines function as Skinner boxes for human rats. Intermittent reinforcement, as psychologists showed long ago, is an effective way of shaping behavior. “If the number of responses required to receive a stimulus varies,” writes biologist Jason Goldman at his Scientific American blog, The Thoughtful Animal ,“then you are using a variable ratio schedule. The best example for this is a slot machine, which has a fixed probability of delivering a reward over time, but a variable number of pulls between rewards. It is no wonder that variable ratio reinforcement schedules are the most effective for quickly establishing and maintaining a desired behavior.”
Casinos were early adopters of biometric surveillance methods, and now have the capability of offloading much of this work to distributed digital devices like player loyalty cards. Theoretically, machines could achieve and maintain an active feedback loop with each gambler. The machine could compile data on betting patterns, recent outcomes, time of day, and rhythm of play. The machine would have the ability to “automatically alter the volatility level for gaming events to match the general player preferences at specific times,” in the words of one patent application. The longer you play, the more the machine would understand your style, and offer more of what will keep your ass in the seat.
The advent of poker playing machines brought in more players aiming for time-on-device rather than supersized jackpots. Poker machines gave out some kind of reward on 45% of plays—the perfect intermittent reward, if you asked Pavlov. And there was a razor-thin component of skill to the gambling machines. But all of the trademark features of addictive play are present in Draw Poker machines as well.
Here’s what casinos currently depend on to keep compulsive gamblers at their machines:
—Faster play. The key introduction was the virtual reel, which allowed play to take place faster than mechanical reels could spin. The use of touch screens is on the upswing, to further increase play speed. And the “BET MAX” button is always nearby.
—Longer “time-on-device”. One industry expert said: “If the chase lights on the slot signs are running too fast, they make people nervous; if they run too slow, they put them to sleep. If the machine sound is too loud, it hurts the player’s ears; if it’s not loud enough, the energy level of the room suffers.”
—Upping the ante. So that players can spend their money more easily, designers have engineered bill acceptors, digital credit counters, loyalty program cards, and other ways to reduce the actual handling of coins and cash and eliminate physical payouts at the device site. But what about the continued popularity of the nickel slot? “A nickel game isn’t a nickel game,” said one game developer, “when you’re betting ninety nickels at a time."
—Disguising the odds. The wonders of the random number generator are perfectly disguised in digital machines. Virtual reel mapping, or “weighted reels,” is credited to mathematician Inge Telnaes. It describes a system in which there is no logical correlation between the actual number of choices seen by the player and the number of stops contained on the virtual reel. Blank reel spaces help increase the confusion, while a secondary mapping program translates the virtual stops selected by the RNG microchips into the actual stops visible to players onscreen.
Something has to give, since recent research seems to show that machine gambling pushes gamblers into an addictive relationship with gambling at a rate three times faster than gamblers who stick to live table games. Back in the skunk works, where the machines are designed and manufactured by companies like IGT, the nation’s leading maker of gambling machines, weakening the hold of the machines would mean limiting near-miss effects, coming clean about virtual reel mapping, and placing restrictions on building ATM access into upcoming models. But maybe none of that will matter. As a software designer who moved from slot machines to games for kids told Professor Schull, “it wasn’t that big of a leap, in fact it was very similar. That really struck me. I saw it as appealing to the same part of the mind, a really simplistic instinct for distraction. Similar types of customers—toddlers and gamblers.”