Electronic terminals are taking over the casino floors in Las Vegas. Photo: Getty
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Addiction as art: How gambling machines – and the digital world – put us in “the machine zone”

A quiet revolution has taken place in gambling, with electronic terminals finely-tuned into the perfect devices for parting you from your money. Rather than thrilling you, they lull you into a calm, machine-like state that gives the illusion of control.

The gambling machines are coming. A new report has revealed that last year British people lost £1.3bn on what the industry calls “fixed odds betting terminals”, while bookmakers made a £47,000 profit from each of their 34,000 machines. The machines, and the losses, are concentrated among the poor.

These terminals aren’t just one more way to lose money, the equivalent of betting on horses. They are like a newly emerged and highly evolved virus, which leeches money out of its host while simultaneously sedating it. To see what I mean, we need to take a trip to Nevada.

In recent years, Las Vegas has undergone a quiet revolution. Card tables and roulette wheels have been removed from casino floors to make way for row upon row of electronic terminals. The reason for this is simple: the machines are wildly profitable – and the fundamental reason for that is they are intensely compulsive. Addiction has been refined to an art.

The American anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll spent fifteen years in Vegas researching the spread of these machines. She talked to users, including those who classify themselves as addicts. She also talked to the businessmen, architects and programmers who make the machines so hard to resist. In her book, Addiction By Design, she blows away outdated assumptions about gambling, and raises some hard questions about technology – not just for gamblers, but for all of us.

Card and dice games retain a patina of glamour, but machine gambling has no cachet. We tend to think of the kind of people who spend a lot of money on it them as dupes, short on sophistication. But the addicts interviewed by Schüll are intelligent and self-aware, able to reflect with painful clarity on the trap in which they find themselves. One of them went so far as to learn how the machines are programmed, in the hope that this knowledge would nullify her fascination with them. It didn’t work.

We also tend to imagine that the casino represents an escape from the boredom of monotonous lives. But Schüll’s subjects told her it was the other way round. Their lives are filled with uncertainty; irregular jobs and volatile relationships. Every day is a gamble. The machines, by contrast, soothe and becalm. Unpredictability is framed and contained, inside a pacifying ambience designed to blank out everyone and everything but the game.

In its traditional forms, gambling is a social activity. But machine gamblers, who often do jobs like waitressing, real estate or sales, feel burdened by the need to be hyper-sociable at work and seek out solitude at the end of their shift. A waitress told Schüll: “If you work with people every day, the last thing you want to do is talk to another person when you’re free. You want to take a vacation from other people.”

You might assume that gamblers keep pushing money into the slot because they are searching for the euphoric buzz of a big win. But the gamblers Schüll spoke to are remarkably uninterested in anything that might disrupt their immersion in the game. Schüll asked Mollie, a hotel clerk, if she was hoping to hit a big jackpot one day (Mollie had cashed in her life insurance policy for more money to pour into the machines). Mollie just laughed. “The thing people never understand is that I’m not playing to win,” she replied. So why does she play? “To keep playing – to stay in that machine zone where nothing matters.”

“The machine zone”, or simply, “the zone”, is the trancelike state users enter into in front of the terminal. In the zone, the rest of the world disappears. There are tales of gamblers suffering heart attacks, falling off their chairs and being rescued by emergency crews as the users around them remain oblivious. Machine gamblers play until they are physically, mentally and financially exhausted, and then they play some more. “The zone is like a magnet,” says one gambler. “It just pulls you in and holds you there.”

Other than addicts, nobody understands this state of mind better than the people who design the machines and the environments in which they are played. The most highly-paid talents in Las Vegas focus their efforts on keeping users in the zone for as long as possible, by creating an irresistible cognitive, emotional and sensory embrace.

The booths are designed so that users feel secluded from their neighbours and slip into the zone the moment they sit down. Ersatz “mechanical” sounds subliminally suggest the operations of physical chance. The games are bafflingly complex, though regular users are allowed to detect hints of familiar patterns among the apparent randomness. The lighting and the sounds are soft, even after wins, so as not to break the trance.

The payouts themselves are doled out according to algorithms minutely attuned the brain’s reward centres, creating just the right balance between frustration and reward, so that users never feel too disappointed nor too thrilled.

Deep in the zone, users can get the uncanny sense of being in control of the machine. One says, “Sometimes I feel this vibration between what I want and what happens.” Everything flows, including money from user into the machine, via her credit card.

Schüll’s book resonates far beyond the gambling industry. It has been remarked before that Las Vegas represents consumer capitalism in a distilled and concentrated form. Its latest evolution mirrors that of our own society. We live in a world of frictionless electronic flows. Information and entertainment stream to us through our screens. Brands target their messages with increasing precision at each individual, and even to each passing mood.

Looked at one way, Vegas’s machines are a tribute to the creative capacity of capitalism, and its extraordinary ability to model and respond to our needs and desires. Schüll isn’t unsympathetic to the industry executives she interviews, but as she points out, in the final analysis the dice are loaded. The machines always win, their users unable to defend themselves from this sophisticated and beguiling assault on their self-control.

There is a cautionary lesson for the rest of us here. While most people are not in anything like the predicament of gambling addicts, we are all becoming dimly aware that even though we don’t get charged for email or social media or the web, it wouldn’t be true to say we don’t pay.

The digital world, in which we spend more and more of our time, has designs on us. We feel we’re in control. Now and again we may look up from our devices and ask what – or who – is being played. But then we find ourselves drawn back into the zone.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

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Forget “digital detoxes”. Spring clean your online life instead

Step one: remove the app on your phone which takes up the most time. 

In 2006, news broke that broke me. The British Heart Foundation unveiled a poster of a blonde girl guzzling a gallon of cooking oil. “What goes into crisps goes into you,” it read, as the charity declared that eating one packet of crisps a day equated to drinking five litres of oil a year.

I gave up crisps that Lent (an admirable act that was somewhat mitigated by devouring a six-pack of McCoy’s on Easter Sunday). Still, despite my continuing pack-a-day habit, the BHF’s statistic has never left me: 365 packets of salt and vinegar crisps are equal to five bottles of Filippo Berio. But other bad habits are harder to comprehend. Last week, I “liked” 36 things on Facebook, wrote ten tweets, and posted five Instagram pictures (two of which were selfies). What effect, if any, has this had on my mental and physical health? How much metaphorical cooking oil am I pouring into my body?

“You really don’t need to worry about the volume of your own social media interactions, based on the average digital user,” the founder of the digital detox specialists Time To Log Off, Tanya Goodin, told me. Goodin says that we “tap, click and swipe” our devices over 2,617 times a day and that the average person will post 25,000 selfies in their life.

Though these statistics seem shocking, what do they mean? What does swiping thousands of times a day do to our minds – or, for that matter, our thumbs? The experts are divided. In 2015, national newspapers spread stories suggesting that using an iPad would damage a toddler’s brain but the research didn’t mention the term “brain damage” once. In fact, as the Guardian pointed out in its debunking, studies produce mixed results: some say iPads help improve child literacy, others say they are distracting.

The studies about adults’ screentime are similarly hard to decipher. Heavy Facebook usage has been linked to depression but there isn’t any apparent cause and effect. Do depressed people use Facebook more, or does Facebook make us depressed? “Internet addiction disorder” (IAD) was a term originally coined as a hoax, but many now see it as a real and treatable problem. Yet it does not feature in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and experts still struggle to set diagnostic criteria for it. How much internet is too much?

These academic ambiguities haven’t stopped the idea of the “digital detox” taking off. Detoxers refrain from using any electronics for a period of time in the hope that this will improve their mental health and real-world relationships. At the time of writing, if you search for “digital detox” on Instagram, you’ll find 25,945 people talking about their personal attempts. There are pictures of bike rides, sunsets and children playing, each posted – apparently without irony – to extol the virtues of getting off social media and turning off your phone.

Digital detoxing is also big business. Goodin runs workshops, retreats and camps where no electronics are allowed and the daily schedule consists of yoga, walking, swimming and drinking smoothies. The next one, in Italy, costs from £870 per head for a week. A multitude of such camps exist, as well as books, websites and guides on how to detox by yourself. To connect, man, you have to disconnect, you know?

All of this has made me a digital detoxing cynic. I don’t believe I need to switch off my phone to “live” better, because I believe my phone itself contains life. On Reddit, I can speak to strangers living hundreds of thousands of miles away about their lives. On Twitter, I can keep up to date – in real time – with news and events. If I want to learn yoga or make a smoothie, where will I go to find my local gym or the correct strawberry-to-spinach ratio? Technology can even inspire us to “get out more”. Last summer, the gaming app Pokémon Go spurred people to walk 2,000 more steps a day, and I’m willing to bet that brunch sales figures have skyrocketed since the invention of Instagram.

Digital detoxing relies on the vague idea that tech is somehow toxic. Even without scientific studies to back this up, most of us know from our own, anecdotal evidence how spending too much time on our phones can make us feel. We get down if our latest status doesn’t have enough likes, or our eyes hurt after the sixth “EXTREME PIMPLE POPPING” YouTube video in a row. So, at core, digital detoxing isn’t “wrong”: it is merely misguided. Instead of trying to cut out all technology for a week, we should be curbing our existing habits; rather than a digital detox, we should have a digital spring clean.

Delete – or hide – anyone on your Facebook friends list that you wouldn’t talk to in real life. Remove your work email from your phone (or ask your boss for a separate work phone if you absolutely need access). Delete the app that takes up most of your time – be it Facebook, Twitter or YouTube – so that you are forced to get to it manually, through your browser, and therefore become instantly more aware of how many times a day you open it up. Tanya Goodin also advises me to use my phone less at night. Essentially: go mild turkey. If this is too much and you believe you are addicted to your smartphone or laptop, then, of course, you should seek help (speak to your doctor or call the Samaritans on 116 123).

But most of us just need to get smarter about our internet use. Even if scientists proved that technology was damaging our brains, a week-long detox wouldn’t be the cure. Rather, we should focus on our bad personal habits and try to curb them. Do you get into too many arguments online? Do you ignore your partner because you’re staring at a screen? Do you post opinions you regret because you don’t think them through first? These behaviours are problematic – the internet itself isn’t. To control our lives, we shouldn’t switch off: we should get more switched on.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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