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 In her book, Addiction By Design, she blows away outdated assumptions about gambling, and raises some hard questions about technology – not just for gamblers, but for all of us.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.

Roosh V via YouTube
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Men's rights activist Roosh V isn't just a sexist: he hates the modern world

Roosh and his community have seen that cultural change is chipping away at their privilege, and they're having none of it. 

When an activist known as Roosh V organised 165 “meet-ups” for like-minded men in 43 countries for this Saturday, the backlash was instantaneous. Signatures on petitions to keep Roosh away (even from countries where he wasn't planning to visit) stretched into the thousands. Police in many of the cities where meet-ups were planned said they would be keeping an eye on the events. Counter-protests were organised. And so today, Roosh announced that the meetings would be cancelled, since he could “no longer guarantee the safety or privacy of the men who want to attend”.

Roosh V is a prominent member of the section of the internet known as the "manosphere": he runs popular websites including Return of Kings and his own blog, and began his career by writing guide books about how to pick up women in countries from Poland (“What to do when a Polish guy inevitably tries to cockblock you”) to Colombia (including “an explanation into the Colombian prepago female (gold digger)").

Yet as demonstrated in a recent Reggie Yates documentary programme about men's rights activists, 36-year-old Roosh seems a lot more interested in his own theories about society than in handing out pick-up tips. "This is starting to sound like a conspiracy theory," Yates notes at one point. 

Roosh actually distanced himself from the Men's Rights community, or MRAs (though he arguably does fight for what he sees as men's rights) in 2009, when he argued that the group was filled with men incapable of taking action or improving their "game" with women. He would be more likely to self describe as a pick-up artist, or PUA, though his writing usually focusses on issues beyond simply "how to pick up women". 

While Roosh's views are objectionable and off-the-wall, they’re also subscribed to in full or in part by what may be millions of men around the world. So what does he believe? And how did this alternate worldview develop in the mind of a well-travelled, university-educated American son of immigrants?

Roosh isn't “pro-rape”, but he thinks rape is the fault of its victims

Many headlines this week called the proposed meetings "pro-rape", with evidence taken from a single post entitled “How to Stop Rape” which Roosh wrote in February 2015 (and which he recently claimed was satire). In it, he writes that since “women are not getting raped by violent offenders . . . they are getting raped by men they already know”, then rape (or as Roosh medievally puts it, “violent taking of a woman”) on private property should be made legal. This would, he argues, force women to “take responsibility” for their conduct on dates or while alone with men.

This appeals to a popular trope within the manosphere: that men will be "falsely" accused of rape under progressive rape laws that dictate that drunk women can't give consent, or accused by women who later regret the sexual encounter. The community is particularly aerated about Califiornia’s Yes Means Yes law, which rules that silence or lack of resistence doesn’t mean someone has consented (though consent can still be non-verbal).

Roosh's bizarre “legalise rape” argument is an apt symbol of his general appraoch: it’s a kind of devil’s advocacy, mixed with a form of upside-down rationality. He takes a common complaint among men’s groups and pushes it to an extreme conclusion, to the delight of his fans.

It’s also worth noting that some of Roosh’s pick-up tactics and advice could be seen to encourage rape – it’s probably fairer to call him “pro-rape” on these grounds, rather than his blogpost. In another trope common to the MRA community, he believes women say no in order to play “hard to get”, and that any self-respecting pick-up artist would override "no" up to a certain point. In a two-hour Skype interview with feminist artist Angela Washko, he argues:

“If a girl says no, that's no. But if she's still there and she allows you to touch her again and kiss her again that's not rape. That is not.”

In "When no means yes", a post from 2010, he gives the following "tip": "‘No’ when you try to take off her panties means . . . ‘Don’t give up now!’”

He knows his audience

In some of his writing, or while speaking to certain interviewers, Roosh can seem almost harmless – misguided, yes, but intellectually engaged and cautious about offending. 

In his interview with Washko, the pair manage to agree on the idea that it’s in the economic interests of the world’s richest to force all women to both work and have families, as wages can be lower: “The more people you force into the workforce, the cheaper labor is.”

The fact that women should have the choice to raise children instead of having a career is something both can agree on. 

But elsewhere, Roosh's concerned citizen mask slips. Earlier this week, he told members of his website forum to pool the details of journalists who write mean things about him with the ominous phrase: "We're going after the root of the problem". Elsewhere, he has said he won’t be interviewed by female journalists unless they give him a blowjob, and has stated that, “my default opinion of any girl I meet is worthless dirty whore until proven otherwise”.

This dual personality is something he shares with the comedian Dapper Laughs, who appeared on Newsnight to apologise for his rape joke-heavy comedy and explain that he was satiring men’s sexism, but now tells audiences that at the time he wanted to tell interviewer Emily Maitlis to “get your f***ing gash out!”  

He’s a savvy businessman

Which raises the question: how much of Roosh’s bluster is an act? Roosh must have learned by now that his more incendiary statements earn him attention, and even money through traffic to his sites. Dapper Laughs knows he needs to undercut his earnest, turtlenecked performance on Newsnight to keep earning as a comedian. 

Roosh told Reggie Yates he receives around a million combined hits to his websites every month, but this month, the figure must be far higher. A Vice journalist has pointed out that Roosh boasts about his online metrics on Twitter, and seems to be in competition with fellow controversy-chaser Milo Yiannopoulos. 

Which brings us to another question: did Roosh ever think the meet-ups would go ahead? Was he in fact expecting a media backlash, which would then allow him to show his followers that they are victimised and under attack, just as he's told them?

The whole thing does seem built as a vehicle for media attention: the covert meetings complete with a special code ("Do you know where I can find a pet shop?") which somehow found its way into every mainstream media story about the meetings – including, of course, this one.

Roosh advertised them on public sites, despite the fact that he probably could have contacted many supporters through more private forms of social media and regularly keeps the locations of his own talks a secret. His attempt to smear journalists is playing out in a private forum – strange that he couldn't use similar channels to arrange Saturday's meetings. 

He thinks the Western world is on the verge of a “cultural collapse”

Roosh claims that his science background taught him how, as he tells Washko, “to know what is a lie . . . when someone is full of shit I can tell because they’re just using what? Emotion.”

Travelling, meanwhile, has exposed him "to different ideas, belief systems than other people – I have more data and background in my mind that allows me to reach conclusions that are more accurate”.

This, in turn, prompts this surreal exchange:

Image: Angela Washko.

This defence – of science and worldliness, in the face of closed-minded emotion on the part of feminists – is important to Roosh precisely because his worldview actually seems to rely on an emotional, kneejerk hatred of change. 

Beyond the more typical MRA beliefs, Roosh has a comprehensive argument for how feminism and other liberal, progressive attitudes are about to ruin the modern world. In a document titled “Cultural collapse theory” he outlines a world where women earn “25 per cent more than women on average”, children are taught to “respect all religions but that of their ancestors”, and the reproductive rate falls because women have careers.

Here is the progression of a “cultural collapse”:

This, of course, is a dressed-up version of the familiar dystopia imagined by those who think liberal ideas and cultural change are driving us to disaster. In this context, Roosh’s ideas about women begin to look more like a refusal to get on board with the modern world: the way he sees women would have been very familiar a few centuries ago.

His hatred also extends to other social groups who have recently gained privilege, including transgender people (“If you are genetically a man, but you all of a sudden have this need to dress up like a girl . . . you should seek help"), gay people ("they're trying to encroach on what normal humanity is”), and stay-at-home fathers (“I mean if you ever see me pushing a stroller or changing a diaper, something is wrong. I must be on drugs"). 

The best proof of Roosh’s affection for the past is his opinion on where it all went wrong: I’m pretty sure giving women the right to vote was the start.”

In one particularly pathetic plea during his interview with Washko, he cries “You can’t even have sexy babes in games anymore!” 

…so any kind of cultural change is bad

When speaking to a group of London men in Reggie Yates’ documentary, Roosh emphasises the idea that "women and gays are seen as superior to straight men", and that straight men are, effectively, an oppressed group. “Men are not allowed to speak the views that I am speaking,” he tells his rapt audience. The cancelled meetings, it seems, function as proof of this. 

Yates may think Roosh is touting a conspiracy theory, but at heart, it may be simpler than that. Roosh’s pseudo-intellectualism can be boiled down to a single point: the modern world is chipping away at his privilege, and he – and his followers – don’t like it at all. Roosh is furious that, in his eyes, the media is “encouraging” children to be gay, asking Washko: “Why is the media all of a sudden in the business of shaping the sexuality of human beings?”

As Washko writes in her transcript, she resists the urge to reply: “But it always has been!” The difference now is that the narrative (if it exists, which I’d argue it doesn’t particularly) just doesn’t favour Roosh’s demographic anymore. As one of Roosh’s fans tells Yates, “We’re losing ground.”

While equality isn’t a zero-sum game, true cultural and political change will require privileged groups to lose some ground – to give up some of that privilege. Behind the long words and cultural theory, Roosh and his followers are the men simply refusing to do so.  

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.