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 In her book, Addiction By Design, she blows away outdated assumptions about gambling, and raises some hard questions about technology – not just for gamblers, but for all of us.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

Azeem Ward
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Living the Meme: What happened to Azeem Ward and his flute?

In the first of a new series investigating what happens to people after they become memes, we speak to Azeem Ward, whose flute recital went viral in 2015.

The Sixties had Woodstock. The Nineties had Lollapalooza. The Tens – and, if we’re being honest, just a single year of them – had Azeem's Senior Flute Recital.

If you were inactive on the internet between 12 and 16 May 2015, you’ll be forgiven for not knowing who Azeem Ward is. After setting up a Facebook page for his end of year flute performance, the University of California student was inundated with over 100,000 RSVPs from the United Kindom, along with multiple requests to fly to England and play (for no apparent reason) Darude’s “Sandstorm” in Nando’s. After international news coverage, Ward – as all memes inevitably do – appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live! to discuss his newfound fame. On 16 May, he had to turn hordes of people away from the 500 seat recital hall, and over 55,000 individuals tuned into a livestream of the event. Then, Ward disappeared. Not from social media, and not from the world, but from the internet’s collective consciousness.

Search interest in "Azeem Ward" over time

“I’d say no,” answers Ward, when I ask him whether, one and a half years later, he still receives any special attention or has any fan interactions. “I’m just regular Azeem now, and I’m okay with that. Regular me is a more focussed person that is not reacting to things that are happening around me.”

Ward is Skyping me from his home in Iowa, where he is getting his master’s degree in flute performance. He spends his time composing flute beatbox songs, learning how to produce music, and teaching a class on flute fundamentals at the university. “A lot of [the students] here in Iowa know what happened but they don’t go like: ‘Oh my God! It’s Azeem!’. It’s just like, ‘Hey, what’s up man? I saw that one thing about you on Jimmy Kimmel’.”  

The original Facebook event page

Ward regained his anonymity when he moved to Iowa, as many of his fellow undergraduate students in California recognised him because he was on the local news. “But the whole viral thing was a UK thing,” he explains, “It wasn’t really around the whole US.”

An Azeem meme

Four months after his famed flute recital, Ward did come to the UK and toured the country to perform as part of various university freshers’ weeks. “That was a crazy time,” he says, “I was over there for five weeks and played 22 shows in 12 different cities, all the way from London to Scotland.” His concerts were popular, though most people came to take a selfie or ask about how the recital happened, and only a few wanted to talk to him about music. Still, Ward profited from the events. “We did make some pretty good money," he says, admitting he earnt around $5,000. 

Despite clearly enjoying this time, Ward seems unfazed that his viral fame is now over. His only regrets, he says, are that he didn’t make any connections in the music business while in the UK, and that he didn’t have any social media accounts set up before he went viral, so there was nowhere for people to go to listen to his music. “When you go viral people hold onto that rather than taking you seriously as a musician,” he says. “Sometimes it annoyed me but sometimes I realised that I wouldn’t be there in the first place if it wasn’t for going viral.”

Azeem now, photo courtesy of Azeem Ward

So what advice would Ward give to the next person who finds themselves, unwittingly, the object of the internet’s affection?

“I'd say don't lose sight of what you've already been doing in your life, like keep your focus. I'd say that sometimes in your head you're like ‘Oh man, I have to do this now’, but you've just got to stay focussed on your goals. When you have your own path and you go viral you have a lot of people asking you to do all these different things. It was pretty intense – I’m not used to having a lot of people look at me and my actions, so I was pretty anxious at first. In the end I realised that I came to do what I came to do, and I had to go do it.”

Although Ward doesn’t miss being internet-famous, it is clear that going viral had an impact on him. He recalls the peak of the madness with telling clarity, sharing specific details such as "256 people” clicked attending in "four hours", and “then 512”, before 12,000 people RSVP’d overnight. Mostly, however, he seems very grounded, though he acknowledges it was “out of control” and “really crazy”.

Perhaps Ward feels this way because he received little in the way of negativity or hate. He fondly discusses memes that were created and art that was drawn about him, and the support of his family and friends. “Even though there were a lot of silly things going on, I managed to make it positive for the school,” he says. “I had no haters. Everyone was like ‘Damn, Azeem. Good job, man’.”

One day, Ward hopes to come back to London, although he is wary of returning. Not because of his viral fame, nor the number of selfies he might have to take with Nando's customers, but because of Brexit. Our conversation, like all post-June conversations, turns swiftly to the topic, and Ward asks me about the economy. “I was thinking about trying to do a doctorate over in London, but if things aren't going to be so good in a few years...” 

Ward admits he wouldn’t be bothered if he never went viral again. “When I think of something going viral, I think it has a point in time where there’s so much interest and then it goes away. I’d like to produce material and the attention to keep going up.” So do you want to be famous, I ask? “Do I really want to be famous?” he ponders. “Being famous is okay, I guess. But I want to be is respected and appreciated.”

To listen to Azeem’s music visit soundcloud.com/azeem-ward or Like his Facebook page.

To suggest an interviewee for Living the Meme, reach out to Amelia on Twitter.

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