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 In her book, Addiction By Design, she blows away outdated assumptions about gambling, and raises some hard questions about technology – not just for gamblers, but for all of us.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

PewDiePie
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"Death to all Jews": Why Disney dropped YouTube's biggest star PewDiePie

The Minecraft vlogger turned internet celebrity's taste for shock comedy was too much for the family-focused corporation. 

Disney has cut ties with YouTube’s most-subscribed star after he paid two Sri Lankan men five dollars to hold up a sign that read “DEATH TO ALL JEWS”.

Feel free to read that sentence again, it’s not going anywhere.

A still from PewDiePie's video, via YouTube

PewDiePie, real name Felix Kjellberg, has over 53 million subscribers on YouTube, where his videos about gaming earned him over $15m last year. The 27-year-old, whose content is popular with children, came under fire this month after the Wall Street Journal investigated anti-Semitic comments in his videos. In one video, a man dressed as Jesus says “Hitler did absolutely nothing wrong”, while in another Kjellberg used freelance marketplace Fiverr to pay two men to hold up the offensive sign. The videos have since been deleted.

Jumpcut.

The Walt Disney Company became affiliated with PewDiePie after they bought Maker Studios, a network of YouTube stars, for nearly $1bn in 2014. Following the WSJ’s investigation, Maker dropped the star, stating: “Although Felix has created a following by being provocative and irreverent, he clearly went too far in this case and the resulting videos are inappropriate. Maker Studios has made the decision to end our affiliation with him going forward.”

When you sack a YouTube Star, makes no difference who they are.

Via Wall Street Journal

But why should the story stop there? Neo-nazi website The Daily Stormer are now defending PewDiePie, while the notoriously politically-incorrect 4Chan forum /pol/ have called him “our guy”.  

In his defence, Kjellberg wrote a blog post denying an affiliation with anti-Semitic groups and explained his actions, writing: “I was trying to show how crazy the modern world is, specifically some of the services available online.” In a video last December the star also said: "It's extremely annoying how I can't make jokes on my channel without anyone quoting it as actual facts, like something I actually said", before dressing as a soldier and listening to one of Hitler's speeches while smiling. 

Pause.

(If all of this sounds familiar, recall when disgraced YouTuber Sam Pepper claimed a video in which he groped unsuspecting females was a “social experiment”).

Play.

And yet the story still isn’t over. Disney have learned a hard lesson about assuming that YouTubers are the squeaky clean fairy-tale princes and princesses they often appear to be. Shay Butler, one of the original founders of Maker Studios, yesterday quit the internet after it was alleged he sent sexual messages to a cam girl via Twitter.

Butler is one of the original "family vloggers", and has spent nine years uploading daily videos of his five children to YouTube. A practicing Mormon, Butler has become emblematic of family values on the site. “My heart is sick,” he wrote on Twitter, neither confirming nor denying the allegations of his infidelity, “I have struggled with alcoholism for years… My purpose is to rehab.” 

The result is a very dark day for YouTube, which has now dropped Kjellberg from its premier advertising network, Google Preferred, and cancelled the second series of the star's reality show, Scare PewDiePie

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