August 15, 2014

slot machines

Slot machines have become a big business. Credit: Raging Wire / Flickr Creative Commons

Think you know how slot machines work? There’s a lot more to it than just pushing a button and hearing the clink of coins.

Thanks to some complicated algorithms and talented behavioral scientists, slot machines are now big business, bringing in 75 to 85 percent of casino revenues.

“Inside, they’re absolutely different creatures [than they were], and they can give you an absolutely different experience playing,” says Natasha Dow Schull, a cultural anthropologist at MIT and author of “Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas.

old fashioned gambling

Slot machines used to be relegated to the sidelines in casinos. Credit: Roadsidepictures / Flickr Creative Commons

And it’s not just the machines that have changed. The industry has shifted how people play, in part because gambling isn’t relegated to Las Vegas and Atlantic City.  With the rise of residential casinos, it’s no longer about winning the big jackpot.

“There’s a curious turn toward pennies, actually. Faster play, at a heavier volume,” says Schull.

“For the first time on a slot machine, you are putting in a bet and you’re getting back a portion of it almost every hand. This is a game where you put in 45 pennies, you win 30 back; you put in 30, you win 5 back. There can be a net loss, but it feels like you’re constantly winning and you can play for much longer.”

Las Vegas

Sometimes you don't know if you're winning or losing. Credit: Reno Tahoe / Flickr Creative Commons

Advancements in data tracking are also allowing casinos to gather large amounts of individual data that pinpoint peoples’ preferences and pain points. As more of this game content comes together on a central server, it can be called up instantly. Casinos “won’t have to ask this question of what’s the one number that will derive the most revenue from the population, it’s far more fine tuned to the individual.”

While these advancements may be good news for casinos, they can spell trouble for individuals. One Ph.D in math told Schull, that, “I’m sure that the designs that I have out there are destroying some peoples’ lives, and we have a very addictive value proposition in our industry. What we need is more regulation, like in other countries, where there’s some kind of safety net.”

Schull believes that it’s important for the public to understand how carefully engineered gambling is, and she hopes that work like hers will lead to a larger discussion.

Body and Mind, Natasha Dow Schull, slot machines, gambling

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