Natasha Dow Schüll, Ph.D., is associate professor in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She is a cultural anthropologist, whose documentary, “BUFFET: All You Can Eat Las Vegas,” has screened multiple times on PBS and appeared in numerous film festivals. More recently, she is the author of the groundbreaking new book, Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, which is based on her extended research among compulsive gamblers and the designers of slot and video poker machines in Las Vegas.
The following is an edited transcript of an interview with Dr. Schüll, which was conducted by Bill Brooks, president of the North Carolina Family Policy Council. An edited version of this interview aired in three parts in January 2013 on the Council’s weekly radio program, “Family Policy Matters.” Dr. Schüll discussed findings from her book Addiction By Design, and shared how her findings relate specifically to video sweepstakes gambling, as well as other forms of machine gambling.
Bill Brooks: Before we get into some of your research findings, would you define machine gambling for us—what types of gambling machines would that include?
Natasha Schüll: That would include your classic one-armed bandit, the three-real slot machine. It would include a lot of the more popular machines today, which have video screens and many symbols, where you can win on three, four, five, sometimes a hundred different lines. It would also include video poker, and what’s called video lottery terminals, or VLTs…. It would include Keno machines, and actually the video sweepstakes kind of games that you see popping up….
BB: At the beginning of your book, you quote a compulsive gambler named “Mollie,” who talked about not really playing the gambling machines to win but to stay in something she called the “machine zone.” What is the “zone”?
NS: Well, we often think about gambling as being an activity that’s about fun and excitement, and the hope of winning, and very often it does begin that way. But for some people it turns into something else. And actually most regular slot players that I’ve talked to describe the aim of their gambling as reaching the “zone.” That’s a word I got from sitting in gamblers anonymous meetings, [where] everyone kept talking about this “zone,” and they described it as this almost a trancelike state, a kind of dissociated state, where they were so focused on the game they were playing, that their daily worries, and their social demands, and even in some cases a sense of bodily awareness, would fade away…. So at the extreme end of the spectrum, some gamblers will sit whole weekends in this zone, and it’s a sort of state where you really forget the whole world around you. One gambler I spoke to said he would even forget his children’s names when he played these machines. And you know once you are in the zone, you’re not playing to win any more; you’re playing to keep playing for as long as possible….
BB: What I found interesting is that you also heard about the “zone” from executives in the gambling industry. How much does the gambling industry know about the “zone,” and what are some ways they use this knowledge?
NS: Well, here’s one quote I heard from a designer, “Our best customers are not interested in entertainment, they want to be totally absorbed … get into a rhythm.” Here’s another quote I heard from a gambling [industry] executive, “What gamblers really want to do from all the research I’ve ever seen is to play and forget and lose themselves. So the more I bombard them with auditory and visual cues that interrupt what they’re focused on the more I can have a negative impact on their impulse to, as players say, ‘get in the zone’.” Now that second quote I read, this was at the Global Gaming Expo, and it was on a panel, where this executive was speaking to her peers, and she was advising them … “you know some of these fancy new bonus features you’re doing are actually going be counterproductive, because our best customers really want to sit there and keep playing continuously in this zone, so let’s not take them out of the zone, let’s remember we want to keep them in there….”
BB: You write that, “The story of problem gambling is not just a story of problem gamblers; it is also a story of problem machines, problem environments, and problem business practices.” Explain what you mean by that.
NS: The question that gets asked a lot in the conversation around slot machines and addiction is, “Does problem gambling stem from inside the device or inside the gambler?” And I really think that’s the wrong way to frame the question, because addiction, if you think about it, it’s never a question of inside, it’s a question of between. Addiction is something that emerges through an interaction between a person and a drug, or between a person and a thing or an activity. And in the case of gambling addictions, most often attention has been focused on the individual side of things— what might be wrong with the gambler, their motivations, their psychiatric profiles, their neurochemistry, genetics, and their particular social background. In part, that’s because the gambling industry and governmental economic interests have tended to drive funding in a direction that focuses on individuals, rather than focusing on the products of the gambling industry. My own work is an attempt to balance that attention, by focusing on the less examined object side, [which is] the thing side of the addiction relationship, which would be the technology and the environments that gamblers are interacting with. So, are some people more vulnerable to addiction? Of course they are. But by the same token, some things are more likely to addict people, and I try to show in my book how slot machines are one case of those things….
BB: In your interview with the problem gambler named Mollie, she drew a map of her every day life in Las Vegas, which interestingly did not include her home. Tell us about the map, and why it is important to understand the life of a machine gambler?
NS: Well, I said you know what is it like to live in Las Vegas where you’re just surrounded by gambling, and you have a problem with gambling. And so she had this self-help, 12-step literature in front of her, and she flipped it over and she drew me this picture. And in the upper left there’s the MGM casino, the MGM Grand, where she had worked making room reservations, and then she put the 7-Eleven next to that, and she said, “That’s where I pump gas on the way home, and sometimes I gamble.” Then next to that she put another casino, the Palace Station, and she said, “I gamble there at night and on weekends.” And below that she put The Lucky Supermarket, and she said, “That’s where I go to shop and that’s also where I gamble,” because most listeners probably know [in] Las Vegas you can gamble in the supermarkets. And then she had a free clinic, where she picked up medications to treat her anxiety disorder, which had to do with her gambling, and then finally in the lower left corner she said, “Here’s a strip mall where every night I go to this 12-step gamblers anonymous meeting.” And then she drew this road connecting all these different places together in this continuous kind of loop, and she put herself in the middle in front of a slot machine, just kind of suspended there. And it really illustrated for me how trapped she felt in this landscape where everything—her work life is a casino, her entertainment, her pumping gas, her shopping, her medication—everything revolved around these machines. And it drove home for me how important it is to understand not just the experience of sitting in front of the machine, but how this experience colors the larger life world of these gamblers.
BB: I’ve been on speaking engagements with Tom S., who heads a gamblers anonymous here in North Carolina, and he talks about starting to gamble when he was young going to the racetrack, and then getting hooked on casino gambling and even playing the lottery. And it seems like part of what you’re saying about Mollie is the same story that you hear from a lot of compulsive gamblers, irrespective of what their gambling addiction started as, and what they’re involved in currently. Has that been your experience in your research?
NS: Yes…. [W]hether it’s machines or sports betting, or live poker, there is a similar experience there. I do think there’s something qualitatively different about slot machines, and studies have demonstrated … that the former trajectory back in the day was that if you were a live poker player or you bet on sports, it would typically take you about 10 years to develop a full fledged problem to a point where you would go and seek help, and feel that you’d become a gambling addict. And on slot machines, instead of five to 10 years, it takes one to three years. And that’s really striking. If you think about a lottery or even the horse track … there’s always a kind of time lag. And if you think about slot machine gambling, you can play up to 1,200 hands an hour on some of these machines—that’s a hand every three to four seconds. And that is incredibly rapid! You’re doing a lot of gambling [with no] social cues to interrupt you—it’s just you and the machine. So you tend to get drawn in very quickly to this kind of gambling format….
BB: Dr. Schüll, you spend a great portion of the book talking about how gambling machines are intentionally designed to keep the gamblers playing and to keep them in that “zone” we talked about earlier. Share with us the three main aspects of their design that keep players hooked.
NS: Well, what really draws players in and holds them there in the zone is the speed of play and the continuous nature of the play. So, you don’t want to have too many pauses because if the machine flow of the game kind of freezes up, those are pauses when you can think about, oh maybe I should leave, or check in with your body, maybe you have to go to the bathroom, or eat. But when it’s so fast, and it’s right there at your fingertips to continue, you’re less likely to do that self-stopping. And then there is time on device. Now, time on device is a term of the gambling industry, … and that really gets into this idea of the zone. To increase time on device, you’ve really got to remove all obstacles to play. So, that could be ergonomic—you would put nice seats, and you would curve the seats so that you’re not cutting off circulation. You would make sure that the sounds and the visuals around the machine are not distracting players. There’s a lot of attention to the area around the machine, and then the sounds and the visuals of the machine itself that will be most inviting to keep you playing for the longest amount of time…. And then I’d say the most important thing really is the math of the machine, the underlying mathematical script or algorithm of a particular game, and that has been quite refined over the years with increases in technology. And the goal is really the same, it’s a kind of mathematical model that sometimes in the industry I’ve heard called “Costco” gambling, where it’s really about volume, and it’s about time on device. It’s a kind of game that’s sometimes called a drip-seed game, where you get many small steady little rewards, rather than long dry periods and big jackpots.… So there’s been a real shift towards “escape” gambling, which is a kind of gambling where you … want to keep on keeping on in the zone with small steady wins. And the technology has a lot to do with allowing those kinds of games.
BB: I know your research did not necessarily include video sweepstakes machines, which look a lot like video poker machines and work much the same way. We have these gambling so-called cafes springing up across North Carolina in strip malls, where some patrons are playing hours on end on these machines. So, I want to ask you, could your findings apply to video sweepstakes machines in terms of the risk of addiction?
NS: Absolutely. As we were talking about before, there are all these subtle legal distinctions between what counts as a slot machine, what counts as a video lottery terminal. There are some cases where one state managed to argue that the slot machines they had were actually Bingo. They played some quirky little gimmicky game on them with Bingo on the top, and they said, “No, this is a Bingo device.” So, I find that those kind of legal distinctions to be quite meaningless and not helpful. Video sweepstakes machines are really not that different, at the end of the day, from slot machines. When you’re talking about the experience of gambling, the effects on the players, it’s virtually identical gateways into that kind of zone. And I would say the same for a lot of online gambling. In the UK, they have recently allowed monetary slot machine gambling right on Facebook, you know you can click in the sidebar and play these little games. And even in the States, you can play those games, you can’t directly bet money, but you can buy tokens to keep playing and to me that’s really no different than gambling, so I actually would include some of the slot machine apps on mobile phones and Facebook, along with video sweepstakes cafes and other kinds of internet gambling, as all being types of gambling that my book would hopefully illuminate.