“Pick the red, get ahead! Pick the black, set you back!” – Bart Simpson
“I don’t recall authorizing this booth.” – Principal Skinner
“Goodbye, gentlemen.” – Bart Simpson

We are a gaming species. From our earliest days, at games as simple as peek-a-boo and as complex as chess, we play. Some games have winners and losers, some games are educational, some games are for money or prestige, but stripped of all equipment and ornament, games are a set of rules, an agreement on how things will go, on what counts and what doesn’t. We can play alone or with others, but what makes a game a game are the rules. Even in shabby fiction where men hunt other men for sport, there are rules.

As long as there have been games there has also been cheating, the breaking of the rules. Before, during or after play, any set of rules can be evaded, undermined, bent or broken, but the result is always the same: the advantage of one party over another. Someone has broken the agreement.

Betrayals of that sort are at the heart of the euphemistically named “gaming” industry, which has, through decades of experience, all but perfected the art of getting people to put real money on the line in games which are openly stacked against them. From the James-Bond-In-a-Tuxedo sophistication of baccarat to childishly basic things like big spinning wheels with cartoon stars on them, organized gambling has a built-in advantage at every one of their offerings. With the odds stacked in their favor, the actual gameplay becomes irrelevant: skill and luck always yield to statistics.

That cold, grimly irresistible math is one thing when a game is played between people. Yes, the house has an advantage, but the dealer and the other players at the table are human just like you. They can get tired and frustrated, or become sloppy in their play because they’re hungry or need to urinate. The contests aren’t fair, but at least you and the house are both playing with the same equipment.

When rigged games are played by a person against a computer, however, they become an automated process with a manufactured outcome, hardly different from a robotic assembly line. Utterly lacking in the glamor and sophistication that casinos have long used to gild their operations, video poker and video slot machines are pure service for hire. They are also, far and away, the biggest part of modern casinos by any measurement: floor space, revenue, total gamblers, you name it. Pretty cocktail waitresses, the steely competition of bluff and call, and all the flashy accouterments of casino gambling are no match for a bright screen connected to a random number generator and some mesmerizing software.

The staggering profitability of that process is the reason casino floors today would barely be recognizable to gamblers of just thirty years past. The slot machines, once pushed out to the periphery, like shy kids at a junior high dance, are now front and center, dominating the best real estate in the house. The machines don’t require salary or bathroom breaks, don’t form pesky unions, and are far more efficient at extracting money from people than other people can ever be. The only tricky part is getting people to play.

Solving that problem has involved decades of research and refinement on the part of the casinos themselves* and the companies that design the machines.** From the physical arrangement of the consoles on the floor (tighter, maze-like spaces better allow people to immerse themselves in the game) to facial recognition technology that allows any machine to know a player’s history (game preference, previous bonuses, etc.), no scrap of potential advantage is too small to ignore. Spread over millions of gamblers and countless individual plays, even a tiny percentage increase in the time people spend playing can be worth a fortune.

(*To give you an idea of just how much money’s at stake, in 2013 in Nevada alone, casinos made $10.4 billion ($10,400,000,000) from gambling, of which $6.8 billion (65%) came from the machines.i)

(**They don’t make as much as the casinos, but they aren’t exactly pikers. IGT, the largest video gaming manufacturer, brought in $2.3 billion ($2,300,000,000) in 2013.ii)

The gambling industry calls this “time-on-device” or, because nothing in today’s world is anything if it’s not an acronym, TOD, and it is one of their most important measurements. Quite simply, the more time people spend playing the machine, the more money they put into it. Extending that time leads directly to more revenue, so much so that time-on-device is even more important than the price of the game. Nickel games typically make more money than quarter games, which typically make more money than dollar games.

The holy grail of maximizing time-on-device is to get players into what gambling addicts universally refer to as “the zone”. In her masterful account of the bottomless venality of the gambling industry and their ever more addictive machines, Addicion By Design, Dr. (of Anthropology) Natasha Dow Schull extensively interviewed both machine gamblers and machine creators. They all speak, almost reverentially, of the zone:

To put the zone into words, the gamblers I spoke with supplemented an exotic, nineteenth-century terminology of hypnosis and magnetism with twentieth-century references to television watching, computer processing, and vehicle driving. “You’re in a trance, you’re on autopilot,” said one gambler. “The zone is like a magnet, it just pulls you in and holds you there,” said another. The memoirist Mary Sojourner has described video gambling as “a trancelike preoccupation in which perpetuating the trance was reward enough.”iii

Schull identifies “the zone” as the gambling expression of the psychological concept of “flow”. Flow, first proposed by best selling author and Dr. (of Psychology) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is an intensely positive and rewarding mental state produced when a person is fully absorbed into an activity. He describes its “common characteristics” as:

a sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted. An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult or dangerous.iv

The companies designing the games understand “flow” well, and design their machines to maximize time in “the zone”. Schull again:

machine designers strive to balance ambient intensities as a way to hold players in the balanced affective state of the zone. “We have five elements to work with – color, light, animation, sound and space – and each can act as an attraction or an irritant,” wrote an industry expert.v

The entire point of machine gaming is to lull people into a mental dead zone while their money slowly trickles from their bank account into yours. Money having a rather notable motivational effect, the people behind the games do everything they can to make entering and remaining in that dead zone as alluring and easy as possible.

The morality, or absence thereof, behind that kind of predation is beyond the scope of this text, but it is a fact of modern life. It has also exposed just how vulnerable people are in a time when science has produced a functionally unlimited amount of computing power and the psychological understanding to apply it to the cracks in our puny human lobes and cortexes. When the machines have had enough of us, they won’t need over-muscled Austrian war cyborgs or those squid-looking things with the dozens of red eyes, they’ll just need software that lulls us into a stupor. (Seriously addicted gamblers have been known to wear adult diapers or simply dark clothing and underwear so that they need never leave the enchanting sight of the screen.) Skynet will just start up some “games” and wait us out. Machine patience is measured in centuries (if it can be measured at all); ours is not.

(Note: This chapter, and possibly this entire ebook, would’ve been impossible without Schull’s excellent and horrifying book. If you have even so much as a passing interest in modern gambling, you’ll be enthralled.)

Continue to Chapter 3: Chips vs. Brains and Machines vs. People: We Don’t Stand a Chance


i Nevada Gaming Abstract 2013,http://gaming.nv.gov/modules/showdocument.aspx?documentid=8566

ii IGT “2013 Annual Report and Year in Review”, http://www.igt.com/company-information/investor-relations/2013-annual-report.aspx

iii Schull, Natasha Dow. “Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas”, Princeton University Press 2012, p 19

iv Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, HarperPerennial 1991, p 71

v Schull, p 60

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