Guess who’s re­ally push­ing the but­tons?

The Labradorian - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky

It is, in its own way, an art form. Mod­ern elec­tronic gam­bling ma­chines, video lottery ter­mi­nals among them, are marvels of tech­nol­ogy and de­sign, lean­ing on scores of hu­man levers, both con­scious and sub­con­scious.

That’s why, though I of­ten ar­gue about the need for all us to ac­cept more per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity for our ac­tions, I also un­der­stand why there’s a good ar­gu­ment to be made for a class-ac­tion law­suit against the At­lantic Lottery Cor­po­ra­tion over the havoc wreaked by video lottery ter­mi­nals.

There’s a sim­ple rea­son for that.

In the bat­tle be­tween you and the VLT, there’s noth­ing even close to a level playing field. It’s not just your willpower and a machine.

You’re not just gam­bling against the house. You’re gam­bling against years of tech­nol­ogy and psy­cho­log­i­cal re­search work­ing to­gether with one goal in mind: to ef­fec­tively strip you of money at a rate slow enough — and with oc­ca­sional, care­fully de­signed wins or re­wards — to keep you playing. At the cen­tre is the gam­bling in­dus­try’s de­vo­tion to max­i­mum REVPAC — rev­enue per avail­able cus­tomer.

“No other form of gam­bling ma­nip­u­lates the hu­man mind as beau­ti­fully as th­ese ma­chines,” U.S. ad­dic­tion re­searcher Nancy Petry told the New York Times.

The mech­a­nisms are as­tound­ing: re­search tells VLT builders just how to make it ap­pear that you’re mere spins away from a big win, that you’re tan­taliz­ingly close, with­out ever of­fer­ing any such com­mit­ment; to sug­gest that you ac­tu­ally have some con­trol over when the spin­ning images stop.

Re­searchers talk about the way VLTs, along with their close cousins, casino video gam­bling ma­chines, cre­ate a trance­like dis­so­cia­tive state in users. One of the rea­sons the ma­chines work is that users get sub­sumed in the game play, los­ing all sense of time or re­spon­si­bil­ity. And that’s how the ma­chines are in­tended to work: you’re not meant to ac­tively ques­tion each small loss — you’re meant to press the but­ton again.

Other re­search talks about the fact that there is a mea­sur­able in­crease in dan­ger­ous gam­bling be­hav­iour when al­co­hol is in­volved — and all of our VLTs are, by gov­ern­ment’s own choice, in li­censed es­tab­lish­ments.

Other anal­y­sis, like a 2010 fed­eral com­mis­sion in Aus­tralia, ar­gues clearly that the tech­nol­ogy has as much a role to play as the in­di­vid­ual gam­bler, say­ing prob­lems with gam­bling “are as much a con­se­quence of the tech­nol­ogy of the games, their ac­ces­si­bil­ity and the na­ture and con­duct of venues, as they are a con­se­quence of the traits of the con­sumers them­selves.”

And that’s a prob­lem that can only get worse, as the in­dus­try hones in more and more on the things that work — and work­ing means gen­er­at­ing the most pos­si­ble rev­enue per cus­tomer.

The au­thor of “Ad­dic­tion By De­sign: Machine Gam­bling in Las Ve­gas,” Natasha Dow Schüll, quoted one in­dus­try of­fi­cial dis­arm­ingly say­ing, “Our game de­sign­ers don’t even think about ad­dic­tion — they think about beat­ing Bally and other com­peti­tors. They’re cre­ative folks, who want ma­chines to cre­ate the most rev­enue.”

For those de­sign­ers to get the most rev­enue, they have to be able to sweat the largest num­ber of bills out of your wal­let. They do it very, very well, build­ing — year after year — on stud­ies of hu­man na­ture and hu­man fail­ings, on stud­ies about dopamine and other in­ter­nal re­ward chem­i­cals that stoke your be­hav­iour and push your but­tons.

For years, we’ve fo­cused on one side of the equa­tion: look­ing at “prob­lem gam­blers” and de­cid­ing the prob­lem lies with them alone.

As Dow Schüll pointed out, “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.”

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