Guess who’s really pushing the buttons?
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.”