Most research on compulsive gambling focuses on the psychological, biological, or even moral profiles of gambling addicts—but the real problem may be the slot machines. MIT anthropologist Natasha Dow Schull recently won the American Ethnological Society’s 2013 First Book Prize for her new work, Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, which explores the relationship between gamblers and the technologically sophisticated machines that enable—and encourage—them to bet beyond their means. Schull, who spent fifteen years conducting ethnographic research in casinos, gambling industry conventions, and Gamblers Anonymous meetings in Las Vegas, explained to me over the phone, “Addiction is a relationship between a person and an activity, and I see my book as compensating for the lack of research into the object side of the relationship. With alcohol research, for instance, there has been a focus not only on the alcoholic but on the alcohol itself. With gambling, the focus is most often on the person. It’s essential to broaden that.”
Alice Robb: Why should a cultural anthropologist study gambling?
Natasha Dow Schull: Games are a great window into culture. They indicate what the populace is anxious about or is seeking out. The fact that people are being drawn to individual machine consoles rather than high-volatility, intense social games tells us a lot about the risk and volatility that people feel in the world, in their lives—think of the financial crisis, the culture of fear around terrorism, the environment, global warning. It makes sense that people would seek out games that allow them a sense of control and predictability.
You don’t think about gambling as that kind of a game. You would think it’s about thrill and risk, but actually slot machines provide people with a sense of safety and certainty.
In 1967, the anthropologist Erving Goffman described gambling as the occasion for “character contests” in which participants could demonstrate their courage, integrity and composure under pressure. Today, our anxieties are very different, and with slot machines we’re seeking a sense of safety and routine—the opposite of what Goffman describes.
AR: How does gambling promote a sense of security? Isn’t gambling about risk?
NDS: When gamblers play, they’re going into a zone that feels comfortable and safe. You’re not playing to win, you’re playing to stay in the zone— a zone where all of your daily worries, your bodily pains, your anxieties about money and time and relationships, fall away.
One addict I interviewed described being in the ‘zone’:
It’s like being in the eye of a storm…Your vision is clear on the machine in front of you but the whole world is spinning around you, and you can’t really hear anything. You aren’t really there—you’re with the machine and that’s all you’re with.”
New kinds of machines are key. With multi-line slot machines, say you put in a hundred coins. If you’re betting on 100 lines of play, you’ll always ‘win’ something back. If you put in 40 coins and get 30 back, that’s a net loss, a ‘false win’, but the machine responds as if you’ve won: The lights go off, you get the same audiovisual feedback. Almost every hand, you get the same result— there are no dry spells.
AR: You say that people want to get away from their fears about money and people. So why escape by spending money in a casino that’s full of people?
NDS: In order to get away from the burdens and anxieties associated with monetary value and interactions with other people, you have to work within those mediums and convert them into something else. To get away from money, you have to play with it; gamblers spoke about how money became currency for staying in the zone.
And even though there are people around, it’s still very anonymous. You set yourself up alone in a machine-like pod and everything blurs away—the other people are just a kind of necessary background. People seem not to be able to do that on the couch alone. A lot of the gamblers I talked to would play on hand-held machines at home in between their sessions at the casinos, but they couldn’t achieve that zone as readily.
AR: Why are slot machines so much more addictive than more traditional forms of gambling?
NDS: Even though slot machines are considered to be a light form of gambling due to their relatively low stakes, ease of play and historical popularity with women, they are actually the most potent. There are three reasons why: Playing on slot machine is solitary, rapid, and continuous. You don’t have interruptions like you would in a live poker game, waiting for cards to be dealt or waiting for the other players. You can go directly from one hand to the next—there’s no clear stopping point built into the game. You don’t even have to stop to put bills in the machine; the machines take credit or barcoded tickets.
AR: What do new gambling machines say about our relationship with technology?
NDS: The cultural history of gambling in this country follows alongside technological advances—not only because technology make these new kinds of machines possible, but because we’ve become comfortable interacting with and even trusting computers and machines.
You can see that in the revenue: 80 percent of revenue in Las Vegas comes from individual encounters with slot machines rather than social forms of play around a table. Whereas in a place like Macao—which has far greater revenue from gambling than Las Vegas—it's the exact opposite: 80 percent is coming from table games, because people have a distrust of computers and machines.
AR: How could your work affect the public conversation on gambling?
NDS: States around the country are considering gambling as way to increase revenue in the recession—and it’s the revenue from machines that they’re anticipating. I think this is a very dubious proposition since, as I show, these devices are so clearly problematic. Machines are designed to draw people in and sometimes do so in deceptive ways; their design affects all players, not just a small group of addicts. Legislators need to understand how these machines work.