Betting Their Bottom Dollar

The surprising motivation of machine gamblers

People who sit at gambling machines all day and night might simply seem to be trying to make money without having to work for it. But Natasha Dow Schüll, an associate professor in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS), found otherwise when she researched her new book, Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas.

Addiction by Design
By Natasha Dow Schüll, associate
Princeton University Press, 2012, $35

Take Mollie, a mother, hotel worker, and habitual video poker player, who recounted for Schüll her life as a gambler—running through paychecks in two-day binges, cashing in her life insurance. “The thing people never understand is that I’m not playing to win,” Mollie says in the book. Instead, she was simply trying “to keep playing—to stay in that machine zone where nothing else matters.” 

Schüll’s book delves into the lives of compulsive machine gamblers—not the folks playing social games like poker around a table but the smaller percentage of the population who play alone at electronic slot machines or video poker terminals with such intensity that they enter a state of total gambling immersion, shutting out the world for long stretches of time.

As one gambling addict told Schüll: “I could say that for me the machine is a lover, a friend, a date, but really it’s none of those things; it’s a vacuum cleaner that sucks the life out of me, and sucks me out of life.” 

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In Schüll’s view, the idea that machine gamblers are seeking not money as much as an escape into the “zone” has eluded politicians who wrangle over casino operations throughout the United States; more than 30 states have legalized machine gambling. “It’s a real stumbling block for policymakers to understand that,” she says. 

Schüll started tackling the subject in the early 1990s as an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley, where she wrote a thesis about casino architecture. Knowing she wanted to write more about the interactions between people and technology—”I’m geeky at heart,” she says—she moved to Las Vegas in the late 1990s to conduct PhD research on compulsive gamblers, in part by interviewing addicts and industry executives. She even worked in a treatment program for gambling addiction. 

Disordered gambling, as the American Psychiatric Association now calls the problem, seems to afflict just 1 to 2 percent of Americans. Yet according to a series of studies that Schüll cites, those people generate a far larger portion of the revenues casinos reap through gambling machines. In her book, she looks at what the industry has done to make those devices more compelling. For instance, video slot machines now deliver frequent small wins rather than infrequent large jackpots, to better sustain what she calls “the flow of the experience.” 

Schüll has testified about the subject in front of the Massachusetts state legislature. As she asks, “Given the nature of this product and this interface, shouldn’t policymakers, state legislatures, be learning a little bit more about how this product affects people?” 

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