In my last two columns, I wrote about the negative aspects of gambling and the destructive effects of casinos on both human lives and the economy. Those columns focused mainly on why the economic benefits of casinos fade over time, how casinos hurt surrounding businesses, and what consequences problem-gambling brings to individuals, families and society. This column will discuss the unique, addictive nature of slot machines.
Slot machines — called “one-armed bandits” back when the player manually pulled down an actual lever on the side of the machine — are the heart and primary moneymaker of casinos and “slots parlors.” Physically, they are vertical screens that display the edges of three or more spinning drums on which are printed pictures of fruits, faces, numbers or other symbols. When matching symbols align, the gambler wins his wager.
The machines are not the relatively primitive assemblies of 30 years ago. They have been transformed by the amazing capabilities of the computer. Along with the sounds, lights, themes and general glitz of the machines, the apparent randomness of where the spinning drums stop has been carefully programmed by the manufacturer. Microchips — not luck or your favorite casino shirt — control the frequency and level of winnings.
Other than in nature, there is actually no such thing as true randomness. Complex, computer-derived algorithms determine the long, seemingly infinite sequences and combinations — displayed simultaneously in multiple, multi-directional lines — of spinning fruits and other icons.
Additionally, slot machines have been designed to keep the gambler seated at the device. The behavioral and cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists utilized by slots manufacturers have been able to study and learn how many “near misses” and how much intermittent, “random” reward — and at what monetary values — are necessary to keep a player emotionally reinforced and neurally hooked by his experience at the machine.