Brian T. Watson
The Salem News
---- — 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.
To add to the allure of the devices, manufacturers have introduced lots of features designed to appeal to every taste. A player can choose theme-based machines, selecting one that plays the hit songs of a favorite rock group, or shows video clips of recent movies, or mimics the animation and action of current video games. A gambler can interact with the features, inserting himself into a gaming character or tying his gambling wins into progress toward rewards and goals in a video game. Gamblers can even “save” this progress for use on the same machine next time they come to the casino.
There is another factor at work with many regular slots players. The speed and intensity of the machines have become so fast and strong that many gamblers actually go into a trancelike, hypnotic state, mindlessly yet rhythmically playing bet after bet. This state is known in the trade as “the zone,” and it results in the player being in a disassociated condition where he loses touch with time, space, money, his own body, and any outside distractions.
Being in the zone becomes so pleasurable to the gambler that he actually views winning — when the action must be interrupted for a payout procedure — as something undesirable. For winning disrupts his flow, and breaks into his blissful isolation.
Slots manufacturers are well aware of this phenomenon and encourage it with incredible machines that can accommodate intense speed — the placing of one bet every three seconds (the player is simply tapping buttons) or roughly 1,000 spins per hour.
But whatever type of gambler is seated at the machine, it has been designed to exploit the full range of human tendencies. Manufacturers use the phrase, “playing to extinction” — meaning the gambler loses all his money — to describe the goal behind the clever programming inside a slot machine.
Studies have shown that it is the machine design, not character defects in individuals, that is responsible for slots addictions. Problem gamblers comprise 20 to 40 percent of all slots players, and not surprisingly, slot machines produce 65 to 80 percent of total casino revenues.
Casinos love to publicize how much money is “paid out” in winnings to slots players. They also love to explain how slot machines are programmed to deliver 80 to 95 percent “payout rates.” But most gamblers go home with much less money than they walked in with, and the rare jackpots are comprised of everybody else’s losses. The reality is, the longer you play, the more you will lose.
There are roughly 250,000 problem gamblers in Massachusetts today. After the state permits three casinos and one slots parlor, that number is likely to grow to 400,000 and more. Staggering numbers of slot machines will be in these proposed facilities – 4500 in either Revere or Everett, 4500 in Springfield, 4500 in a third location, and 1250 in the slots parlor. Despite the claims of the casino developers that these facilities will be grand, destination “resorts,” most of the patrons will be day-trippers who will come from within a 50-mile radius of the gambling hall. The patrons will be the residents of our communities.
If we can understand the nature of contemporary slot machines, and understand that they prey on our neural circuitry, we will be less likely to view them as harmless entertainment.
Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.