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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Big Brother, Meet the Slot Machine

The following is from an article in First Things by Maura J. Casey.  If it doesn't give you chills—well, I don't know what to tell you.
Along the way, the casinos paid for considerable research into how to increase the length of time gamblers stay at the machine—since the longer that patrons play, the more they lose and the more casinos profit. The chairs at slot machines are ergonomically designed to be comfortable, with no hard edges that could decrease leg circulation, Schull observes. Screens slant at 38 degrees to prevent slouching. Game controls are within easy reach, as are computerized menus to have food and drink delivered without leaving the machine. Some have television monitors to keep players from exiting the area to catch their favorite shows. Slot machines have many different themes, mimicking game shows, cartoons, or favorite sitcoms. The sound of jingling coins, the bells, the volume of noise, the flashing lights are all designed to encourage patrons to play, and play, and play. . . . 

The real genius of the gambling industry was to combine B.F. Skinner’s work on operant conditioning with intense research on how and why gamblers play on the machines. Every casino has a rewards card (Foxwoods’ was once called the Wampum Card, but now it is called the Dream Card), which the gamblers insert into machines at the beginning of play. The gimmick is that, when customers use the cards, the casinos pay them a small amount for every hour they gamble and send them special offers, the value of which escalates the more they bet. In the process, casinos gain a treasure trove of information. The data culled from customer cards at Harrah’s, for example, helped the gambling chain amass a staggering database on 16 million gamblers. The casinos set calendars and budgets that predicted when certain gamblers would show up, how much they would spend, and their “lifetime value” to the company, according to Winner Takes All: Steve Wynn, Kirk Kerkorian, Gary Loveman and the Race to Own Las Vegas, the 2008 book by Christina Binkley. Company computers produced “behavior modification reports,” suggesting which gamblers would respond to the offer of a free hotel room and which ones would prefer free gambling chips. The computers measured the “velocity” of gambling based on how often gamblers hit the buttons on slot machines, and Harrah’s used the data to entice them to gamble even more. The company measured how often casino patrons visited, and it called them with free offers if the research indicated they were “overdue.” High rollers had always gotten such careful attention, but Harrah’s showed that paying attention to the low-rolling majority of gamblers would make casinos even more lucrative. 

Slot machines have long been programmed to show “near misses” and give gamblers the impression that they came this close to winning, the better to encourage them to keep playing. The machines give back enough money in the process to make gamblers feel like winners even when they are losing. But Harrah’s developed the technique of intervening when reality began to dawn on gamblers—when they lost so much the experience was becoming negative. The company tracked, in real time, customers’ losing streaks and would send “luck ambassadors” to perk them up, give them a token gift—free lunch or some free credits on the machine—to reduce their perception of losing and keep them gambling longer. . . . 

Those who defend gambling say that it should be a matter of free will, just like any other adult habit. But when a customer is pitted against researchers armed with psychological techniques, marketing studies, and computer analyses of a patron’s own behavior for the express purpose of extracting ever larger amounts of money, how much choice is really involved?

(Thanks to Kevin DeYoung for quoting this on his blog today.)

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