Published about a decade ago by Princeton University Press, anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll’s Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas is the result of 15 years of field research in one of the gaming capitals of the world.
The book, which is said to “change the dialog” on gambling addiction, has either won or come close to winning some important awards, and has been translated into Italian, Japanese, and French. One reviewer praises how it makes academic scholarship accessible to the average reader, while another suggests that it is not so much a book, as a tool.
The author examines the moral, social, and emotional ramifications of a certain genre of electronic games and proposes that just as some people are more prone to addiction than others, “it is also the case that some objects, by virtue of their unique pharmacologic or structural characteristics, are more likely than others to trigger or accelerate an addiction.” The work looks at the many possible types of screen addiction, all of which are combined in gambling machines.
Out with the old
No longer are traditional games the main draw at casinos. What people want are the modernized slot machines that offer what the author calls an “appealing parallel universe” where they can forget about mundane life. The play is solitary, fast, continuous, and utterly compelling — and it is not even about winning. No, at the center of this addiction is what reviewer Emily Martin calls “the imperative some people feel to lose themselves in a machine.”
They long to get into “the machine zone” or simply “the zone,” a trance-like state of consciousness that appears to be the main reward pursued by the adherents to this pastime. There they remain “until all resources are gone;” in other words, until they are stony broke.
On the addiction front, this is radically different from person-to-person games like poker played around a table, because cardsharps need to be hyper-aware of humans. That awareness is at least a skill that can be learned with experience, whereas the machines never offer a leg up. Experience is of no consequence, and the player throws herself or himself blindly, every time, into the abyss of chance.
In with the new
In what Laura Norén of PublicBooks calls “an empirically rigorous examination of users, designers, and objects that deepens practical and philosophical questions about the capacities of players interacting with machines designed to entrance them,” Schüll explores the dark side of both the players’ compulsions and the manufacturers’ goals. In regard to the former, much of the research was carried out at Gamblers Anonymous meetings.
An echo is to be found here of the substance-based food addiction theory versus the behavior-based eating addiction theory. The page speaks of “regulatory debates over whether addiction to slot machines stems from the consumer, the product, or the interplay between the two. ”
In what Noren characterizes as a horror story, the customers are mainly “problem gamblers” whose losses account for between 30% and 60% of the casino’s income. Such individuals tend to have traumatic experiences in their pasts, and to binge until their pockets are empty. She goes on to say, “[T]here is something devilish about the way designers’ intentions and users’ neurology meet up to make video gaming so devastating for some and so profitable for others.”
Even in the 1990s, when Schüll did research, the victims of table games, horse racing, and lotteries were in the minority, and Gamblers Anonymous meetings were mainly populated by machine addicts. By the turn of the century, it was estimated that 85% of the gambling industry’s profits accrued from video gaming. Today, those in the know make a pretty serious claim — that the recidivism rate for gambling is higher than the rate attached to any other addiction.
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Source: “Natasha Dow Schüll,” NatashaDowSchull.org, undated
Source: “Can objects be evil? A review of ‘Addiction by Design’,” SocialMediaCollective.org, 09/06/12
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