I purchased this book for personal use.
Natasha Dow Schüll, an associate professor in MIT's Program in Science, Technology, and Society, explored the allure of food in mass quantities in her documentary Buffet: All You Can Eat Las Vegas. In her new book Addiction by Design from Princeton University Press, she examines how machine and game design facilitate addictive behavior.
Human Side of the Equation
Schüll begins by describing the human cost of gambling addiction by profiling several individuals, all of whom have driven themselves and their families into difficult situations because of their gambling. One woman interviewed by the author has structured her daily routine to visit a circuit of gambling establishments, including casinos and grocery stores with video poker machines. The small footprint, low operating costs, and revenue generation capacity of machines means that table games such as blackjack and craps have been squeezed into increasingly smaller spaces. Mirroring this trend, the typical problem gambler has changed from a middle-aged man who bets on sports or blackjack and waits ten years to get help to a 35 year-old woman with two kids who plays video poker and seeks help after just two years.
The financial windfall generated by problem gamblers is staggering. One study by Tracy Shrans indicated that gamblers who follow the industry's "responsible gaming rules of conduct" (e.g, setting time and money limits, understanding the odds of the games, and not gambling when you're lonely, angry, or depressed) generate just 4% of gambling revenue. A slew of studies, notably work published in 1998 by Lesieur (cited p. 16), estimate that problem gamblers generate between 30-60% of casino revenue. Part of gambling's attraction is the possibility, however remote, of winning a significant amount of money, but the varied reward schedule plays a significant role as well.
Entering the Machine Zone
The effectiveness of a varied reward schedule holds true across the animal kingdom. Rats that press a lever and receive a food pellet every time will press only when they're hungry, but rats rewarded on an irregular schedule, where they have no idea when the next food pellet will drop, will press the lever until exhausted. When the rewards come not from food but from direct stimulation of the endogenous reward system, the effects are even more pronounced. In her Great Courses video series Understanding the Brain, Jeanette Norden notes that rats with wires inserted into their brains, allowing them to stimulate their pleasure centers by pressing a lever, will forgo all other activities — including but not limited to sleeping, eating, and sex — to press the lever. She described the scene of an exhausted, filthy rat collapsed on the floor of its cage, reaching with its last bit of strength to press the lever just one more time.
According to Schüll's analysis, the analog for humans appears to be entering the "machine zone", where the player is engrossed in the game and their interaction with the machine. Unlike poker and other table games that provide experiences mediated by other humans and offer occasional thrills, machine gamblers are able to maintain stimulation for as long as their bankroll allows. The rhythm of their interaction with the device induces comfort and, most importantly, lets the player escape from the world for a time. Game designers have capitalized on this trend by offering multi-line video slot machines with as many as 100 payouts. The result is that most spins pay something, but the majority of spins pay less than the player wagered. Rather than a singular win or loss, these fractional payouts provide a smoother ride down as the built-in house advantage grinds away at the player's bankroll.
Nevada is arguably the most libertarian state in the U.S., so it's no surprise the gaming industry bases its arguments against limiting game design and player tracking on the grounds of personal responsibility. Schüll implies, but never as far as I could tell directly states that the games' design promotes addiction. She probably couldn't do so because of legal concerns and the inherent difficulty in proving such a statement, which is fair enough. That said, if there ever is such proof, it's likely that the self-exclusion policies in other gambling jurisdictions such as British Columbia, Canada, and Australia would be replaced by stricter rules.
Schüll goes beyond the basic "reward schedule" addiction analysis so common in the literature and casts the role of casinos and their visitors in terms of the social theories of Weber, Levi-Strauss, and Foucault, mirroring the theoretical underpinnings of MIT's Program in Science, Technology, and Society. (Though this publication and the program have similar names, we are not affiliated.) I thought her analysis added value to the book, but the sections didn't feel tightly integrated with the rest of the narrative. Schüll wrote the book over several years and the book's cohesiveness might have suffered a bit because of it. Important life events take priority, of course, and despite some small shortcomings Addiction by Design is a detailed, useful, and readable analysis of machine gambling and the players on all sides of the game.
Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O'Reilly Media; he has also created over a dozen online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com.