ADDICTION BY DESIGN?

News from Las Vegas

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Natasha Dow Schüll is an academic who spent 15 years investigating gambling machines and their users in Las Vegas. She considered the design of the machines, how they work, addiction, the users’ stories, the environment of the casinos and more. While there are several differences between the context of Las Vegas gambling and gabling on UK high streets, there are enough similarities to make the resulting book worth reading. We’ll look at some of her arguments below, but first here is a good presentation from Professor Schüll which covers her research.

The book’s publisher, Princeton University Press, offer the following synopsis of the book. We have highlighted some of the key words relevant to this site and The Machine Zone:

Recent decades have seen a dramatic shift away from social forms of gambling played around roulette wheels and card tables to solitary gambling at electronic terminals. Slot machines, revamped by ever more compelling digital and video technology, have unseated traditional casino games as the gambling industry’s revenue mainstay. Addiction by Design takes readers into the intriguing world of machine gambling, an increasingly popular and absorbing form of play that blurs the line between human and machine, compulsion and control, risk and reward.

Drawing on fifteen years of field research in Las Vegas, anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll shows how the mechanical rhythm of electronic gambling pulls players into a trancelike state they call the “machine zone,” in which daily worries, social demands, and even bodily awareness fade away. Once in the zone, gambling addicts play not to win but simply to keep playing, for as long as possible–even at the cost of physical and economic exhaustion. In continuous machine play, gamblers seek to lose themselves while the gambling industry seeks profit. Schüll describes the strategic calculations behind game algorithms and machine ergonomics, casino architecture and “ambience management,” player tracking and cash access systems–all designed to meet the market’s desire for maximum “time on device.” Her account moves from casino floors into gamblers’ everyday lives, from gambling industry conventions and Gamblers Anonymous meetings to regulatory debates over whether addiction to gambling machines stems from the consumer, the product, or the interplay between the two.

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If you are a keen reader you’ll find Schüll’s book a page turner! It includes so many aspects of human life, all stemming from a 15 years study of gambling machines. She’s keen to examine throughout the book how her findings about gambling slot machines mirror wider aspects of consumer society, for instance:

The debate around gambling machines expresses tensions that trouble the field of consumption more broadly in the West, where a free-market ethos and ideals of consumer sovereignty so often clash with the realities of harmful consumer-product interactions … (page 289)

This idea is important to the purpose of our website which offers the subject of FOBties as a case study casting light on broader social and cultural issues. Our parent site, The Machine Zone is interested in our everyday interactions with digital devices. How ‘addicted’, for instance, can we become to social media platforms such as Facebook. Would this be because of the design of our devices, the design of the social media applications, something about ourselves or a combination of all three?

You can read the introductory chapter to Schüll’s book at the publisher’s website