If you were to ask most people to think of where all the big spending and winnings in a casino take place, most would probably point to the blackjack, roulette, and poker tables. If you were to say, “What about the slot machines?”, most would respond—to quote a friend—“That is where old ladies and amateurs sit”. Until recently, I would have agreed. Recent research by Natasha Dow Schull, a cultural anthropologist at MIT who spent the last 15 years in Las Vegas tracking the evolution of slot machines, states that although slot machines were once only marginally successful for casinos, they are now driving the industry and responsible for 85% of the profits. What caused this change?
Firstly, new relaxed legislation on the availability of slot machines that were implemented during the recessions in the early 1990s and mid 2000s, but secondly and more importantly for those interested in psychology, casinos are now drawing on psychological insights to help them design an environment and devices that will “maximize time on device”.
Casinos have carefully designed their environment in such a way that allows people to move around the area without ever having to consciously make decisions. They have started implementing curved hallways within the environment, resulting in patrons avoiding having to make a 90-degree turn. According to Natasha Dow Schull, author of Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, this is because when people make a right-angled turn, they are forced to activate the decision-making part of their brain, and therefore reflect on their behaviours. Casinos do not want people to do this, so by having curved hallways, people are free to walk around without having to consciously think.
Casinos have also designed the slotting machines themselves, and their environments, in such a way that allow people to sit and play the device, comfortably, for hours. The use of ergonomic seats that don’t cut off circulation, along with the positioning of the the buttons and money slots, allow players to continue playing with minimal effort and disruption. To remove the “pain of paying” many casinos also now allow players pay with a card, so that they can play for longer without thinking about the payment aspect.
Not only have casinos drawn on psychological insight to design the environment, but they have also drawn on recent research on reward mechanisms to ensure people continue playing the game for as long as possible. Traditionally, slot machines were a single line game— when you pulled a lever, you either won or lost. When people lost they would walk away, but if they won they would stay. With the development of new technology, players can bet on up to 200 lines at a time. If a person wins on some of the lines it feels like a partial win, and neurological research has shown that people experience this type of win in their brain in an identical way as a complete win. If casinos continue to draw on psychological insight, how casinos will evolve over the next 10 years is exciting, but also quite worrying in terms of the possibility of addiction.