Game Theory

Game Theory

“Digital Gambling: The Coincidence of Desire and Design” by Natasha Dow Schull, in The Annals (Jan. 2005), The American Academy of Political and Social Science, 3814 Walnut St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19104–6197.

Read Time:
2m 30sec

They’re in every casino: the glassy-eyed video poker players glued to their machines, hands tapping a steady rhythm. Every intrusion—a check-in from a cocktail waitress, even winning too big or too often—distracts players from the “zone.”

Video poker isn’t the only game in town, but it is the biggest: Poker terminals and other coin-operated machines now occupy more than three-quarters of the floor space in Nevada casinos. And the gaming industry aims to exploit that real estate for all it’s worth, using new technologies to create machines that seduce gamblers into playing faster and longer.

With microchip brains and dazzling electronic displays, coin-operated gambling machines are now, more than ever, gamblers’ private islands. Drinks, game chips, and machine mechanics are summoned at the touch of a button, the seats are ergonomic, and the cards appear on the screen so quickly that experienced gamblers play up to 900 hands an hour. Machine manufacturers know that the game—not the winning—is the important thing for most players, notes Schull, an anthropologist and postdoctoral research scholar at Columbia University. One industry executive told her that his company had to scale back the electronic bells and whistles: Players didn’t like pausing to celebrate a win.

All these careful calibrations translate into bigger profits. And in casinos’ pursuit of “productivity enhancement,” Schull sees a manifestation of capitalism’s tendency to seize control of time and degrade workers to the level of machines, just as Michel Foucault and Karl Marx warned.

The productivity revolution has come to casinos, and the random number generator, or RNG, is its revolutionary agent. Embedded in the digital microprocessor that runs video poker machines, the RNG speeds through number combinations until the play button is pressed, compares the selected number with a table of payout rates, and instructs the hopper to deliver a win or not.

What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but it also stays in the circuits of video poker machines, which track a player’s game preferences, wins and losses, number of coins played per game, number of games played every minute, length of play, number of drinks ordered, etc. Machines also foster the illusion that players are calling the shots. “The ability to modulate play—adjust volume [and] speed of play, choose cards and bet amounts—is understood by game developers to increase psychological and financial investment,” writes Schull.

But once players are far enough into the zone, even the illusion of control and skill ceases to matter. In Australia, an “AutoPlay” option allows some players to insert money, press a button, then watch as the game plays itself. AutoPlay hasn’t made it to North America, but some gamblers reportedly jam the “play” button down with a toothpick to achieve the same effect. Schull doesn’t say how Marx and Foucault would parse that.

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