Natasha Shull, a cultural anthropologist and assistant professor in MIT’s Program on Science, Technology and Society, has spent the last 15 years researching and studding the gambling industry and more specifically, the machines they develop to make big profits. Natasha has written a book, Machine Zone: Technology and Compulsion in Las Vegas, and created a documentary film, BUFFET: All You Can Eat Las Vegas, which has aired on PBS. In a recent MIT article, Natasha makes several key observations that are often lost in the debate about gambling’s true impact on our society and families:
“What they’re trying to do is maximize profit. But when you mix maximizing profit with the design of a human-machine interface, and then you add people who are looking for escape, it’s a perfect storm of elements to produce a situation of dependency.” Schull thinks it’s telling that we speak about problem gamblers but not problem machines, problem environments, or problem business practices.
“Since addiction is a relationship between a person and an object or activity, it makes sense to take a close look at the gambling technology — not just the gamblers.”
She goes on to explain that these machines are designed in every possible way to make people losers not winner:
As Schull explains, today’s machines are much different from ones of the past. Visual graphics are now calibrated so the gamblers’ eyes won’t get tired so quickly. Sound is manipulated as well, to reduce the stress of cacophony in cavernous spaces. To facilitate faster play, today’s machines have buttons and touch-screens instead of handles and mechanical reels.
Instead of coins, they accept player credit cards. Instead of a few games per minute, it is now possible to play hundreds. Inside the machines, complicated algorithms control the odds.
“Every feature of the machines is geared to keep people playing until they’re broke.”