Addiction by Design?originally published by The Machine Zone
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 gambling on UK high streets, there are enough similarities to make the resulting book worth reading. When first published, this article referred to Fixed Odds Betting Terminals in bookmakers’ shops. You could lose £300 in a minute because the maximum stake was £100 and you could bet three times in 60 seconds. Subsequent legislation reduced that maximum stake to £2.
The big worry now is that most have a ‘casino in the pocket’. Gambling on mobile devices can see you lose £2,000 in a minute.
Below is a video of a lecture by Professor Schüll in which she outlines her key findings.
Crucial questions surround the idea that gambling machines are precisely designed to exploit vulnerabilities in consumers. This is a fascinating and scary book which suggests that many gambling devices are not only harmful but designed to be.
Is sufficient attention being paid to the dangers inherent in the industry’s design of the gambling environment?
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.
“Natasha Dow Schüll, an anthropologist at MIT, has written a timely book. Ms Schüll has spent two decades studying the boom in casino gambling: the layout of its properties, the addicts and problem gamblers who account for roughly half its revenue in some places, and the engineering that goes into its most sophisticated products. Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas reads like a combination of Scientific American’s number puzzles and the ‘blue Book’ of Alcoholics Anonymous.”—Christopher Caldwell, Financial Times
“Addiction by Design is a nonfiction page-turner. A richly detailed account of the particulars of video gaming addiction, worth reading for the excellence of the ethnographic narrative alone, it is also an empirically rigorous examination of users, designers, and objects that deepens practical and philosophical questions about the capacities of players interacting with machines designed to entrance them.”—Laura Norén, PublicBooks
“Schüll adds greatly to the scholarly literature on problem gambling with this well-written book. . . . Applying an anthropological perspective, the author focuses especially on the Las Vegas gambling industry, seeing many of today’s avid machine gamblers as less preoccupied with winning than with maintaining themselves in the game, playing for as long as possible, and entering into a trance-like state of being, totally enmeshed psychologically into gaming and totally removed from the ordinary obligations of everyday life. . . . The book offers a most compelling and vivid picture of this world.”—Choice
“If books can be tools, Addiction by Design is one of the foundational artifacts for understanding the digital age—a lever, perhaps, to pry ourselves from the grasp of the coercive loops that now surround us.”—Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic
“Natasha Schull’s Addiction By Design is fascinating, absorbing, and at times, a bit frightening. . . . Schull’s work will have wide relevance to many audiences, including those interested in technology studies, media studies, software studies, game studies, values-in-design, and the psychology and sociology of addiction and other technologically mediated behavioral disorders.”—Hansen Hsu, Social Studies of Science
“Original, ambitious, and written with elegant lucidity, Addiction by Design presents us with a narrative that is as compulsive as the behavior it describes. The book repositions debates in the field of gambling and will surely become a classic text in studies of society and technology.”—Gerda Reith, American Journal of Sociology
“Based on fifteen years of ethnographic work, Addiction by Design is an ambitious and thought-provoking book that challenges the neoliberal ethos currently governing the way in which governments and professionals think about gambling addiction.”—Kah-Wee Lee, Technology and Culture
“A handbook on regaining our proper orientation to the world. Schüll’s book offers a grim warning about the ways others can deliberately cut us off from natural and supernatural joys.”—Leah Libresco, Commonweal
“A stunning portrayal of technology and the inner life. Searing, sobering, compelling: this is important, first-rate, accessible scholarship that should galvanize public conversation.”—Sherry Turkle, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
“A fascinating, frightening window into the world of gambling in Las Vegas and the technological innovations that deliberately enhance and sustain the ‘zone’—the odd, absorbed state for which extreme machine gamblers yearn. An astute and provocative look at addiction and its complex moral, social, and emotional entanglements.”—T. M. Luhrmann, Stanford University
“At the heart of Schüll’s book is the interplay between the players and the machine; between the players and the machine manufacturers; between the players and the math program; and between the players and the ‘zone’ that the machines help produce. A tour de force that changes the dialogue on gambling addiction.”—Henry Lesieur, author of The Chase: Career of the Compulsive Gambler
“Schüll’s clear and dramatic writing style is itself addictive. One is drawn into the ways in which the interactions among the different stakeholders lead to players’ experience of being drawn into a ‘zone’ where they remain until all resources are gone. This is a must-read narrative that points to the many variants of screen addiction possible today.”—Don Ihde, author of Bodies in Technology
“This gripping, insightful, and poignant analysis of machine gambling offers a kind of object lesson in the intensified forms of consumption that computer-based technologies enable. An exemplary case of the way in which close, critical investigation of specific sites of capitalism can provide a deeper understanding of both intimate experience and widespread socioeconomic arrangements.”—Lucy A. Suchman, author of Human-Machine Reconfigurations
“Schüll offers a provocative and important study of the imperative some people feel to lose themselves in a machine. The ethnography is rich and deep, shedding original light on the significance of addiction and gambling in American culture. The story told in the book is absolutely riveting.”—Emily Martin, author of Bipolar Expeditions