Do some gambling products cause addiction by design?   Something that triggers basic psychological responses and encourages compulsive behaviour?

If we think about alcohol and other drugs we know that there is something in the substance itself which can lead to addiction. Obviously that is not the whole story. Millions of people drink and take drugs with no major problems. It’s not widely recognised, for instance, that people do enjoy heroin or cocaine ‘recreationally’, their use of the substances comparable to that of a moderate drinker. In fact, if you have suffered great physical pain in hospital you’ll likely be administered  diamorphine which is pure heroin This won’t make you addicted.

There are, as throughout this website we try to show, many factors involved with becoming addicted to, dependent upon or running into life difficulties with a substance or behaviour. Nevertheless, we can and should see the gambling product itself as needing attention if we are looking to reduce gambling harms. This moves attention away for the time being from a ‘pathological gambler’ who just happens to be ill because of purely individual attributes and weaknesses towards examining the roles of the gambling industry (and regulation) in the supply of carefully designed products, along with marketing and advertising.

The video on the right above shows somebody playing on a Fixed Odds Betting Terminal (FOBT) in a high street bookmakers. At the time customers were allowed to gamble £100 a spin which meant £300 could be wagered each minute. Successful campaigning eventually saw that maximum stake reduced to £2. But as, in common with most businesses, gambling moves online while traditional bookmakers close, most of us now have ‘a casino in our pockets‘. It’s easy to gamble online and lose £2000 in a minute. Among the providers of such ‘games’ are some of the UK’s and the world’s biggest brand names who’ve added gambling to their businesses providing banking, transport and holidays.Follow the highlighted links to learn more.

A real page-turner if you enjoy reading. If you’d like a quick overview watch the video of Natasha Dow Schüll’s lecture. Below, from the publisher’s description where we’ve marked important points in red.

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.



It’s significant that the author and speaker is an anthropologist. Rather than taking quite ‘narrow beam’ looks at a subject as found in other ‘ologies’ such as psychology or sociology, or medicine and psychiatry, anthropology gives us a more broad perspective upon human behaviour and culture. We are reminded of the complexities involved in considering all aspects of humanity, including mental health.

Another anthropologist with a very keen interest in gambling is Rebecca Cassidy from Goldsmiths at the University of London. We’ll be referencing some of her work on this website. We have reviewed her recent book, Vicious Games: Capitalism and Gambling here.

A good overview of the relations between device design, environment, brain processes and addiction is here. The illusions of skill, near misses, speed of play, lights and sounds. Oddly,

Counterintuitively, in individuals with a gambling problem, losing money comes to trigger the rewarding release of dopamine almost to the same degree that winning does. As a result, in problem gamblers, losing sets off the urge to keep playing, rather than the disappointment that might prompt you to walk away, a phenomenon known as chasing losses.

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