*Addiction by Design*

by on December 13, 2013 at 3:53 am in Books, Economics, Medicine, Science | Permalink

The author is Natasha Dow Schüll and the subtitle is Machine Gambling in Las Vegas.  I read this on the flight back home and it is a good choice for one of the very best books of the year, as well as one of the best books on “behavioral economics” and “nudge.”

Almost every page in this book is instructive.  Here is one good passage of many:

…his department noticed nearly three times as many deaths by heart attack occurring in Clark County as in other counties.  A closer look revealed that two-thirds of the cardiac arrests took place in casinos and realized that the high rate of death had to do with the delays encountered by paramedic teams negotiating their complicated interiors.  Although they arrived at casino properties within four and a half to five minutes of a call, it took them an average of eleven minutes to reach victims inside.

The casinos, by the way, very often do not let the rescue teams come in through the main front door, for fear of putting off their customers.

The very best parts of the book are about the elaborate private sector strategies to milk the clientele for greater yield, and how those desires interact with the very competitive nature of the market:

…the industry has since attempted to strategically steer players…toward the cherry-dribbling, slow-bleeding pole of play, a profit-from-volume formula that one industry member has referred to as the “Costco model of gambling.”

And:

While in the past the typical gambling addict had been an older male who bet on sports or cards for ten years before seeking help, now it was a thirty-five-year-old female with two children who had played video for less than two years before seeking help.

And:

“In my life before gambling, she tells me, “money was almost like a God, I had to have it. But with gambling, money had no value, no significant, it was just this thing — just get me in the zone, that’s all…You lose value, until there’s no value at all.  Except the zone — the zone is your God.”

The book’s home page is here, and the author’s home page is here.  This is an impressive book.  It is also a brilliant study of man-machine interaction and I found it to be a complete page turner.

While we are on the topic, I very recently received a review copy of The Oxford Handbook of the Economics of Gambling, edited by Leighton Vaughan Williams and Donald S. Siegel, which appears to be excellent.

Steve Sailer December 13, 2013 at 4:57 am

“While in the past the typical gambling addict had been an older male … now it was a thirty-five-year-old female with two children”

Thank goodness that our society is moving beyond old repressive restrictions on gambling and now casino owners are increasingly allowed to addict young mothers.

Vernunft December 13, 2013 at 5:50 am

Less fascism is good. Problem?

P December 13, 2013 at 6:19 am

“For this reason we must see to it that the gaming-tables are not done away with; casinos are marvellous institutions and we must say to everyone with too much money: Come on, you people, come and gamble!”–Adolf Hitler (1942)

Rahul December 13, 2013 at 12:44 pm

Sometimes I wonder what Steve Sailer’s dream nation may look like.

I think it probably is a benevolent dictatorship run by an erstwhile blue collar, elderly, high-IQ, married, white male with a middle class upbringing, anti-Semitic tastes and at least six offspring preferably all boys.

Steve Sailer December 13, 2013 at 7:29 pm

When we think about all the money Donald Trump and Sheldon Adelson have made off addicting young mothers to gambling, the first question that naturally springs to mind is: What’s Sailer’s SECRET AGENDA?

The Anti-Gnostic December 13, 2013 at 7:50 pm

Don’t you live in the US? That’s who built the place, and you better be grateful.

NK December 13, 2013 at 9:21 am

WTH is “allowed to addict”?
Progressivenglish?

john personna December 13, 2013 at 10:29 am

Why not kids?

(Actually, my question is: if we let kids lose their lunch money on the lottery would we have fewer adult addicts?)

kb December 14, 2013 at 9:33 am

I lost all my money (1 mark 57 pfennig) as a 7 yr old to a German slot machine in my father’s home town; as a result I never gambled (casino, card etc.) again.

Thor December 13, 2013 at 11:48 am

In the Pacific Northwest, it is usually older (middle aged and seniors) Caucasian women playing the slots.

Dan in Philly December 13, 2013 at 7:19 am

The quote about being in the zone is insightful. There are a limited number of things which motivate people. Money is one, but most mistake in thinking it’s the only one, or even the main one. Gambling encourages those who participate to substitute a different motivation for money, making the motivation of the thrill of the gambling experience greater than the motivation of seeking more money.

Of course this isn’t new, but the ability to apply big data methods to this provides new insights into exactly how this process works. Given that casinos track individuals’ gambling habits through their casino cards, they doubtless have models of how an individual can turn from casual gambler to addict based on this data – how long it takes, what the progression of machines is, if there’s any change in the level of bets as one gets hooked, etc. I would be very interested in reading some of this kind of study – anyone know of such?

Jacob H. December 13, 2013 at 7:37 am

Does anyone know of a good book about the politics of gambling over the last 20-30 years? Clearly, there’s been a sea change, such that gambling is legal more and more places and more cities have been betting their urban renewal on casinos. Seems like a really good topic for a poli sci dissertation or two if it hasn’t been done yet.

Brian Donohue December 13, 2013 at 10:42 am

Yeah. Society used to have a healthy respect/fear of gambling, similar to drugs, very similar actually. Now, state lotteries use their revenues to advertise to us. And no one noticed. Weird. No way this is a positive trend.

The Other Jim December 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm

There’s no need for a book. Governments want more money, and that’s all there is to it. Urban renewal is not a factor, although it is part of the propaganda they use to sell the idea, and the government-friendly media plays happily along.

What makes it irresistible is that most of the money comes from poor people who are politically untaxable. To state legislatures, it’s like harvesting forbidden fruit.

Thor December 13, 2013 at 12:17 pm

Low hanging forbidden fruit, to boot!

Albigensian December 13, 2013 at 1:57 pm

Part of it is contagion- when a nearby state builds casinos near the state border, it draws gamblers from neighboring states. Eventually those in neighboring states figure that if they’re forced to accept the social costs then they may as well permit casinos.

Los Vegas is the original model here, as most arrive there by air and conveniently take their problems home with them.

In any case, I’d guess we’ve not yet seen the full impact of internet gambling.

There’s also a ratchet effect- once a state has approved some form of casino gambling, it becomes nearly impossible to revoke that approval.

Even so, there are many minor things which states could do to limit the damage. Outlawing ATMs from the vicinity of a casino (and within it, of course) helps. Requiring the casino to close for a few hours each day helps by giving gamblers a chance to break out of whatever state they’re in so they can think about what they’re doing. Restrictions on slot machine design are possible- for example, state regulators can forbid the machine from being programmed to produce “almost wins” (e.g., all but one needed symbol on the pay line).

Ray Lopez December 13, 2013 at 11:46 am

I am addicted to playing chess, writing computer programs, reading and jogging. Somebody please help me. I want to become more normal and sit in front of a TV and vegetate, like some of my friends do, and tweet my status every five minutes, but I don’t derive any pleasure from that. I’m sick, sick, sick.

Thor December 13, 2013 at 12:36 pm

This just reminds me that there are good addictions and bad ones. In the case of smart, well adjusted success stories like Ray Lopez, we say that his “addictions” are passions or hobbies.

Mark Thorson December 13, 2013 at 8:43 pm

You forgot “posting comments to blogs” in your list of addictions.

George December 13, 2013 at 9:23 pm

Don’t you live in Thailand? You sure not addicted to something else?

Rahul December 13, 2013 at 12:45 pm

Wouldn’t it be much easier for the casinos to have internal trained paramedics or first responders? Can’t be that hard to pick and train some of all those security guys.

Elam Bend December 13, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Illinois legalized video gambling, subject to a municipalities okay. The result has been a bidding war for spaces in grocery anchored strip centers to set-up women focused video gambling parlors. The target market is married women, particularly stay at homes (hence the desire to be close to grocery stores) and the build-out typical favors coziness and a faux sense of hanging out with friends.

prasad December 13, 2013 at 1:34 pm

“The casinos, by the way, very often do not let the rescue teams come in through the main front door, for fear of putting off their customers.”

Someone has a heart attack and is dying, and paramedics are forced to take a circuitous route so as not to “put off” other gamblers? Is this even legal?

tylerh December 13, 2013 at 2:10 pm

“Is this even legal”

You apparently do not understand how the concept of “legal” works in Nevada.

The legal ambit of the Casinos is stunning. To Paraphrase Nixon , “when the casino does it, that means it is not illegal.”

For example, there is a blanket prohibition in Las Vegas against outdoor fountains for water conservation.

prasad December 13, 2013 at 9:49 pm

Okay, but this one sounds like a massive lawsuit threat each time someone has a heart attack in a casino and suffers bad consequences. I’m wondering if the article is exaggerating mightily.

Rahul December 13, 2013 at 11:16 pm

At most large facilities (e.g. refineries, mines, large shipping yards etc.) there’s a designated point on perimeter (one of the many gates, usually) where the external paramedics arrive and are then escorted to the exact location.

Due to the difficulty in navigating to the victim inside a casino there’s probably a similar protocol. All the casino has to do is to move the liaison point to a back door. Perhaps they will add some equipment, ramps etc, to that door and add the protocol to the emergency response plan they submit.

It’s not done so nefariously that a lawsuit might be viable, I think.

mulp December 13, 2013 at 2:01 pm

“The very best parts of the book are about the elaborate private sector strategies to milk the clientele for greater yield, and how those desires interact with the very competitive nature of the market”

That summaries the core of the economic criticism in “APOSTOLIC EXHORTATION EVANGELII GAUDIUM OF THE HOLY FATHER FRANCIS” under “No to the new idolatry of money” and “No to a financial system which rules rather than serves ”

That has led to Francis being called a Marxist by the likes of Limbaugh, the claim by progressives that Francis has condemned capitalism, and the likes of David Brooks claiming “capitalism has done more to lift people out of poverty than anything else.”

Thus it seems capitalism has been most fully realized in the popular definition of capitalism by the casino industry with their impediments to traffic, the obstruction of delivering care to those most in need, and total focus on taking every last penny of their most valued customers wealth. Payday lenders and the Madoff could only wish for the same efficiency and high regard as casinos have earned in America as being true capitalists lifting people out of poverty.

Booles December 14, 2013 at 4:37 pm

“No to a financial system which rules rather than serves”

Could have come straight from the Huffington Post.

uair01 December 13, 2013 at 4:59 pm

It is a very good book. And I found it through an article that speculates if Facebook is also engineered for maximum addictiveness, just like the slot machines. To put you in “the zone”: a state compareable to “the flow”, just as absorbing but without the positive effects. (Unfortunately I can’t find the article right now, but the comparison of Facebook to slot-machines feels very convincing.)

Charlie December 14, 2013 at 1:42 am

Have not read the book, but I tread the Strip daily. The picture painted here is an old lady keeling over at a slot machine. I suspect the more accurate picture is a coked-out drunk having a heart attack in his room at the far end of the 37th floor.

You try getting there in 11 minutes, from any door.

gamblingExec December 14, 2013 at 9:56 pm

I’m a gambling executive. The idea that the goal is to milk poor people is just absurd.

We’re going after RICH people. We don’t have an 80/20 rule in our industry. It’s more of a 90/10 situation. And so a casino doing $300m/yr in revenue is probably getting around $250m of that from between than 3k and 5k individuals. And annual churn for that cohort will be under 20%. So who can afford to spend $75k/yr for 5yrs in a row gambling?

The 1%. That’s who. Casinos essentially act as a progressive tax, both kicking money to government and providing livable wage employment to hundreds of thousands nationwide.

rpl December 16, 2013 at 5:41 am

That’s an interesting observation. If you don’t mind me asking, why, then, do you even bother to serve the less-profitable clientele? Naively, it would seem like you could cut way back on facilities and thereby increase margins if you just catered to the whales. Is it that a whale looking for a place to gamble won’t patronize an establishment that doesn’t have the trappings of a big-time casino, or is something else at work?

Charlie December 16, 2013 at 7:45 pm

Exec, I also make my living in gaming. Let’s be honest: rich people wouldn’t set foot in 80% of the casinos in Las Vegas. And those casinos aren’t running paycheck-cashing promotions to entice the 1%.

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