Slot Machines Perfected Addiction and Now Tech Companies Want In

By Zachary Siegel 05/15/15

Capitalism can hijack the drive to pay and play for better or worse, but likely for worse.

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Flipping through Facebook photos, swiping across Tinder, an alert, a like, a friend request, all produce within us a little flash of reward, one that’s fleeting and therefore maddeningly addictive.

A recent article in The Verge by Andrew Thompson traces the newest addictive phone apps all the way back to their unlikely genesis, the slot machine. It’s no coincidence that behaviorist B.F. Skinner likened his famous Skinner Box to a slot machine: press a lever, receive a reward, or don’t and keep pressing, or in this case, keep playing.

Casinos make roughly 70 to 80% of their profits from slot machines, gigantic glowing objects which now cover 80% of the casino floor, with a few craps and roulette tables scattered about. These machines are “engineered” to be addictive, Thompson argues, reducing the player to an object of want and longing. This is precisely why tech companies are looking toward the gaming industry when creating their designs.

The newest statistics from the Nevada Gaming Commission show millennials are less likely to gamble when they go to Vegas. They prefer entertainment in the form of poolside day clubs as opposed to the Rat Pack days of cigars and gambling. But Mike Trask of Bally Technologies is aware of this new trend and is quoted in The Verge story saying, “You know how you get people younger to gamble? Hand them a fucking telephone."

It’s no surprise that slot machine and video poker apps already dominate the tech industry. Thompson goes on to write, “As people move toward more data-driven existences where points are accumulated from health apps and status is accumulated in identifiable quantities on social media, gamification becomes so total that it can sometimes mask whether what we’re doing has any inherent utility outside the game that surrounds it.”

Gamification can be summed up as games no longer having some kind of abstract allegory or reference to our real lives, Thompson avers, the game itself become our life.

This phenomenon is explained through Tinder, where the mechanics of the app “mirror the experience of playing slots: the quick swiping results in an intermittent reward of connection, followed by the option to either message your potential date or 'keep playing,’” Thompson writes. Dating now becomes a game. Users can now pay a premium version to correct mistaken swipes.

For the story, Thompson also interviewed Natasha Schüll of MIT, who wrote Addiction by Design: Machine Gaming in Las Vegas. The book expands on her 15 years of research deconstructing slot machines and their interaction with human psychology.

Thompson quotes her saying, "I can’t tell you how often I’ve been approached since the publication of my book by Silicon Valley types who say things like, ‘Wow, the gambling industry really seems to have a handle on this attention retention problem that we’re all facing ... Will you come tell our designers how to do a better job?’"

Lastly, Thompson writes of one Nir Eyal, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who wrote Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products, which sums up the dark ethics of an industry built to dupe you into spending money without thinking. “It’s okay to addict people as long as your business model doesn’t depend on it," Eyal wrote.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.