How Addictive Are Slot Machines?

Download Audio

If you haven't been to a casino recently, you may envision a slot machine with a handle-bar and a spinning drum of horseshoes, clovers and cherries.

But the 1,250 slot machines being installed in the Plainridge Park Casino share little in common with their gaming ancestors. Today's slots look more like video games — high definition, interactive and featuring characters from Mad Men, Duck Dynasty and Wonder Woman, just to name a few.

The slots are so engaging that they can become addictive. That's the reason the state gaming commission green-lit a pilot project last week to help problem gamblers mitigate their losses. But critics say the machines are still too addictive and the protections inadequate.


Natasha Schüll, professor at MIT and author of "Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas."


On what makes the modern day slot machine the most addictive casino game:
Natasha Schüll:
"If you want to boil it down to three simple reasons, it's that these machines are continuous, you don't have to interrupt, you don't even, these days, have to put another coin in because it's all credit gambling...They're also rapid. You can play 1,200 hands, or spins, an hour so there's hardly any time to really pause and reflect on what you're doing...With poker you've got to wait for other people to take their turn, wait for the cards to come around, or even [with] horse races, you've got to wait for the horses to finish. Not so on a gambling machine...Slot machines appeal to a totally different kind of gambler who's seeking a different experience, which is not one of expectation and thrill and suspense but actually relaxation and rhythm and, [from] what I hear from gamblers, the term is 'zoning out.' So, they're actually after the flow of it, not necessarily the win. Some of them will actually become disappointed when they win a jackpot because the machine will freeze up for a while and you've got to learn to listen to the little songs, maybe people will come over to you, congratulate you, suddenly you're back in the world where you don't want to be."

On the state's new system to limit problem gamblers:
"The idea here is of loss limits, and this is otherwise known as a pre-commitment system. The idea is that individual gambler consumers would...log onto their own banking modules where they could look at a calendar, set limits [and] say, 'I don't want to gamble on this day, I only want to gamble $60 a day, $350 a week.' So you are committing to and setting your own limits...It's going to be integrated to the casino's play card...Most people these days — I think 80 percent of casino patrons — don't gamble with cash, they're gambling with player loyalty cards...It's sort of like a credit card to allow you to go into the casino. You also get rewarded...One of the problems I have with this system that's being implemented is that it's joined in that way and that there may be some kind of reward system for setting your limits — you might get points if you log on and use the system to set limits but there's a highly respected researcher out there — Bob Williams — who's sort of collected what are the evidence-based best practices and one of them is [to] eliminate reward cards, and he specifically says that it's not compatible with these pre-commitment systems. That if you're actually putting the pre-commitment system and bundling it with a card that also functions to reward you and incentivize your play. It's quite contradictory."

On why there isn't a system that will shut people off, the way a bartender would:
"There are [those systems] in some places, but in this country there's a real push back against anything that seems mandatory, and this system — while it's not a total free-for-all where consumers have to completely regulate themselves — they're being helped here. They're being given education tools and even the system, right? The whole system's designed to help them, but ultimately the responsibility's being placed with people to shut themselves off...I'm for this system being in place, it's better than nothing...and the commission is honestly trying to make it as effective as it can be. However, it could do more. For instance, once you reach your set loss limits, because the system and because the casinos invested in Massachusetts are insisting, you can just override your own limits because it's voluntary, right? So it seems a little absurd at a certain point that you could put this system in place. First you have to enroll in it, and then if you're enrolled in it, still even then, when you reach your limits you can keep playing."


The New York Times: Slot Machines Are Designed to Addict

  • "Modern slot machines — which typically feature video screens instead of mechanical reels, buttons instead of handles, and accept player loyalty cards instead of coins — are the driving force behind campaigns to expand legalized gambling in the United States."

This article was originally published on December 09, 2014.

This segment aired on December 9, 2014.


More from Radio Boston

Listen Live