Slot machines in our pockets

The capacity of slot machines to keep people transfixed is now the engine of Las Vegas’s economy. Over the last 20 years, roulette wheels and craps tables have been swept away to make space for a new generation of machines: no longer mechanical contraptions (they have no lever), they contain complex computers produced in collaborations between software engineers, mathematicians, script writers and graphic artists.

But it is the variation in rewards that is the key to time-on-device. The machines are programmed to create near misses: winning symbols appear just above or below the “payline” far more often than chance alone would dictate. The player’s losses are thus reframed as potential wins, motivating her to try again. Mathematicians design payout schedules to ensure that people keep playing while they steadily lose money.

Alternative schedules are matched to different types of players, with differing appetites for risk: some gamblers are drawn towards the possibility of big wins and big losses, others prefer a drip-feed of little payouts (as a game designer told Schüll, “Some people want to be bled slowly”). The mathematicians are constantly refining their models and experimenting with new ones, wrapping their formulae around the contours of the cerebral cortex.

Gamblers themselves talk about “the machine zone”: a mental state in which their attention is locked into the screen in front of them, and the rest of the world fades away. A player who is feeling frustrated and considering quitting for the day might receive a tap on the shoulder from a “luck ambassador”, dispensing tickets to shows or gambling coupons. What the player doesn’t know is that data from his game-playing has been fed into an algorithm that calculates how much that player can lose and still feel satisfied, and how close he is to the “pain point”. The offer of a free meal at the steakhouse converts his pain into pleasure, refreshing his motivation to carry on.

These days, of course, we all carry slot machines in our pockets.

Ian Leslie writing in 1843 magazine