Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas

Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas

Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas

Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas


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. 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.

Addiction by Design is a compelling inquiry into the intensifying traffic between people and machines of chance, offering clues to some of the broader anxieties and predicaments of contemporary life.


On a weekday evening in the fall of 1999, Mollie and I sit at the floorlength windows of a room high in the South Tower of the Main Street Station Hotel and Casino in downtown Las Vegas. Blinking brightly below us is a four-block stretch of Fremont Street, the city’s former central artery of casino life. At the top of Fremont begins the long flicking perpendicular of Las Vegas Boulevard, otherwise known as the “Strip,” a corridor of commercial gambling that extends for five miles in a southwesterly direction until it reaches the edge of the city and fades into gas stations, billboards, and desert. As the sky grows darker, pockets of light flare up in the relatively dim areas to either side of this infamous thoroughfare, marking off-Strip gambling establishments that cater to a burgeoning local clientele.

Mollie’s frequent video poker play at these establishments has earned her a complimentary stay at Main Street Station. Her eleven-year-old son, Jimmy, lies lengthwise on the bed behind us, his gaze riveted to the television screen as his hands work the controls of the PlayStation console his mother has rented from the front desk to occupy him while we talk. “Mom, it’s the Vegas game,” says Jimmy from the bed. “You drive all around Vegas and try to play games.” “Oh great, that’s all we need,” she responds.

At her first job, when she was not much older than Jimmy, Mollie dispensed change for slot machines on a US military base where her father . . .

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