No Armed Bandit

Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman: Americans have always had an uneasy relationship with gambling. To circumvent anti-gambling laws in the US, early slot machines masqueraded as vending machines.

Natasha Dow Schüll: Or a “trade machine” as they were called.

Roman: And the symbols on the machine had to obscure its true intent.

Natasha: So you have these fruit symbols of cherries and lemons, and oranges on the reels and they would offer prizes.

Roman: Like chewing gums or other treats.

Natasha: That you would then have to redeem for cash.

Roman: Like tickets at Chuck E. Cheese’s.

Natasha: So, it was almost like laundering it back into money.

Roman: Many slot machines have retained the fruit symbols to this day. Heck, in the UK they are actually called “fruit machines” because of this.

Natasha: So, that is a carryover from that era.

Roman: The new universal bar symbol which I always thought represented stacks of bars of gold, has a similar origin. The bar symbol is actually based on the logo of the Bell-Fruit Gum Company. I’m talking with Natasha Dow Schüll.

Natasha: My name is Natasha Dow Schüll and I’m an Associate Professor at MIT and the title of my book is, Addiction by Design.

Roman: All about machine gambling in Las Vegas. You can probably picture a slot machine pretty easily.

Natasha: The image we have that we carry around in our minds of the slot machine.

Roman: It’s pretty much the same machine that came out in 1895.

Natasha: Three reels, mechanical reels that spin, and you are playing to line up symbols across one line. So, one bar of symbols and to get the machine to play, you are putting in coins and then you are reaching up with your arm and pulling this lever.

Roman: So, it’s a very mechanical interaction.

Natasha: This is the famous one-armed bandit.

Roman: Today if you walk into a casino, you may still see those levers. But they have a new name, Legacy levers.

Natasha: Because they’re basically just there to evoke that bygone mechanical machine and to attract us over. We recognize it, we can pull the lever but we very quickly realize after sitting down, that it is a lot faster and more efficient and ultimately less fatiguing, if we’re sitting there for a while to press the buttons or in some cases, to touch the screen.

Roman: A classic skeuomorph.

Natasha: The physical machine, the hardware that you’re interacting with has really shifted.

Roman: Skeuomorphs are design elements that are retained as an ornament past the point where they serve any meaningful function. The slot machines are skeuomorphic-champions. They are lousy with design elements that make you feel like you’re interacting with a trustworthy mechanical object. It’s not just the Legacy levers.

Natasha: It’s also the screen you are looking at. So, this is typically now a video screen rather than a mechanical three-reel setup. Some of these video machines, however, try to make us think we’re playing a mechanical machine. They sort of have a kind of analog, ka-ching, ka-ching to them. Military visual mapping technology is used. It’s like this three-layer plasma screen. So, there are actual reels spinning. They’re blank, and what’s happening is that there is a video projection on to them. So, it’s not like them marked with actual symbols. The symbols that appear can just be changed up. There are lots of little tricks by which designers try to get us to feel that we are still playing an analog mechanical device.

Roman: According to CBS news, Americans now spend more money on slot machines than movies, baseball, and theme parks combined. But this was not always the case.

Natasha: These were seen as really just, frivolous little devices that were there to occupy the wives of the real gamblers, or to occupy the people in these sort of transitional spaces while they are waiting on line, or in hallways, or around the fringes of the main gambling pit.

Roman: So they did not intend to have stools, much less the precise ergonomic seating that they have today.

Natasha: They were not destinations. They were really transitional devices.

Roman: But not anymore.

Natasha: And then there is this historical association in this country between women, particularly older women nowadays, and these slot machines. So, in every way, these machines are thought of as being light, a light form of gambling and the real irony there is that, these machines that anyone can– very approachable, you do not have to know the rules, you have to be wearing a suit, or interact with other people in some intimidating way. The irony is that they are the most potent if you want to use that word, in terms of how addicting they are. It has been showing that you get problematically involved with these devices three to four times faster than you would at the race track or playing card games.

Roman: “Problematically involved” is my new favorite euphemism. Despite the slot machines very familiar appearance, this is a device that has evolved dramatically with one goal in mind: To keep you playing that machine.

Natasha: We often think, especially people who do not play these machines, the assumption is, people must be playing these machines especially the people who play them a lot because they want to win. And these are sort of dupes, these are poor people who do not understand how probability works. They’re not rational. If only they could be educated they’d make these proper consumer decisions. But in fact, if you talk to a lot of these gamblers, they are incredibly savvy. They’re not dupes! They know they’re not going to win, and they know that if they do win a jackpot, that means that they will just sit there longer and play it off.

Roman: So, it’s not really about winning. It’s about getting into the zone.

Natasha: Everything else falls away. A sense of monetary value, time, space, even a sense of self is annihilated in the extreme form of this zone that you enter.

Roman: There is one moment in Schüll’s research for the whole concept of “the zone” really sunk into her. She was talking to a gambler….

Natasha: And she said, “You know, sometimes I have to say I get the sense of frustration, irritation when I win a jackpot because it just freezes up my flow. I just want to continue playing.”

Roman: I’ve witnessed this in a casino. The player wins and as the credits are accruing, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, they’re just continuing to bang that spin button. They just cannot wait to hit it again. So there’s this design imperative to overcome the problem of interruption. A design imperative to overcome the player’s problem with winning.

Natasha: And you know, the gambling industry has its own way of phrasing this. They’re aware of this zone. Sometimes they call it a zone, they also have a term that there are “play to win” players, or “jackpot” players and then there’s “play to win to play” players.

Roman: Otherwise known as “time on device” players. In Schüll’s book tracks this sea change in the gambling industry away from jackpot play and towards time on device play.

Natasha: So this is not play where you go in and you’re excited, and you’re out to get this euphoric thrill from a big win. Or from the industry side, you’re not out to sort of flee someone and take all their money right away and then get them off the machine so you can take someone else’s money.

Roman: This is more about profit from volume.

Natasha: The ideas that gamblers want to sit there longer and the industry has realized, profit really isn’t about the price of play, it’s about the volume of play.

Roman: And once you understand that, it begins to make a lot more sense why penny machines, machines played with a denomination of one cent are generating higher profits than any other machine today.

Natasha: Now, if you had asked the industry a decade ago, “what’s going to become of penny machines?” They would have laughed at you because at that stage, even nickel machines were considered, they were really mocked as games you would only find in grind joints. But if we look closely at some technological advances that certain makers have hit upon, they started to realize, “Aha! If we take the bet and we break it down into pennies and find ways with the computer algorithms inside the machine to extend the betting over a longer period, we can ultimately make more money.”

Roman: So the lights and the sound attract you. The casino atmospherics draw you in. The ergonomic seats keep you comfortable. The max bet and spin buttons don’t even require you to move your hand from its resting position. The recessed screen pulls you into your own private world and you enter the zone.

Natasha: But what’s going to keep you playing is the math, and that’s really the revolution of this new video slots.

Roman: And “the math and that’s the term the industry uses, has gotten very complicated.

Natasha: So if you imagine, our friend the old one-armed-bandit, you had these three reels with symbols on them and you were betting on lining up one single line of symbols across. Now, even on mechanical machines, designers quickly found creative ways to add in other lines of play. So usually when you see these reels, you can sort of see the line above and the line below.

Roman: The genius of showing extra lines above and below the winning line, is that it introduces the nearness phenomenon. It’s that feeling that you almost won when you see that winning symbol so close on that adjacent line, but the extra lines are also available for placing extra bets.

Natasha: So the idea was, let’s let people bet on three lines and let them bet instead of one token, they can bet two tokens on two lines or three. So you did see these early multi-coin games, but there were limits to them because there is really a limit when you are talking about mechanical reels to how many symbols you can fit on the screen.

Roman: But then video technology came along and slot machines could do whatever the designer wanted.

Natasha: So you started seeing this progression from not just lines, you had even your two diagonals from the corners of the screen down, then you started seeing, “Well, let’s add extra reels. Let’s add 5, 6, 7 reels across and let’s add zigzags and weird directions.” So it’s typical today to see 20, 50, 100 line games.

Roman: And it gets so complicated that it begins to get really hard to tell if you even won or not. The onscreen graphics have to draw the lines for you.

Natasha: Some machines have even gone so far as to do away with lining up altogether. They have what’s called, “scatter play.” So it’s really quite random. You’re no longer playing to line up that one line of symbols across.

Roman: Which is insane!

Natasha: So that’s how going on, you say, “What’s going on here? What’s significant about that, is that if you are playing on a penny machine, you decide that you are going bet a penny per line. So that’s what would be a 100 pennies, that’s a dollar. In fact, you can max it out and bet 3 pennies per line. So in fact, you’re making $3 a bet. That’s quite significant. You know, when quarter players started disappearing when video slots came out, researchers were sent on to casino floors to find out, “Where did our quarter players go? Are they are migrating to dollars as we thought they would?” No, they were kind of regressing back to nickel machines, but in the end, they were actually paying more, they were betting more per hand than they had on the quarter machines.

Roman: So the question is, why would a gambler do that? The slots are more appealing because they take more coins.

Natasha: Here’s the real trick. When you are betting 300 pennies on 100 lines, you’re going to win back a portion of those. For the first time in history, you’re not betting a token and then losing it all or doubling it, tripling it. That’s a really volatile setup. This is much less volatile. You’re spreading your bet across 100 lines and it’s really a lot safer if you want to see it that way, because chances are, you’re going to win back something on some of those lines, and it just so happens that these machines are designed when you win back something, to give you all the winning stimuli that comes along with a real win. One researcher has aptly called this, “a false win” or “losses disguised as wins” because you are putting in 45 coins, you’re winning “winning 9 back” that’s a pretty radical net loss, but yet, there’s little diddies that are being played, it virtually no different than when you really do win.

Roman: Another key factor in making penny machines possible in all their little micro-bets are updates on how the player feeds money into the machine.

Natasha: Yes, this is a huge part of it. Alongside that ergonomics of the chairs, and the changes in the responsivity of the buttons and how they’re placed, came the financial access technology. You know if you think about the past, if you ran out of money and you wanted to continue to play at a machine, there was a lot of steps you had to. You really had to work for it. You had to leave your machine, maybe it would not be there when you got back, ask someone to hold it. Then go off and search of an ATM, get some cash, then you had to search out a cashier’s cage or a roving change attendant, buy these coins, return to a machine, open the coins and put them in one by one. That was very labor intensive.

Roman: And then imagine feeding in 300 pennies.

Natasha: So you started seeing bill acceptors that would take $20, it was sort of a move to credit play, and with the bill acceptors, you have got these little digital monitors where it was not exactly telling you how much money was in the machine, it was telling you how many credits. So already there with the bill acceptors, you saw a kind of turn toward “credit play” which really dematerialized the money, made it less real somehow and allowed you to get in that zone, you know disconnected you again from the everyday world.

Roman: Nowadays, a lot of machine gambling uses this player reward cards.

Natasha: Which are essentially credit cards that the casino sets up for you where you store credit. You will often go into a casino and see people that are seemingly connected to these machines almost like life support with these plastic bungee cords that are attached to their cards, so they won’t forget them and lose them there. So you look down the whole line and everyone is sort of attached to these machines with these plastic ropes. Ticket in, ticket out technology where you are playing with these barcoded tickets, and player cards were really necessary piece of the technological puzzle for pennies to come on the scene in the way that they did with multiline machines.

Roman: And this design evolution is the reason why slot machines are the most profitable form of gambling even though there is no skill involved, and the player does not even know the odds of winning for any given machine.

Natasha: One gambler in my book, Rose who said, “You know, I became a slot machine technician to understand more about these machines and I thought it would be a good part of my recovery from the addiction, because I thought if I understand how these machines work, the spell will be broken.” And she said, “You know, even after I was putting these machines together and designing them at work, on my lunch breaks I would just go down the street and play the exact same machines.”

Roman: Because that is how addiction works.

99% Invisible is Sam Greenspan and me, Roman Mars. We’re a project of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco.

  1. This was an incredible episode. My favorite so far. I loved the part about how slots lessen the sting of a loss nowadays.

  2. Timothy K

    Had a crazy moment listening to this episode where the background slot machine noise at 13:56-14:10 triggered a distant memory, like a smell that harkens back to a hazy memory of childhood. Finally figured it out, it matches 2:19 in Death Grip’s “Inanimate Sensation” off of the B side of “The Powers that B” album. Enjoy!

  3. Indigo

    To anyone wondering (I think it must be a lot). The song used in the ending is called “Marilyn Set Me Free” from Casino vs Japan. Haha Roman, I get it. Casinos and being set free.

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