Addiction by Design

Natasha Dow Schüll
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The author goes deep on how slot machines hold gamblers, spellbound, in an endless loop of play. First published in 2012, but more relevant today than ever as we're starting to see these same stimulus-response methods spring up in the apps and websites we use every day.

The Machine Zone

“It’s like being in the eye of a storm, is how I’d describe it. Your vision is clear on the machine in front of you but the whole world is spinning around you, and you can’t really hear anything. You aren’t really there—you’re with the machine and that’s all you’re with.”

The solitary, uninterrupted process of machine play, by contrast, tends to produce a steady, trancelike state that “distracts from internal and external issues” such as anxiety, depression, and boredom.

Computers, video games, mobile phones, iPods, and the like have become a means through which individuals can manage their affective states and create a personal buffer zone against the uncertainties and worries of their world.


Interior Design

Instead of turning attention away from machines, every aspect of the environment should work to turn attention toward machines, and keep it focused there.

From ceiling height to carpet pattern, lighting intensity to aisle width, acoustics to temperature regulation—all such elements, Freidman argues, should be engineered to facilitate the interior state of the machine zone.

Friedman advises designers to offer hints at what lies beyond, but cautions them never to overclarify or allow glimpses into the far reaches of the casino, for this might discourage patrons from moving into its interior.

Corridors draw people in not only by way of cues but also by way of curves. Casino patrons “resist perpendicular turning,” Friedman notes, for “commitment is required to slow down and turn 90 degrees into a slot aisle.”

Engineering Experiences

Player-centric machine design follows a wider trend in user-centrism wherein product designers seek to extract value from enhanced consumer experiences, or to “mine a new phenomenological substrate,” as the sociologist Nigel Thrift writes.

“I want to keep you there as long as humanly possible—that’s the whole trick, that’s what makes you lose.”

Machine designers strive to balance ambient intensities as a way to hold players in the balanced affective state of the zone. “We have five elements to work with—colour, light, animation, sound, and space—and each can act as an attraction or an irritant,” wrote an industry expert.

Visual consistency, acoustic harmony, tactile confirmation: designers seek to extend time-on-device by creating an intimate reverberation between machine functions and the human sensorium.

Programming Chance

Herbert Stephen Mills expanded the viewing window on the reels so that players could see rows of symbols above and below the payline, increasing the likelihood that they would experience a “near miss”—the sensation of nearly having won produced by the sight of winning symbols adjacent to the payline.

Scholars of technology have noted that people tend to attribute agency to computerised devices.

Behavioural-psychological explanations for why near misses are so compelling include the “frustration theory of persistence,” in which near misses “have an invigorating or potentiating effect on any behavior that immediately follows it,” and the related theory of “cognitive regret,” in which players circumvent regret at having almost won by immediately playing again.

“Almost hitting the jackpot,” noted the behaviourist psychologist B. F. Skinner in 1953, “increases the probability that the individual will play the machine, although this reinforcer costs the owner of the device nothing.”


Variable Reward Schedules (B.F. Skinner Experiments)

If every time the rat hit the lever he got a treat, that would be the end of it—he would just hit the lever when he was hungry. But that’s not how conditioning works. Enter the concept of intermittent reinforcement. Simply put, it means that the rewards (pellets) are dispensed on a random schedule—sometimes the rat gets none, sometimes a few, sometimes a lot of pellets (sounding familiar yet?). He never knows when he’s going to get a pellet so he keeps pushing that lever, over and over and over and over, even if none come out. The rat becomes obsessed—addicted, if you will. this, then, is the psychological principle that slot machines operate on, and how it operates on you.

Innovation, Intensification, Habituation

The capacity of a given “reward schedule” to reinforce behavior depends less on the net gain or loss that subjects experience, and more on the frequency and pattern by which rewards are dispensed or withheld.

By adjusting the mathematical configuration of their games, designers seek to address an ever-wider range of human preferences within the human-machine environment of the gambling arena.

While traditional slots had an average reward frequency of only 3 percent, the new video poker machines typically rewarded players on 45 percent of plays—just the kind of schedule that prolongs the persistence of a behavior, as Skinner had noted.

Tracking Players and Guiding Play

Tracking technologies unobtrusively record gamblers’ unfettered play, at once dispensing rewards and collecting clues to how the technology might better coax continued play; in this case, it is best that gamblers remain unaware of their surveillance.

A striking example of “unwitting submission” is found in Bally’s method for tracking players regardless of their participation in a loyalty club. The system incorporates biometric recognition into gambling machines via miniaturised cameras linked to a central database; when a player activates the machine without using a player card, the camera “captures the player’s image and stores it along with their game play,” creating a “John Doe” file.

“Knowledge is power and perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the gaming industry,” asserted an industry magazine in 1999, before Internet corporations like Google, Amazon, and Facebook had become famous for their innovations in consumer monitoring. Many surveillance and marketing innovations first used in casinos were only later adapted to other domains—including airports, financial trading floors, consumer shopping malls, insurance agencies, banks, and government programs like Home-land Security.

From Control to Compulsion

Csikszentmihalyi identified four “preconditions” of flow: first, each moment of the activity must have a little goal; second, the rules for attaining that goal must be clear; third, the activity must give immediate feedback so that one has certainty, from moment to moment, on where one stands; fourth, the tasks of the activity must be matched with operational skills, bestowing a sense of simultaneous control and challenge.

Csikszentmihalyi has acknowledged that any flow activity is “potentially addictive,” inviting dependency on its power to suspend negative affective states such as boredom, anxiety, and confusion, or what he calls “psychic entropy.”


Machine gamblers frequently connect their preference for the asocial, robotic procedure of machine play to the hypersociality demanded by their jobs—in real estate, accounting, insurance, sales, and other service fields.

The repeated, accelerated exercise of these controls, we also saw, can lead to states of absorption in which control, as such, disappears. In part, this disappearance is attributable to the machines’ ability to conjure a cognitive and psychological state virtually free of the events, difficulties, and “irresolvables”—the contingencies—that life entails.

Gambling machines could be said to distill the psychic economy of the death drive as Freud described it, converting life’s suspensive circuits into an unimpeded path toward the zone.


At first glance, therapeutic enterprises would appear to operate at cross-purposes with commercial gambling.

First, both are geared around the idea that behavior can be modified through external modulation; like gambling machines, therapeutic products are designed to be “user-centric” and amenable to custom tailoring. Second, both work by bringing about in their users a state of affective balance that insulates them from internal and external perturbations.

Drugs prescribed to dampen cravings for machine play come to function as intensifiers of its effects


Despite the American Gaming Association’s claim that “regulators carefully examine the impact on consumers of game innovations,” in fact no tests are performed (such as those for consumer products such as food, drugs, cars, or children’s toys) to evaluate the potential harmful impact of machine features or player tracking systems on users, and no safety guidelines exist to inform their design. The profound effects of these features and systems on users’ psyches and behaviours go utterly unexamined by regulators

Beyond elucidating the singular case of addiction to machine gambling, such a mapping suggests a methodological and analytical framework for parsing the complexities, consequences, and challenges that emerge in and through the intimate entanglements between people and technology that have become such a defining feature of contemporary life.