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The Psychology Behind Vegas

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Las Vegas is famous for many things, but what continues to drive its excess is gambling. Matthew Crawford looks at the ever-evolving psychology behind it all


I recently visited Las Vegas, a place designed for the single purpose of separating you from your money. The female form is used freely there in advertisements, bombarding you from the moment you step off your plane. These images work just as surely as tying a rope to a person’s neck and giving it a sharp yank. The point, of course, is to pull you into a casino or other money pit. Once the initial excitement wears off, you start to feel like a rat in a city-sized experiment in social engineering. Here the ‘nudgers’ are not the government, but corporate interests (ownership of casinos in Vegas passed from the Mob to Wall Street investors in the Nineties, and the Strip came to be dominated by Disney-like resorts.)

Vegas

Advanced economies are said to be moving away from producing goods or delivering services, in favour of creating experiences. Life is increasingly mediated by representations crafted for this purpose, from video games to porn, and we can view Vegas as a laboratory where the cutting edge of these dark arts is being honed.

Natasha Dow Schüll, an anthropologist who has studied Vegas, writes that, “Until the mid-Eighties, green-felt table games such as blackjack and craps dominated casino floors while slot machines huddled on the sidelines… along hallways or near elevators.” By 2003, the president of the American Gaming Association estimated that “over 85 per cent of industry profits came from machines”. With machine gambling, every aspect of play can be optimised to create an experience that it is literally a matter of “addiction by design” (the title of Schüll’s book).

It is not uncommon for heavy users to stand at a machine for up to 12 hours at a stretch, developing blood clots and other medical conditions. Paramedics in Las Vegas dread getting calls from casinos, which usually turn out to be heart attacks. The problem is that when someone collapses, the other gamblers won’t get out of the way to let the paramedics do their job; they won’t leave their machines. Deafening fire alarms are similarly ignored; there have been incidents where rising floodwaters didn’t dislodge them. The gamblers are so absorbed that they become oblivious to their surroundings. Some of them wear dark clothing when they gamble so it won’t show when they urinate on themselves.

In the zone

This is not quite the suave image of James Bond at the blackjack table in Monte Carlo. We see him catching sidelong glances from a circle of players who are intrigued with one another as much as with the game. In such a scene, gambling seems to be merely a setting for the exercise of a certain urbane cool. You hope to be bathed in the sparkling light of fortune before your rivals. In any case, you surely don’t p*ss in your pants.

Encountering the world through a screen, human experience has become a highly engineered, and therefore manipulable, thing. Never mind the extreme case of a casino; the media has become a master of packaging stimuli in ways that our brains find irresistible, just as food engineers have become expert in creating ‘hyperpalatable’ foods by manipulating levels of sugar, fat and salt. Distractibility might be regarded as the mental equivalent of obesity. Inhabiting a contrived environment, the natural world begins to seem bland and tasteless, like broccoli compared to Cheetos. Stimulation begets a need for more stimulation; without it one feels antsy, unsettled. Hungry, almost. We are satisfied only when bingeing on the most intense entertainments.

Vegas

Computer game developers complain that the landscape for mobile gaming has lately been transformed by the business model of the gambling industry. This may sound implausible at first blush. Isn’t it the hope of winning that keeps a person at a slot machine? Apparently not. As Schüll reports, the point is to get “in the zone” – that place of quasi-autistic, repetitive absorption where the frustrations of life beyond the screen fall away. The ‘mature’ gambler (as the industry refers to its most loyal customers) knows better than to hope to come out ahead. Feeding money into the machine is simply how one keeps it turned on. Similarly, the ascendant model for mobile gaming apps is to require payment to keep progressing to the next level. Such progress, and a corresponding acceleration of the rate of play, is key. The “reward schedule” must be carefully calibrated to establish an addiction. The dopamine reward circuits of our brains are highly susceptible to being rewired, and this is the foundation of the business model. The relevant psychology got worked out decades ago – through experiments on rats.

But there is also a uniquely human trait that the games seem to tap into, and exploit. It was captured by Friedrich Nietzsche when he said that joy is the feeling of your power increasing. Moving up a level in your gaming prowess, you feel a growing mastery. This is no small thing – especially in a society where experiences of individual agency have become elusive.

The house wins

As the world becomes more confusing, or as the default expectation becomes to land a cubicle job for example, retreat to a zone of quasi-autistic pseudo-action has understandable appeal. Precisely because this zone has been sealed off from the world, it is experienced as a zone of personal efficacy and intelligibility. But there is another approach one can take, one that doesn’t require dependence on engineered experiences. It is to reclaim the real and accord it a regular place in our lives.

My research is based on case studies of skilled practices: I have investigated the coordinated finesse of a group of jazz musicians who improvise; the intense focus of ice-hockey players, short-order cooks and motorcycle racers; the deep, slow work of building musical instruments. Such practices establish narrow and highly structured patterns of attention – what I call ‘ecologies of attention’ – that can give coherence to our mental lives, however briefly. Unlike an episode of becoming enthralled with a computer game or slot machine, activities such as these require us to become competent by mastering something real. That is, something that has not been designed around us, and targeted at us, by interests that hope to monetise our headspace through a kind of remote control.

When we are engaged in demanding activities that bring us into face-to-face contact with others, we become rapt in features of the world – the actual, shared world, as opposed to a private, virtual one – that were likely invisible to us before we were initiated into the practice. When this happens, the thin pleasures of the virtual may come to seem pale counterfeits, and lose some of their grip on us.

Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head is out now (Viking)

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