Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas

Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas

by Natasha Dow Schüll

ISBN: 9780691127552

Publisher Princeton University Press

Published in Politics & Social Sciences/Sociology

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One


Architecture, Ambience, and Affect

It was not uncommon, in my interviews with casino slot floor managers, to hear of machine gamblers so absorbed in play that they were oblivious to rising flood waters at their feet or smoke and fire alarms that blared at deafening levels. As the casino surveillance tapes showed, the activity can keep a group of gamblers unaware of their immediate surroundings, each other, and even a dying man at their feet. Mollie witnessed this extreme of unawareness one night as she searched the aisles of a casino for a machine to play and came upon a small crowd gathered around a man lying on the floor between a row of machines. "He'd had a heart attack and the paramedics were getting him with those shocker things," she recalled. "Everyone walking by was looking at him, but I was watching the woman on the dollar slot machine. She was staring right at the screen and never missed a beat. She played right through it, she never stopped." As the medical technicians applied the defibrillator to start a stopped heart beating, the gambler played the slot machine to keep a different kind of beat going, one that held her in a zone removed from the sights, sounds, and events transpiring around her. "You aren't really there," Mollie told us earlier of the zone, "you're with the machine and that's all you're with."

Daniel, a retired telecommunications engineer, drew a direct link between the removal he feels from his environment while in the zone and design features of that very environment:

It starts while I'm on my way to the casino. I'm in the car driving, but in my mind I'm already inside, walking around to find my machine. In the parking lot, the feeling gets even stronger. By the time I get inside, I'm halfway into that zone. It has everything to do with the sounds, the lights, the atmosphere, walking through the aisles. Then when I'm finally sitting in front of the machine playing, it's like I'm not even really there anymore—everything fades away.

In Daniel's experience, the zone he enters is in some way a function of the same architectural and ambient world that "fades away" within it. Taking his insight as a point of departure, this chapter explores the relationship between the interior design of the casino and the interior state of the zone.

Relearning from Las Vegas

In their 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas, architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour made a case for the cultural significance of Las Vegas and its built environment, arguing that the city was a laboratory for experimentation with refreshingly populist architectural forms. Rejecting the elitist notion that architecture's role was to instill social values and behavioral ideals, the authors embraced the city's roadside structures as spontaneous monuments to popular vernacular and frontier automobile freedom. These structures, they proposed in their landmark work, departed from the utopian, totalizing pretensions of modernist architecture and expressed a democratically inclusive response to "common values" and "existing conditions."

While modernist buildings sought to facilitate communitas through high ceilings, wide open space, bountiful lighting and windows, and a minimalist, uncluttered aesthetic, casinos' low, immersive interiors, blurry spatial boundaries, and mazes of alcoves accommodated "crowds of anonymous individuals without explicit connection with each other." Like other popular communal spaces, casinos catered to the desires of everyday Americans to be "together and yet separate." Venturi and his colleagues elaborated: "The combination of darkness and enclosure of the gambling room and its subspaces makes for privacy, protection, concentration and control. The intricate maze under the low ceiling never connects with the outside light or outside space. This disorients the occupant in space and time. One loses track of where one is and when it is." Such spaces did not pretend to remedy the social ills of the "lonely crowd," as sociologist David Riesman had despairingly designated the public at large, but instead responded to the escapist sensibilities of the American populace by satisfying them, without judgment.

The publication of Learning from Las Vegas coincided with Nevada's passage of the Corporate Gaming Act and the new wave of casino development that it ushered in. This wave gathered momentum in the 1990s, set off by the staggering success of the Mirage, a rainforest-themed resort financed with junk bonds in 1989 by an ambitious young casino tycoon named Steve Wynn. His winning venture inspired other companies to build competing properties on the Strip, turning the idiosyncratic structures that Venturi and his colleagues had lauded into gargantuan corporate megaresorts—"total environments" whose meticulous architectural calculations left little to chance. Behind whatever fanciful thematic facades these new casinos bore—Polynesian rainforest, ancient Egypt, Italian lakeside—their interior design followed a standard blueprint for revenue maximization, offering a different kind of "learning from Las Vegas." As Frederic Jameson suggested in his 1991 critique of Learning from Las Vegas, its authors' eagerness to dismiss modernism had blinded them to the "cultural logic of late capitalism" nascent in the architectural forms they encountered. Although the aspirations of these forms were not modernist in that they were neither moral nor civic, they were nonetheless unabashedly instrumental; in place of self-mastery and social harmony, they promoted self-abandon and corporate profit.

Now, as then, casinos' "commercial vernacular style" responds to popular needs or desires for escapism as part of a larger effort to guide those needs and desires. "The one thing you need to know about casino planning is that the whole point of a casino is to get people walking from the registration to the main body of the casino," responded a top designer when asked by a scholar how the concept of "human engineering" influenced casino design. He went on to explain what his firm meant by "experience-based" architecture: "We try to influence movement and the circulation pattern and therefore direct people's experience." Although Wynn has downplayed the role of such strategy in the design of his own casinos, stating that the winning formula behind the Mirage was the result of "confusion, not cunning," in fact each of his properties has been a fastidiously planned affair from conception to finish, from wall treatments to ambient soundtrack. For instance, after he drew up floor plans for the Mirage (see fig 1.1) he delayed construction so as to entertain suggestions for alterations by the design consultant and former casino manager Bill Friedman, whose pragmatic philosophy of casino design we will examine in the following pages.

Friedman, the gambling industry's maverick guru of casino design, established himself as such in 1974 when he wrote the definitive book on casino management. Over the next twenty-five years, he conducted research for another book, the epic 630-page tome boldly titled Designing Casinos to Dominate the Competition, published in 2000. There he calls casinos mazes, and makes sure his clients know what he means by this: "The term maze is appropriate because my trusty American Heritage Dictionary says it comes from the words to confuse or to confound and defines it as `an intricate, usually confusing network of interconnecting pathways, as in garden; a labyrinth.'" Unlike Wynn, Friedman invokes confusion not to diminish the cunning of his own design but rather to characterize it. The architectural vision of confusion that he elaborates strongly resembles the "intricate maze" described in Learning from Las Vegas yet shares less with postmodern populism than with applied behaviorism. "Just as the Pied Piper of Hamelin lured all the rats and the children to follow him," he writes, "a properly designed maze entices adult players."

Although Friedman's maze is not the only casino design template influential in the gambling industry today, the pride of place it accords machines makes it a fitting port of entry for an analysis of the relationship between interior design and machine gamblers' interior states. The maze and its enticement strategies expressly seek to precipitate and modulate the otherworldly "zone" of machine gambling.

Designing the Maze

In his writings, Friedman reproaches "casino owners and operators, architects, interior designers, and decorators" for tending to rely on subjective preferences and lofty design concepts rather than on a pragmatic understanding of what encourages or deters gambling. "Their concepts and proposals," he writes, "fail to recognize the unique objectives and behavior of gamblers." His own expertise at recognizing such objectives and behavior rests not only on the exhaustive empirical field studies he conducted in eighty casinos over a period of twenty years (supplemented by a historical analysis from 1931 to the present) but also on his experience as a onetime slot machine addict. He thus establishes himself as an authority in the book's introduction: "I understand the motives and experiences of players because I was a degenerate gambler until I swore off it twenty-five years ago."

Drawing on his intimate familiarity with the zone of machine gambling, Friedman goes on to describe the play that gamblers seek as an "inward focus into their own private domain [that] makes them oblivious to everything around them." He insists that "the designer, marketer, and operator who best caters to this personal, introspective experience will attract and hold the most business." Friedman's insistence that casino design cater to the escapist sensibilities of his clientele resonates with that of Venturi and his colleagues, yet his aim is neither to decry modernist pretension nor simply to accommodate the inclinations of his clients, but rather to shape an environment that can steer their behavior in accordance with the extractive aims of the larger operation.

In line with the economic priorities of his industry, Friedman pays nearly exclusive attention to machine gamblers. While many interior designers treat slot machines as mere props with which to lure people into casinos, he conceives of the entire built environment of the casino as a means for luring people to machines. "If the only commonality among casinos is that they feature gambling equipment," he writes, "then it is an eloquent statement by players that this is all that is important to them." Acknowledging that his approach violates the sensibilities of professional decorators, he insists that monotonous surroundings are best: "Machines should not be hidden or camouflaged by attention grabbing décor, which should be eliminated to the greatest extent possible so as to allow the equipment to announce itself." As a like-minded casino operator put it bluntly in the course of a 2009 panel on casino design, "I don't want anyone to come in and look at the ceiling—I don't make any money on the ceiling." 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. To this end he presents a comprehensive design strategy involving thirteen trademarked laws called the Friedman Casino Design Principles.

Shrinking Space: Construction, Segmentation, Shelter

The chief task of casino design, according to Friedman, is to arrange "the spatial relationships of surrounding areas, the shape and feel of the structural box that encloses the setting" in such a way as to encourage machine gamblers' entry into "secluded, private playing worlds." "While players prefer gambling in bustling casinos," he notes, "they want to be isolated in their own private, intimate world from the surrounding hubbub that attracted them in the first place." In response to this wish for isolation, he applies The Law of Space Elimination to architectural layout.

Echoing the antimodernism of Learning from Las Vegas, Friedman accuses mainstream designers of too readily assuming that a sense of space is something to foster in patrons. "As an abstraction, spaciousness sounds great. The term conjures up a sense of privacy and protection of one's territory from infringement by others. It seems to offer freedom, even independence, to move about at will, and it has a quality of affluence." Yet his empirical research—in which he tracked properties' "foot traffic flow patterns" and "equipment occupancy rates" and timed the duration of prospective patrons' stays—has consistently found that the best performing slots are those located within "insulated enclaves," tucked or hidden in "small alcoves, recesses, and corners," "sheltered in the nooks and crannies." Gamblers themselves confirm Friedman's insights. "I'd gravitate toward the corners," Mollie remembered, "where it felt safe, and I could get into my zone." Sharon would put her legs up on either side of her machine, using her own body to delimit the boundaries of her personal escape pod. "I don't like having my back exposed," said Daniel; "I want to be in my own little cave."

"The element [players] most avoid when gambling," Friedman concludes, "is expanse." Expanse comes in the form of "excess horizontal space, excessive visible depth, and excess vertical space." An empty void overhead, for example, "dissipates energy" and leaves individuals feeling exposed and anxious. Friedman describes one property that failed to eliminate space as "a completely open, free-spanned, high-ceilinged airplane hangar." Another failed design presents patrons with "an enormous sea of emptiness floating over endless rows of machines." To illustrate the pitfalls of casinos' failure to eliminate space, he draws a representation of the slot floor at Steve Wynn's Treasure Island, labeling it "the state's most extensive uninterrupted ocean of slots" (see fig. 1.2, top). In the drawing, a woman hesitates at the edge of the slot floor, clutching her purse and looking apprehensively over her shoulder into the receding depths of the casino, her body angled as if to retreat from the phalanx of machines that seem "to extend, like the surface of the sea, into infinity." This existentially unsettling spatial set-up, Friedman argues, neither invites entry into the physical playing area nor into the experiential playing zone that gamblers seek.

The Law of Space Elimination dictates that designers "constrict" space to create protected sanctuaries for play. (Play itself Friedman describes as "open," "undifferentiated," "boundless," "extensive," and "never-ending"—precisely the phenomenological characteristics he strives to minimize within the gambling environment.) One way to do this is by "segmenting" the casino floor into compact areas isolated from the rest of the casino and not visible to one another. Architectural elements such as canopies, coffers, hoods, and soffits can be used to break up otherwise cavernous space and provide a sense of enclosure and "perceptual shelter." "Each cluster," writes Friedman, "perceptually surrounds the gambling equipment beneath it. It has the quality of dropping imaginary lines to connect with the equipment below. This psychologically separates the area from the rest of the casino." As Venturi and his colleagues noted earlier of casino interiors, "subspaces makes for privacy, protection, concentration and control." Following this logic, the designers of the Mirage built low-hanging tiki-hut covers throughout the casino floor as a way to differentiate gaming areas and "create a feeling of intimacy in a 95,000 square foot space." As one of the chief architects explained to me in 1993: "The hanging huts give a smaller scale to the space, and people cluster under low-scale things. From any one point in the casino you never feel how big it is. What we really set out to do is control your perspective" (see fig. 1.2, bottom).


Excerpted from "Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas" by Natasha Dow Schüll. Copyright © 0 by Natasha Dow Schüll. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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