Gambling machine is addictive. Oh yeah?

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In 2012 the book "Addiction by Design" by anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll was published. The book is again in the spotlight. This is partly due to the fact that several countries are liberalizing their gambling policy and that they also want to lay down rules on gambling addiction.

One common idea of ​​governments and health care providers is that gamblers, as consumers, can choose to gamble responsibly; possibly with the help of care-giving advice. And with the cooperation of the gambling industry. The latter through pure operational management, so without manipulated devices.

Man and slot machine

In her book, Dow Schüll tells that problem gamblers are not a minority with a psychological disorder, as is often thought. Problem gamblers tend to become addicted or addicted to gambling due to the interaction between man and machine. In her book it is mainly about the gambling machine. The subtitle of her book is "machine gambling in Las Vegas".

Asymmetrical collusion

The relationship between man and machine (and gambling bosses) is not equivalent, according to Dow Schüll. The gambling industry wants to earn money. The chair, slot machine and software are therefore designed to keep gamblers playing. The course of the game brings the gambler in a kind of psychosomatic mist. Causing that condition is a goal in itself at the gambling machine (gambling industry).

She calls the perverse relationship between man and machine a relationship of "asymmetrical collusion." Simply explained, that means "an unequal relationship where one party wants to secretly harm the other". It may be clear that she sees the machine here as the party with secret intentions. The unequal relationship only arises when the gambler is almost out of money.

Manipulation and conditioning

The book starts with an extensive description of the manipulations in the casino and on the gambling machines. Dow Schüll describes the strategies and technologies used to keep a player gambling. She notes that there is continuous feedback, which allows the designers to adjust the machine to "the wishes" of the gambler.

The player is as it were conditioned while he is playing. This creates a "gambling machine tolerance" among gamblers; a situation where the player, for example, is slightly irritated by the loss of money, but does not find it annoying enough to stop.


In the second part of the book she discusses the player. As an anthropologist, she describes the inner struggle of the compulsive player in great detail. She does not see the addicted gambler as a pathetic victim who should go into therapy. The gambler remains a rational player.

He calculates, makes choices and controls the game. But that is precisely what makes him manipulable through the manipulated machine. Dow Schüll points out that current care provision also focuses on rationality. The addicted gambler learns to make choices there and to regain control (over his life). In fact, the therapy resembles the behavior of the player during gambling.

She is very fond of gamblers. Yet the responsibility of a gambling addiction lies in principle with the gambler himself. However, others do make a major contribution to addiction. Such as current (say, old-fashioned) healthcare. But especially the motives of the gambling industry, which definitely plays a culpable role with their manipulations.

Dow Schüll

Natasha Dow Schüll has been an anthropologist since 1993, after graduating from Berkeley University. She is currently working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Looking at her investigations, she appears to be mainly ethnographically involved. She studies / describes certain groups of people. This regularly involves gamblers. But she is also interested in people who monitor their own health with their smartphone.

The book

The book "Addiction by Design" is very worth reading. The detailed description of both the casino world and the gambler is interesting. The trick box of manipulations in Las Vegas (in 2012) gives an impression of the possibilities that Apple, Facebook and the like now have.

Here and there, the book shows a little too much the sympathy that Dow Schüll has for the gambler. And against that possibly the antipathy against the gambling industry. In both cases, a more critical attitude would have given a more nuanced picture.

The future

The book was published in 2012 and only looks at the situation in Las Vegas. That makes it difficult for liberalizing governments. After all, Las Vegas is by no means representative of the entire gambling industry. Moreover, with the rise of online gambling, takeovers and stricter rules, the world of gambling has undergone significant changes.

Moreover, almost every country has its own gambling culture. There are hardly any differences from a psychological point of view. But various studies have shown that gambling behavior and addiction problems are different for each country. Probably more and / or broader research is needed before a punitive finger can be pointed to the gambling machine or the designer.

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