Michael Shanks’ Ten Things class at Stanford – which looks like a brilliant application of anthropological and archaeological thinking to design and technology – generated a very interesting project by William Choi and Antoine Sindhu analysing the architectures of control (psychological and physical) designed into both slot machines, and casinos themselves.
[S]lot machines keep players engrossed through a psychological phenomenon known as operant conditioning. What psychologists call the “primary conditioning mechanism” is the inclusion of relatively small payouts in slot machine gameplay. These small payouts provide positive reinforcement to the player … the positive reinforcement provided by the small payouts causes people to continue repeating the behavior. The frequency of payouts is precisely fine-tuned and optimized–a payout rate that is any higher than absolutely necessary cuts down on the casino’s profits.
Slot machines do not stop with a single primary conditioning mechanism. Secondary mechanisms augment the excitement and incentive to continue playing. The most important of these is the inclusion of a system in the machine that yields a high frequency of “near misses,” or situations in which the player believes they have almost won. For example, the slot machine often displays two out of the three jackpot bars, a tremendously stimulating event which has greatly reinforced the player’s behavior at no cost to the casino.
The article compares the positive reinforcement effect in humans to that shown by B F Skinner‘s classic experiments with rats, where pressing a lever caused pellets to be dispensed, and where the mechanism was very quickly learned. Skinner’s work on behaviour shaping [PDF link] is of great relevance to my forthcoming PhD research, since it’s effectively about ‘teaching’ (or ‘guiding’) the subject (which could be a rat, pigeon or end-user) towards a different set of behaviour, rather than actual coercion. This continuum between persuasion and outright control will, I suspect, be an important part of the research, although as a number of readers have pointed out in the comments here over the last couple of years, persuasion can be as much about control (in a psychological sense) as code or physical product or environmental architecture are in the world outside our minds.
We’ve looked briefly before at casino layouts and tricks, inspired by a piece on Signal vs Noise, but Choi and Sindhu’s ‘Analysis of casino design‘ goes into fascinating detail:
Casinos are generally designed so that patrons must walk through or at least around the periphery of several slot machine blocks to move around the casino, to maximize the customers’ exposure to the exciting sights and sounds of the slot machines, and especially of others winning on the machines … Casino planners know that slot players love to see and hear other people winning on nearby machines, because players hold it as evidence that money can be made on the machines. Thus casinos are designed to have the loosest machines in prominent areas deep within the gambling floor. Areas such as the ends of long rows or near walkways or elevated sections are generally where loose machines are placed. As people walk through the gambling floor, the sights and sounds of people playing on these more liberal machines draw other customers deeper into the slot machine block, where the machines are tighter.
In general, table players do not like the noise of slot machines because they find it distracting … At the same time, however, spouses or partners of table players will often wile away time playing at a nearby slot machine. Thus casinos are planned such that there are slot machines lining walkways around tables. However, these slots are always tight. This cuts down on the noise and distraction to table players, and makes sense because the majority of players on these machines are playing spontaneously, with little expectation of winning. This demonstrates to what degree casino layouts are optimized–in this case, to the point that a complex system is implemented simply to clean up loose change from spontaneous players.
In most Las Vegas casinos, there is a noticeable lack of natural light and of clocks. The gambling floor is always located away from the main entrance out onto the street to minimize the gamblers’ exposure to the outside world … those who are simply walking around the casino are more inclined to start using a machine, because their perceptions of time are manipulated by the design of the casino.
Other features of the casino, including the music, carpeting, and even the air conditioning system, are manipulated to the casino’s advantage. Studies have shown that carpeting is often purposefully jarring to the eyes, which draws customers’ gaze upwards toward the machines on the gambling floor. Music is usually mild and soothing, and plays on a continuous loop rather than individual songs, contributing to a trance-like feeling of warmth and comfort in the gamblers.
Choi and Sindhu go on to discuss the use of coercive atmospherics (Douglas Rushkoff‘s term) – things such as extra oxygen or pheromones pumped into the air – tactics which clearly have been tried – and in retail environments as well as casinos. Although Hunter pointed out in a comment on the SvN post that extra oxygen is not / no longer widely used by the major casinos, the Commercaire website is no longer online (Wayback copy here – switch off images if you want to be able to read it!), and Commercaire’s manufacturers claim to have withdrawn their ‘controversial’ product, if the results claimed [PDF link] – 42% increase in casino revenues – are real, then one might suspect the company has simply changed the way it markets the product (as the ‘Spitting Image’ blog suggests here).