An MIT Alumni Association Publication

'Play to Extinction': Research Reveals Gaming Industry Strategies

  • Nancy DuVergne Smith
  • 6

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Natalie Schull studies the neuroscience of gambling.

The gambling industry wants patrons to "play to extinction," says an MIT researcher whose decade-long research describes how the industry is using technology to create machines and environments that entrance players to follow loss with more loss.

Assistant professor Natasha Schull underscores how addictive today's sophisticated gambling machines have become. Her conclusions describe how closely guarded, proprietary mathematical algorithms and immersive, interactive technology are used to keep people gambling.

"I see Las Vegas as a kind of laboratory where experiments are going on between people and machines," says Schull, a cultural anthropologist whose book on gambling, Machine Zone: Technology Design and Gambling Addiction in Las Vegas, is due out in 2010.

Schull contends that gamblers enter a trance where they lose a sense of time, space, and physical embodiment and are consumed by the spinning numbers, symbols, or electronic card hands before their eyes. Using magnetic-stripe player cards instead of coins, touch screens, ergonomically designed seats all increase "time on device," as game manufacturers call it, she says.

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Dan Greenberg

Thu, 05/28/2009 3:36pm

Dan W. -- Perhaps not destitution, but family destruction has already taken place from MMOGs:
And I picked Starbucks intentionally, because caffeine is legal. I could have picked a bar, since alcohol addiction has certainly destroyed many a family, but I figured I'd make a subtle, but pithier analogy.

Darlene -- Documentation appeared on my first Google. The key is to know it was in Korea:

Daniel Weinreb

Wed, 05/27/2009 8:37am

It's not quite like saying that Starbuck's has comfortable chairs, because the damage that can be done to the gambler and his or her family is profound. Again, MMOG's may be addictive, but unless they actually keep you home from your job (rare, as far as I know), they don't put your family into destitution.

David C Blanchard

Wed, 05/27/2009 6:56am

Dan's point is well taken. I also reside near Atlantic City, and I'm curious about the phrase "proprietary mathematical algorithms". If it refers to behavioral modeling of patrons, that's one thing--how long people will sit--how attentive must drink service be, etc, that's fine. OTOH, if it refers to trickery with the games themselves (what is presented as a straightforward slot game really isn't) that's a whole other issue. The popular belief that casinos somehow "manipulate" individual outcomes (i.e. pay out according to some devious psychological profile) is likely false--because they don't have to. Why would they take the reputation risk when all they really have to do in order to prosper is to simply keep people playing?

Darlene Ford

Wed, 05/27/2009 6:37am


The geek community is slowing realizing that MMOG addiction is not just a joke, but I hadn't heard even rumors of deaths. Is there any documentation on the incident you mentioned? Not that I find this too hard to believe, but Google has apparently not yet learned to sort scientific evidence from in-game deaths...


Dan Greenberg

Tue, 05/26/2009 12:58pm

As a native of Atlantic City, I've seen many stories like this before, although I doubt that any were as well-documented and well-researched as this. However, I think it's a bit of an obvious conclusion that casinos are attempting to extract as much money from their patrons as possible. It's a bit like saying Starbucks has comfortable chairs... and may be increasing people's caffeine addiction by serving shots of espresso... so you'll stay and have another cup and a scone. Why would they do otherwise?

I hope that's just a sound bite headline and that the book reveals some of the insights into human behavior that these "experiments... between people and machines" have uncovered. And, specifically, was any comparative study done between casino games and MMOGs? People have literally played the latter to death in Asia, even though there is no money involved. Such a compare/contrast could lead to valuable insights. Otherwise, there is a high risk of creating, intentionally or not, a non-scientific, moral debate on gambling.

Nami Dalufin

Tue, 05/26/2009 8:20am

We can say that sometime it was true that gambling and mathematics are connected because its involves of thinking, you should have you own strategies, tactics in your mind before you deal.