5th December 2013

For financial certainty, try machine gambling

by Martha Poon

There’s a financial upside to addictive gambling behavior. Piles of revenue for the casino industry!

Natasha Dow Schüll, an anthropologist at MIT, has been studying how addiction and profitability have become co-conspirators in the world of digital gambling. In her book, Addiction by Designshe argues that rising rates of addiction can be directly linked to how electronic slot machines are manufactured. She documents how industrial designers engineer elaborate games that cater to a kind of player who seeks to escape into a continuous, uninterrupted rhythm of play.

Schüll’s political point is to convince regulator not to hold individual psychology responsible for the explosion of compulsive gambling. She remains diplomatically neutral on the social intentions of game developers, choosing instead to focus on the remarkable outcome of their attentiveness to the design process: a spike in personal rates of addiction among a specific kind of gambler and roaring rates of profitability for casino operators.

Gambling is a peculiar bilateral transaction where the willful participation of one party generates a direct stream of revenue for the other. Schüll’s case is an excellent example of how a consumer industry can take up consumer-centered engineering to create a risk-based product, within the bounds of the law, that maximizes returns to the corporation, but without regard for old-fashioned principles of fairness, calculation or transparency.

In a review essay published online at the Journal of Cultural Economy, I examine the contribution of Schüll’s work to studies of financial systems. My article underscores just how creative the engineering behind these commercial systems that create risk-based products can be. Risk might produce uncertainty for some, but as Schüll provocatively shows, for others, risk is a financial certainty.


This piece was originally posted on Socializing Finance.