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How casinos distract (ketyov.com)
100 points by tortilla on Feb 19, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 36 comments

Also, when you go to a Casino that is on the ground level, there will be more escalators going down than going up.

The music they incessantly play in the background has sounds vaguely like a slot machine paying out.

Casinos are among the worst examples of an artificial environment to control behavior. It really is like a zoo. Makes museums that force exiting through the gift shop look benign.

As someone with an addictive personality, I find it shocking how casinos are so inclusive when it comes to sucking people in. All races, all ages (especially seniors). All focused on their game with an intensity that I wonder if they exhibit in their regular lives.

While I've been lucky enough (once or twice) to experience the rush of winning several hundred dollars at blackjack in the space of 20 minutes (it really is a surreal/joyous experience - you feel like everyone is cheering you on - like a celebrity almost), I'd rather avoid casinos than to get sucked into the vortex.

> it really is a surreal/joyous experience - you feel like everyone is cheering you on - like a celebrity almost

I can't be the only one who finds that annoying? When I'm in a casino in London that's one of the things that limits how much I bet on a hand, the fact that I don't want to be a spectacle - many times I've played big enough hands that a small crowd will form to watch even if I'm alone on a table... and it's just a little weird in my opinion.

edit: Weird from my point of view, not weird that they do it - I too enjoy watching over the shoulder of people as they play.

Many casinos also have the gambling floor organized around a long snaking curve, with several off-shoots. The distance from say the lobby to the restaurants often seems like a long walk - but if you look at the hotel map, they're right next to each other. The intent is obviously to turn people around and have them get disoriented amidst the sea of slot machines.

Down to the other six levels?

Slot machines use a bunch of interesting psychological techniques. They are set up to produce "near misses", where the reels show you almost win, with the winning symbol just below the pay line. They create losses that appear as wins - you win less than you put in, so it feels like a win even though you lost money. They use a mapping so the odds of a reel stopping on something good are less than its physical fraction of the reel. They produce an illusion of control, since pushing the stop button has no effect on the result.

This all comes from a research paper: http://www.nh.gov/gsc/calendar/documents/20091117_harrigan_d...

The worst part is that no matter how much you know that this is the case, it can be exceptionally hard not to be taken in by that "man, I was thiiiis close" feeling. I'd throw the famous Wargames quote in here, and not playing is, for me, definitely the only time I "win", but instead I'll quote everyone's favorite philosophical physicists:

"So I started betting, and right away I lost five dollars in succession — one, two, three, four, five. I was supposed to be out only seven cents; instead, I was five dollars behind! I've never gambled since then (with my own money, that is). I'm very lucky that I started off losing."

Back to the idea of near misses, I spent an afternoon reading webpages like this one...


...which show with charts how the "near miss" effect works. I then went ahead and blew the $20 that was in my pocket the next time I was in a casino for a buffet dinner. I play games that I enjoy, with the licenses, all the lights and sounds and big numbers and terrible payouts. I have some fun losing, but never as much fun as I'd have with 1/4th the money if I just took it down the street to the Pinball Hall of Fame arcade.

I love that you don't even name him, but have faith that the vast majority of the readers here know exactly who you mean.

You can thank Inge Telnaes and his virtual reel patent for this. It changed the industry in the late 80s and early 90s.


Exactly, there are (usually) 22 stops on a reel, a real reel, but video can have 100 stops; this includes the blank spaces.

If you're curious just search for "PAR sheet" or "payable and reel sheet".

A virtual reel can have thousands of stops. 99% of those can map to the same physical space. That's the magic of Telnaes.

A typical PAR sheet is mentioned in the study two leaps above, but that's just reverse-engineering the math. Understanding virtual reels helps look at it from the designer's direction.

The invention of "bonus games" that play when a certain reel combination was hit also changed the math drastically. A lot of companies that were locked out of virtual reels by IGT's ownership of the Telnaes patent used this technique to offer similar payout structures.

That's probably true I'm just going by memory and what we have.

IGT seems to own all, it's like you can't touch a thing without IGT being involved. I've even heard stories of potential new IGT employees being asked if they have any invention ideas, if they do IGT will but them.

The sensory overload both attracts an audience to the spectacle, and interrupts normal rational thinking. A double win!

But, interestingly, you can see the place differently if you change the 'soundtrack'. If you're in Las Vegas and have a good set of ear-sealing headphones – for example rubber earbuds – try listening to your own choice of music while strolling around. It creates sufficient detachment to let you view things as if with new eyes, and a slightly clearer mind. It's not quite the glasses from 'They Live' – but close.

One thing I suspect that is missing in both the above assessment and the article is that if you interrupt normal thinking with overload, and you force focus on something, you get the beginnings of a hypnotic, or at least quasi-hypnotic state. That state is familiar in computer games, and it is the same thing I see in casinos (disclaimer: I haven't spent any significant time gambling in them but some do have good food!).

Bright lights, flashing lights, disruptive sounds you have to tune out.... It narrows your sense of reality just as say a computer game does, and that also helps ensure that people play suboptimally.

I am less convinced by the color scheme arguments, since colors associations are extremely culturally bound.

I am less convinced by the color scheme arguments, since colors associations are extremely culturally bound.

My thoughts too. Looks like the color choices in that color wheel are arbitrary. I tried searching for information on why the colors in that wheel are associated with the emotions the way they are, but couldn't find any.

I am less convinced by the color scheme arguments, since colors associations are extremely culturally bound.

Not to mention the relatively high occurrence of some amount of color blindness in males.

I was a little disappointed in this article, I thought the author set himself up for a really good piece, then started building up the ideas, then... ended, when I was expecting much more in terms of actual ideas.

This is interesting… but I admit I found it a bit odd that point 1 was about "how round everything is on the casino floor", directly followed by an example of the Venetian's color scheme complete with a photo example showing not a single round feature...

This is a very interesting subject, perhaps worthy of a more scientific study.

In the text it said he switched out that image from the original venetian to the casino ventian, so maybe you saw the old version. In this one, I counted 16 circles/round objects if you include the archways in the doorway.

Yep, he certainly did switch out the image.

I went to Vegas in November last year, it was my first time and I am too young to gamble -- doesn't interest me anyway and I was there for work -- so although casinos were an interesting experience they had no real value to me. Anyway, on my last day I had some time to spend before my flight home so I (with 2 others) went to meet a friend who was staying in a different hotel on the other side of the strip. The instructions we had were simple, take one shuttle then another and you'll be there, sounds fine to me... but it wasn't. We spent at least 30 minutes walking through casino after casino, instead of there being a straight path from casino entrance to casino exit we had to snake our way through a maze of slot machines and attractions, it was probably the most agitating experience of my life. We had a clear goal, get from one hotel to the other, but the entire journey was one big upsell: "look at this machine wouldn't you like to put a dollar in, maybe you'll get two back!" and that drove me crazy. As someone who can only cope with structure and logic and things being well defined it was a horrible experience, having a vague idea of where I'm going with things constantly trying to grab my attention sucked. Worthless story but stuck with me and vaguely related to the article.

Enough people know of these techniques that there are now casinos that are aimed at the crowd who are sick of the standard type of casino. An example is Encore in Vegas - floor to ceiling windows, clocks, no cheap funny business, etc.(if you ever go to Vegas I recommend it thoroughly)

So there is a business in not being like the other businesses.

NPR’s Planet Money did an interview with Gary Loveman who used to be an economics professor at Harvard Business School and now runs Ceasars Entertainment Corporation.

He describes some of the stuff they actually do: http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2011/11/15/142366953/the-tues...

Gave me a more positive view of casinos as Gary Loveman comes off as seeing himself in the business of selling customers “having a good time” and works hard to ensure that his customers leave the casino feeling they indeed had, which may require e.g. giving gift cards or similar to customers who are on a losing streak.

Last time (and only time) I was in Vegas all I could see is decrepitude and sadness. One incident that stuck with me was how an old man had a heart attack ( I am guessing ) while playing coin slots. The ambulance came and took him away. Not sure why but that just seemed so sad to me.

I share your sentiment. I moved my first software company (now defunct) to Reno, NV from California in 2002, in what seemed like an unmitigated financial success. For the price of a decrepit office in the Bay Area, we could rent a huge McMansion with a view, offices upstairs, full kitchen, three bathrooms with showers, various rooms for meetings or storage or indoor ballgames, and ten minutes drive away from anything... What I failed to factor in was the profoundly depressing nature of every day seeing senior citizens in wheelchairs with oxygen tanks robotically pulling levers on slot machines or feeding money into video poker. Even if you avoid the casinos, you see it at the gas station, supermarket, etc... It's grotesque, but somehow when it's old people spending the last remaining days of their lives doing it, it becomes profoundly sad. Even more so to think that some poor old sucker spent literally the last day of his life that way.

That's happened at card games and they keep going!

Thats quite a nice article! Wonder how this could be related to startups (e.g. how to optimally design your website to "hook people")?

I am sure a lot of the game companies (Zynga, online poker etc) are all over this!

Also reminds me a little of this awesome Reddit interview as well (the guy explains how data driven the online game companies are and its quite awesome and scary); http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/pc6j9/iama_former_full...

Lastly it also reminds me of this article from a few days ago illustrates what crazy (but profitable) things you can do with data/behaviour/trend analysis (how the Target shops target you advertising); http://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2012/02/16/how-targe...

Zynga continues a long tradition of gambling/addiction innovation in San Francisco, going back at least to the invention of the slot machine by Charles Fey in ~1895:


An interesting article.

Some of those things are mentioned in the classic hacker book "The Newtonian Casino"


"There's a well-known study by Shiv and Fedorikhin showing that if you tax people's working memory by making them remember a 7-digit string of numbers, people are more likely to make a less-optimal decision (they chose to eat chocolate cake versus the more healthy fruit salad option)."

I'm not sure how the Shiv experiment proves anything. I personally would always choose the chocolate cake, no matter how much time I had to spend on the decision - I just don't like fruit salads, at least not as much as cakes. And one doesn't eat desserts all the time, so it's not much of a problem anyway. 'Optimal' != 'healthy', and I bet (pun intended) that when choosing dessert many people optimize for feeling, not for health.

(Maybe this effect was documented using some other experiments, but sometimes when I read psychology stuff, I start do doubt both my and researchers' sanity, because I can't figure out how little shifts of behavior over e.g. a chocolate cake, tested on a small (< 1k) sample are really giving us any valuable insight, and are not just random noise)

If we can't give peer-reviewed, easily repeatable experiments the benefit of the doubt, we are in trouble.

I'd love to, but in case of psychology, many of them (or, conclusions drawn from them) just sound plain nonsense.

EDIT: I'm searching for original paper on Shiv experiment. It might be that cognitive load makes our decision less rational, but I'm not buying choosing salad over cake as a rationality test.

EDIT2: Found it.


It seems that they also asked people to rate the rationality of their choice - whether they believe the cake/salad is good for health, a wise choice, etc. Given this data the result and conclusions sound a bit more reasonable.

I try to trust peer reviewed papers (if we can't trust them, what can we trust?), but I also try to keep my bullshit meter well calibrated. There's enough of pseudo-scientific "knowledge" circulating around. Just look at 7-38-55 (spoken-voice-body language) "rule of communication" and 'cone of learning' ("we remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, ...") - it gets repeated around all the time, but if you think of it, it makes no sense. And, in fact, it's totally not true. It's just a result of a big misinterpretation of some scientific studies.

You don't think we're in trouble?

I was born and raised in Las Vegas. Actually, my family goes back to the '30's there. Some of the strategies mentioned in the article are a bit more complex than I've thought about, but are unsurprising. I've noticed more basic things like the round and meandering layout of casinos that make you (a) walk past the gaming areas to get anywhere and (b) make it difficult to navigate your way out of the gaming areas. Other techniques are the minimizing of natural light and absence of clocks so as not to remind people how much time is going by. This is all in addition to the inherent addictive nature of gambling. They've shown that rats in a cage, when presented with a lever that randomly delivers food when activated, will begin to obsessively trigger the lever and let the food pile up rather than hitting it only when they are hungry. In fact, B.F. Skinner, the father of behaviorist thought wrote a somewhat tongue in cheek paper in which he postulated that the gambling drive is so powerful that we could easily abolish all mandatory taxes if we instead encouraged people at a young age to gamble (on lotteries, etc.) - we'd have all the tax revenue we'd need.

I don't think most of these more exotic strategies (i.e. other than gaming itself and alcohol) were consciously employed when organized crime ran the industry. They made so much money skimming profits that they weren't too worried about squeezing dimes out nor were they sophisticated in that way (they were very sophisticated in other ways). In that time, the culture was marked by personal relationships (who you know), "comping" or giving free things, cheap rooms and food, more live entertainment, more well dressed adults going out at night rather than people walking the strip in the day pushing strollers, etc. Also there was a notable lack of violent crime in and around the casino areas. Organized crime wouldn't allow purse snatchers, card cheats, etc. (Of course I mean other than the crime committed by the mafia in enforcing this peace or crime among themselves).

This all changed as corporations began to run things and the mafia became more marginalized beginning in the '90's. The corporation's spreadsheet toting MBA's began calculating profitability on a per-square-foot basis. This resulted in less comping, more expensive food and hotel rooms, live entertainment replaced with more video poker, and many of the more esoteric strategies to induce gaming profits such as those mentioned in the article. It also resulted in some notable failures - for example the idea of appealing to families by adding huge kids rides and carnival style game areas. (This idea was taken from the Circus Circus Hotel which was the first to have that.) The idea kind of flopped and the hotels realized that people with kids don't spend 16 hours at a blackjack table (shocker). A spectacular example of this was the theme park behind the MGM that they eventually tore down. They shifted back to gaming and adult entertainment launching the "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" campaign and we saw the rise of casinos like the Palms that appealed to young men trying to relive the cool sophistication of Hugh Hefner's days in the '60s.

I work in a small casino in Canada and I bet I could put a slot machine in a giant room with nothing else in it and people would still play it.

But there has to be money involved nobody will play if money can't be won, it's not the slot machine or deck of cards it's the gambling.

But there has to be money involved nobody will play if money can't be won

Zynga Texas Hold'Em seems to be a fairly definitive disproof by counterexample here. (For that matter, a lot of MMORPGs/social games/etc use gambling mechanics and psychology without any monetary reward for winning the game.)

Before I worked in a casino and before regulations changed to allow them my uncle had "grey area" slot machines which didn't spit out anything but points added up on an on-screen counter.

Occasionally you would get people would spend too much and need help, the same for alcohol some people just can't regulate their vices. But anyway, my uncle offered to take a slot machine to their house set it up so they could play all they wanted without cost, or gain! Nobody he offered that to wanted to play without winning.

As for the "non-gaming" i.e. not casino type games, such as the MMOROGs/social games I would say players are aware before they play no money is won (unless there are side bets) but levels are status are probably just as valuable to them. Even with slots I have seen people trying to win the jackpot which may be $500 yet spend weeks trying to get it spending 100x that amount, or a bonus pot/progressive which may be almost nothing; it's not so much the money as it is the feeling but with slots it doesn't pay out in feelings only money.

For all of those examples I always think of an article I read about the US military where soldiers in WWI and WWII were not shooting at the enemy, soldiers were frozen with fear. So a system was created where the soldiers were trained to shoot at a target that popped up and when hit it would fall down. The response was to shoot and when hit the falling target was the reward and it got to the point the soldier would shoot it without thought more instinct. This training is called "Stimulus Response Reward" and I think gambling as well as any repetitive system seems to condition people to act, add to that genetic predisposition of gamblers to gamble on top of SRS.

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