Self-Obliteration in the Machine Zone
The psychology of slot machine reels and social media scrolls
You might be surprised to learn that only half of Nevada’s gambling revenue comes courtesy of its tourists, plied with shrimp cocktails and gratis gin at glitzy casinos on the Strip. A large share of the state’s monthly $1 billion dollar-exceeding gambling revenue owes to its locals.
Residents who qualify as heavy gamblers mostly play slot machines—several times a week, sometimes for multiple hours a day. Slot machines, writes Natasha Schüll in Addiction by Design, have “crept like kudzu” across Las Vegas, displacing tabletop games across casino floors and then slithering their sticky tendrils into just about every establishment with a power supply.
In Vegas, you can find slot machines in grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, and even at car washes. It’s unsurprising then, that slot machines account for 72% of the state’s total revenue.
What is surprising, given the one-armed bandit’s lengthy 120-year history, is its meteoric rise in the 21st century. What on earth accounts for the tremendous popularity of electronic slot machines?
Granted, the current incarnation is a “symphony of technological sophistication”, to quote Schüll. But can it really be that endlessly customisable chirpy sounds and flashy lights are so enticing that gamblers are willing to forego the pleasures of traditional gambling entirely?
It seems that to unravel this puzzle, we’ll have to begin with the slot machine’s manifold deficiencies.
Comparison to traditional table-top gambling
Gamblers—even the helpless, out-of-control kind—are well aware the chances of a payday, let alone one that would retroactively justify the time and money invested, are astronomically low. Thus, the comparative odds of winning do not bear mentioning.
Winning big, rare as it is, cannot be the foremost pleasure inherent in any sort of gambling. Instead, here are the joys found atop green felt tops—notably lacking in slot machine gambling:
Poker requires mastery over one’s body language and facial expressions on top of strategic thinking; slot machine gambling requires no finesse.
Blackjack affords the thrill of high stakes; machine gamblers stand to lose only a trifling amount per game.
The spin of a roulette wheel offers anticipatory, prolonged pleasure; the outcome of a turn on the slot machine, having divested itself of mechanical reels and levers, is nearly instantaneous.
Winning in a game of craps results in raucous cheers and hearty claps on the back as onlookers share your elation over baby’s new pair of shoes; machine gambling is a solitary activity.
Whatever the appeal of machine gambling, it does not lie in the capacity to capture the mind, stroke the ego, set your pulse racing, or provide a sense of camaraderie.
Still, there must be a reason slot machines are the most compelling form of gambling. And by “compelling”, I mean addictive.
Rapid and reliable subjective shifts
There’s nothing we love more than a rapid shift in what we think and feel—look at how popular the comedy and horror genres are.
Even when the electronic slot machine offers feedback in the form of a loss, it does so gratifyingly fast. Rapid feedback means rapid and thus frequent reinforcement of the neural pathways associated with an activity—explaining why machine gambling so quickly hijacks the brain.
Slot machines have the highest “event frequency” of all gambling. You aren’t limited to just one horse race or lottery draw, you can have as many games as you desire in quick succession. Infinite opportunity stretches out before the slot machine gambler.
In the naive probability of slot machines, the odds really are 50:50; either you lose, or you win. Every loss comes with the certainty of continuity, the promise of endless and immediate do-overs. Disappointment is swept away with the press of a button, replaced with excitement at the prospect of a life-enhancing—maybe even life-changing—payout. Best of all, losses never linger long enough to rankle.
The slot machine player cycles through highs and lows, experiencing rapid and reliable subjective shifts in their emotional state. An evenly-spaced ebb and flow of tension washes over them with each button press, cancelling out into an affective calm. A state of supreme peace and self-sustained comfort.
Players don’t play to win but rather to stay immersed in something called…
The machine zone
“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between losing and winning, and it lies suspended between the pit of man’s dismay and the summit of his hopes.” (To paraphrase Rod Serling)
When slot machine players are in the “zone”, they report many of the hallmarks of “flow”. (A state of total absorption in an activity.) Typically, the egolessness of flow is in the service of a higher purpose, some sort of task, feat, or problem that requires laser focus as a means to an end. In contrast, immersion in the machine zone is the goal itself. Thus, addiction researchers have dubbed it “dark flow”.
In the grips of dark flow, not only does the external world—its sensory details including signs of the passage of time—dissolve, but the slot machine’s inner world also fades away. The slot machine gambler loses even their sense of identity. Like some sort of twisted bodhisattva, slot machine gamblers seeks “nothingness” in the machine zone.
When life gives you cherry-cherry-lemons
The added cherry on top is that slot machine gamblers are graced with the not-infrequent pleasure of a near miss. A near miss—visually evocative of a win—is almost as neurologically rewarding as having the stars (and sevens) align. And demonstrably more motivating.
Researchers have found that gamblers play faster after losses than following wins. The type of loss also matters. Near misses increase the desire to play more than “full losses” do. This is likely because near misses are perceived as being more unpleasant—nettled as we are by what-ifs and if-onlys—incentivising the gambler to wipe clean their emotional state and the blighted sight of cherry-cherry-lemon.
The frisson of a near miss is compounded by multi-line slot machines which offer up to one-hundred possible betting lines at a time. A glut of near misses; bursts of excitement quickly extinguished and replaced with disappointment in the absence of a monetary reward—the multi-line slot machine is a marvel. I salute you, Philip C. Crouch.
Additionally, such multi-line machines help the gambler earn “back small amounts of the initial (total) wager” in a steady trickle, stoking the false hope of turning a profit if only they keep playing. In reality, it is the house that profits.
In the long run, the house always wins; slot machines are programmed with a pre-determined “theoretical payout percentage” which typically does not exceed a 99% return on gamblers’ investment.
The games we play
In the thrall of machine gambling, only man and machine exist in an infinite transaction. Even “man” ceases to be in this strange synergy. Thus, machine gambling fulfils the darkest desire of the era—that of self-obliteration. Perhaps what is most appealing about the machine zone is the loss of self.
This raises the question: what sort of society occasions such a complete escape that even the impressions it leaves in those moulded by it are anathema? Why would we want to erase the self from consciousness awareness?
Schüll references numerous historians and sociologists who have examined the popular games of the era, starting with the 1950s, for insights into the “distinctive values, dispositions, and preoccupations of contemporary culture”. (Imagine, being a scholar in Tiddlywinks.)
According to Man, Play and Games, games can be characterised along four dimensions: competition, chance, simulation (make-believe), and vertigo (a shock to the vestibular system, such as is common in children’s rough-and-tumble play).
Games that balance skill and chance, such as Monopoly, Scrabble, Yahtzee and Risk, were the most popular games of the 1950s, reflecting the tension between striving and surrender characteristic of an era where people increasingly had more freedom but less certainty than ever before.
In this “first modernity”, explains Shoshana Zuboff in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, many individuals found themselves suffering due to the strictures of social expectation. Take for instance, the homosexual in a sham marriage, the atheist in a church pew, or the Xanax-ed housewife in a mind-numbing routine of dusting and fluffing.
Gradually, the veneration of the self—instantiated by Time’s Person of the Year selection in 2006—won over collective solutions. According to Zuboff, in this “second modernity”, we find ourselves grappling with stresses and anxieties due to “the burdens of life without a fixed destiny”.
Existing as atomised individuals, ‘liberated’ from the nuclear family and the structure offered by being embedded in a community, we eke out an existence amid financial crises and the rise of a gig economy. We have the right to self-determination, but rarely the means.
It’s a tad depressing.
Much like the modern-day slot machine offers a wealth of options—an endless array of odds, stakes, and dazzling special effects—these days, there are countless avenues for frivolous modes of self-expression.
Your online avatar can be an anime catgirl and your hair every shade of blue under the sun. You can have Spongebob Squarepants tattooed on your forehead and not be short of employment. However, all this individualisation occurs against a backdrop where Silicon Valley technocrats craft algorithms to curtail thought and dictate—rather than merely predict—our behaviours.
We only have an illusory sense of freedom and control over our lives. Thus, self-determination has degenerated into an exercise in navel-gazing rather than a courageous act directed outward in the arduous task of becoming someone—a person defined by their character, unique achievements, and positive impact on the world.
An obsession with identity (and identity politics) has taken root, leaving many fixated on their intersection of fixed attributes such as race, sex, sexual orientation, and even the presence of a neurological condition to the exclusion of what makes them unique. Everything is viewed through that singular lens in a process that Wokal Distance terms “identitising”.
Rather than attempting to change the mutable and accept the immutable, the modern-day malcontent desires to redefine descriptors to be more “inclusive”. Under the auspices of the body positivity movement and trans rights activism gone awry, everybody can be included in words like “healthy”, “attractive”, and “woman”. Of course, such words must first be expanded into meaninglessness. Only then can they accommodate all and sundry.
The word games we play are just as revealing as gamblers’ preoccupation with slot machines; both are attempts to escape, rather than reinvent, the self. In credence to that, electronic gaming machine players are the gamblers mostly likely to suffer psychological comorbidities such as pre-existing mood and anxiety problems.
Now, more than ever, people find themselves drawn to escapism. Currently, the most popular PC games are Minecraft and The Sims 4—games of simulation, if you recall the four dimensions. In terms of video games, fantasy role-playing games and games steeped in nostalgia (affording a retreat into rosy-tinted childhood memories) dominate.
An endless scroll takes a heavy toll
In a world of uncertainty and discontinuity, where feedback for our efforts is slow or seemingly non-existent, machine gambling offers us the illusion of control. Moreover, closed-circuit human-machine interactions provide a refuge from the preponderance of, and ensuing modern preoccupations with, the self.
Occasionally, I play the lottery; in those moments before I check the results, I am suspended between two worlds, potentially hovering above the lap of luxury—or at least, the assured financial stability which enables the unfettered pursuit of happiness. It’s a blissful state.
I can hardly imagine how gripped I would be if I could somehow crystallise those moments before I check the lottery draw; string them all together, to slide seamlessly between them as though they were beads on a rosary.
Upon turning eighteen and graduating from Crown Casino’s basement children’s arcade to their gambling floors, I inserted a coin into a slot machine which promptly malfunctioned. I exited the casino area for fresher air and brighter light. One and done; call it divine intervention.
I’m in the grips of something worse: phone addiction. Nomophobia. You see, the reel of a mechanical slot machine is not so different to the endless social media scroll. When I passively scroll through social media, do I actually expect to find something entertaining or informative? Stumble upon something memorable enough that it won’t be instantly swept away by further stimuli? Truly, I don’t think I do.
So before you scorn the slot machine gambler, slumped in their seat, about to relieve themselves into a 7-Up bottle, consider whether you've ever sat on the porcelain throne, scrolling through your social media feed in a trance, terrified to be left with only yourself for company.
The internet offers a mind-numbing Möbius strip of self obliteration; an excess never surfeiting.
Schüll, N. D. (2012). Addiction by design. In Addiction by Design. Princeton University Press.
Zuboff, S. (2019). The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power: Barack Obama's books of 2019. Profile books.
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