I’ve been chasing the idea that, as ‘pure play’ chance experiences, machine slots might embody interesting design patterns about the use of chance, ones that are generalisable to other genres of game designs and other types of player experiences. To this end, I’ve been mining Natasha Schüll’s prize winning ethnological study, Addiction by Design for what it says about the player experience of chance.
What’s the attraction for players? According to Schüll, people play machine slots in order to change how they feel.
“gamblers… act upon themselves through gambling devices with a goal of regulating their own affective states”, p.20
But what is the state people are playing in order to achieve? Players sometimes refer to it as ‘the zone’:
“The speed is relaxing,” said Lola… “It’s not exactly excitement; it’s calm, like a tranquilizer. It gets me into the zone.” p. 54
What is ‘the zone’? The term is often used in a way that is closely related to Csikszentmihaly’s concept of ‘flow’ – an optimal state in which people feel a sense of total absorbtion in their activity.
But clearly there’s zone and there’s zone. The zone reached by machine slot players seems to be a zone of being zoned out, rather than the zone of peak human experience. The experience seems to produce a kind of anaesthesia.
“The solitary, uninterrupted process of machine play…tends to produce a steady, trancelike state that ‘distracts from internal and external issues’ such as anxiety, depression, and boredom.” p. 17, Fn 89
“it is not the chance of winning to which they become addicted; rather what addicts them is the world-dissolving state of subjective suspension and affective calm they derive from machine play.” p. 18
“…the “zone” – the elusive point of absorption, beyond contingency, that machine gamblers perpetually seek… …[is] at once ‘safe’ and ‘precarious’ – a gentle seesaw of play credit that is mirrored in a gentle seesaw of player affect, both of which might at any instance lose momentum and come to a standstill. The zone state is attainable only at the threshold where rhythm holds sway over risk, comfort over perturbation, habituation over surprise.” p 135 Fn 93
This is quite different from the idea that gambling is in some way exciting.
Schüll’s discussions with industry insiders suggest that the most successful slot machines, successful in the sense of producing maximum revenue, are those with low volatility – a stream of small payouts and small wins – but which result in players who spend a long time on device. Players do differ in risk preferences – but the most profitable ones are those who spend time in large amounts, spend money in small increments, and win steadily but not dramatically. Large payouts can distract players and disrupt them so much that they fall out of their dreamlike state – and perhaps even cash out, walking away with their winnings.
“As the journalist Marc Cooper remarked in 2005, “the new generation of gambling machines has, predictably, produced a new generation of gambling addicts: not players who thive on the adrenaline rush of a high-wager roll of the dice or turn of a card but, rather, zone-out ‘escape’ players who yearn for the smooth numbness produced by the endlessly spinning reels.” p. 128 Fn 79
The question of why playing on low-volatility machines seems to induce a trancelike state is not much analysed, although Schüll provides eloquent descriptions of “rhythm over risk”, and”a gentle seesaw of play credit that is mirrored in a gentle seesaw of player affect” (p.135). This question is something I’ll turn to in a post or two, after I look at what Schüll has to say about the designs which produce the player experiences she catalogues.