Electronic gambling machines (also called pokies or slot machines) are considered the most harmful form of gambling in New Zealand and around the world. The fast-paced play, sensory stimulation, and never-ending cycle of betting and chasing losses have been proven time and again to be associated with high rates of problem gambling.
One of the most eye-opening books on electronic gambling machines in recent years comes not from a problem gambling counsellor or mental health professional, but from an anthropologist. Natasha Dow Schüll, an associate professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spent a decade and a half carrying out research in Las Vegas to discover why the casino-filled city has been throwing out the traditional games to make room for more pokies.
Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas shows how the gambling industry has designed pokies that encourage players to enter the zone, Schüll's name for the hyper-focused state of the solitary punter who ignores everything but the lights and sounds of the machine.
One of Schüll's most shocking discoveries is that problem pokie players who get caught in the zone differ from other gamblers because they aren't playing to win. Schüll writes, "… 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."
While a punter betting on a horse race or roulette wheel might be seeking the excitement of a big win, a pokie player is after a numbing escape from their troubles. A woman Schüll interviewed described it as being "in the eye of the storm… your vision is clear on the machine in front of you but the whole world is spinning around you, and you can't really hear anything".
The in-depth book also discusses how the layout and interior design of casinos has evolved to facilitate the explosion of pokies, and how the sophisticated data-gathering methods of the gambling industry tell them far more than customers think they’re sharing. Finally, the book discusses the psychology of the players, with several interviews revealing how the forces at work in their lives led them to the pokies for escape.
I found the section on "the double bind of therapeutics" to be very interesting. Clients of problem gambling counselling services in Las Vegas describe the anxieties of living in constant close proximity to pokies, something many New Zealanders can identify with, especially those who live in areas where pokie venues are densely clustered.
Counsellors must understand the effects of the zone to truly understand the difficulties their clients face. When getting trapped in the zone produces the same calming effects as anti-anxiety medication or other therapies, the line between addiction and treatment can become blurry and their recovery efforts can work against them.
Reviewed by Nathan Burgess, Research Librarian at the Problem Gambling Foundation of New Zealand. (The Problem Gambling Library has a range of resources from NZ and around the world available to the public).