Monday, January 11, 2010
Gambling--Risky and Wrong, or Harmless Diversion?
A wonderful January day in the northwest--Mt. Rainier and Lake Washington gray and white in the overcast. But as it was not raining, my husband and I decided to go on an outing to a local viewpoint in the Cascade foothills. The cutting cold wind shortened our hike, so we decided to head for a quaint town nearby.
We didn't realize we'd pass a massive new casino recently opened by a Native American tribe of 650 members. Its grand natural-wood lodge style is attractively set amongst the mountains, with a breathtaking view of surrounding peaks, some frosted with snow. Curiosity prompted us to follow the considerable traffic stream onto the grounds and into the sizeable parking area, which includes an enormous structure of seven levels built into the slope adjacent to one side of the casino.
The channels of people approaching from the parking might have been mistaken for eager entrants at opening hour for Disneyland, were they not entirely beyond the age of 60. Rather than pushing strollers, elderly seekers steered wheelchairs, many with attached oxygen tanks, into the banks of cigarette-fumed elevators and up to the playing floor, quickly splaying out toward their favorite slot machines like breathless children dashing toward their favorite rides.
As if in Fantasyland for the first time, my husband and I stood awed beholding the spectacle. The gigantic room, braced by yard-wide arching beams, emanated a startling cacophany of jangles, whistles, beeps, slapping metal, ringing and every non-melodic sound possible from rows and rows of flashing machines, where seniors on stools sat mesmerized.
We strolled slowly through the room, clutching each others' hands for support. To my right: a row of machines themed for Nefertiti, in which cobras and sphinxes and busts of the dark-haired Egyptian Queen appeared to roll in strips till each froze and its stool-mate stoically started the process again. Aisles of machines sporting fish, pirates, witches, dolphins, cowboys, all with distinctive boing-bing-squawk sounds, commanded the attention of white-haired devotees. Occasionally, there'd be a young person, in a ten-gallon hat, or sagging jeans, or with hair apparently not washed for a month. OK, there were a few normal young people, too.
I paused to watch a row of slot-machine players. Most silently peered at the sharks or treasure chests or rainbows on their 'slot' computer screens (it's been a long time since the old days when big levers spun metal reels until fruit-pictures lined up). I didn't see people toting buckets of quarters, though the clang-clang-clang of a win occasionally pounded on top of the machine blinging. Instead, players used credit cards, pushed buttons and stared at pixels.
Except one avid woman, who, when her strips started rolling, would rapidly tap the tips of her thickly polished fingernails across the screen. I don't know if this was some sort of luck ritual, or if she thought she could disrupt the computer chip that generated the random numbers for her outcome. I watched her determinedly tap-tap-tapping, until I was ready to plead, "Nevermore!"
On one end of the casino was a classy-looking circular bar, near a wall of windows and a long balcony overlooking stunning peaks. Past the couches was an open area filled with dozens of easy chairs, where four patrons nursed drinks and watched a football game on a two-story-tall screen. We sampled the panoramic view on the balcony, wondering how so many folks could prefer staring at spinning drawings to the glorious reality steps away.
As we walked among the patrons, I observed the scene as an anthropologist, interested in the unfamiliar rules and culture of this strange society. My husband, though, was simply appalled and disgusted to see the waste of money and time.
Yet the people dropping their credit cards into the slots did so of their own free will, choosing the momentary thrill in awaiting each outcome, the excitement of possible win, over the cash they lose. We pay for entertainment--$13 to see "Avatar" in 3-D, $90 to enter Disneyland, unspecified amounts for accoutrements on those online games like FarmVille. Why is gambling any less acceptable?
Partly because the chances of winning are deceptively small. Slot machines programmed to be "loose" return, say, 90% of the money they take in. But they also employ all sorts of psychological tricks to encourage, sometimes deceptively, players to keep paying. For example, some still have an "arm" lever to pull, to foster a sense of control. Most are programmed to land on symbols just one off from the programmed winner, to give players the feeling they "just missed." The "clang, clang, clang" of quarters hitting metal is calculated to be as loud as possible, to suggest that winners are numerous and grandly rewarded.
Gambling, of course, can also be addictive. I'm sure there are simulation gamers and others who become addicted, too--both to potentially devastating results. That states promote gambling in lotteries in order to alleviate budget shortfalls, while forbidding gambling in casinos, is hypocritical on its face. But the reason casino gambling is outlawed (except when administered by tribal nations) isn't because of some moralistic religious prohibitions, but because too many people can't control themselves and ultimately hurt themselves and their families.
BF Skinner found that intermittant reinforcement is much more resistent to extinguishing than any other schedule of reinforcement. In other words, when you don't know when the win will come, you'll keep trying longer, with the mind-set that the next attempt will be the one that will prevail. This is the secret of the slot machines. Though each "pull" has exactly the same odds to win as any other, the lurking suspicion that playing longer could bring success keeps people sinking more of their money into losing.
Still, what today's patrons seemed to crave was not the product--the money they'd win--but the process. For these oldsters, who probably have few other pleasures as diversionary or easily accessible, slot machines provide fun. They enjoy the ambiance of the gigantic room filled with movement and sound. They benefit from the camraderie of others on nearby stools, or the friends pushing their wheelchairs. The tiny thrill of the win is at least a thrill, better than watching television or paying for a restaurant meal.
This afternoon's foray into the beautiful new casino was thought-provoking, sad, fascinating. Should gambling be encouraged? Should it be outlawed? I've got to think this through...