[26 May 2010]
I wasn’t a degenerate gambler by any means when I lived in Las Vegas. When I would go to the casinos I would almost always play low-stakes craps, the sort of games you could buy in for $50 and see as much action as you wanted (and never really win much). Even then I had an strong bias against slot machines and in favor of table games, which seemed somehow more legitimate—honest gambling, as if there is such a thing. I used to watch people pump their paychecks into video-poker machines at bars and imagine they felt a sinking, synthetic feeling, wondering how they let the whole world and all its mysteries, the grand cosmic story of their own dance with fate, get condensed down to the whims of a machine. I sometimes get a similar feeling when I play arcade games for too long—in the end you always die, and the machine decides when it happens to you, despite your accrued skill or karma. It seemed like you were always teased with the possibility of some unforeseen and inexplicable mastery, transcendence, only to have it wrenched away arbitrarily.
Manufacturers of gambling games have apparently known the rewarding effects of near misses all along, and they design slot machines in such a way as to exploit the cognitive distortions of gamblers. Using a technique called clustering, they create a high number of failures that are close to wins, so that what the player sees is a misrepresentation of the probabilities and randomness that the game involves. The gambler who nearly hits the jackpot will therefore want to continue playing, because he thinks he has a good chance of winning.
That’s just diabolical, a perfect example of the latent evil inherent in neuroscience and psychological studies. But gambling is essentially an activity one participates in because one seeks to indulge the fantasy of suspending the rules of probability and coaxing the universe into organizing itself around one’s own good fortune. The near-misses lend support to that dream, that the gambler has a date with destiny. It’s not too much of a stretch to connect that kind of mechanical manipulation of the gambler’s “narrative” of their losing experience with the sort of manipulations more conventional entertainments—films, novels, etc.—subject us to.