Slots ’till You Drop – These Are Not Your Father’s Slot Machines

Posted on July 6, 2008


Remember those good old slot machines in Maryland?

I put a quarter in a slot machine at Beverly Beach once, when I was a kid. There were a couple dozen slot machines in an open-air arcade, not far from the French-fry stand. They called them “One-armed bandits.” Men and women in bathing suits put in a quarter, pulled the handle, laughed, walked away.

Fathers would give their children one quarter each to try the slot machines. Maybe one of the kids would hit the jackpot! Wouldn’t that be something? Parents viewed the slot machines as an amusing and petty vice. They figured that one quarter and one pull on the handle was like the polio vaccine, an inoculation against serious illness.

Of course, some people could not walk away. There were rumors of organized crime. Marylanders tolerated slots for a long time, but a consensus emerged that slots did more harm than good. Slots gave a place a bad image, like trash on the street. Getting rid of slot machines was cleaning up Maryland, polishing our image. It was a proud day in Maryland, when the last of the slot machines were banned.

Feeling nostalgic for slot machines? Not to worry. Slot machines are coming back to Maryland, to a casino near you. Not a handful of one-armed bandits near the French frys. Thousands of brand-new, high-tech slot machines in a nice, air-conditioned casino.

One other thing. These are not your father’s slot machines. These are bright video terminals. Natasha Dow Schull, of MIT, calls these computerized slot machines “devices that have been carefully designed to make (players) lose as much as possible.”

An excerpt from her piece entitled “Beware: ‘Machine Zone’ Ahead” on the back page of today’s Washington Post Outlook section:

“It’s important for voters to understand how these machines work. Every feature of a slot machine — its mathematical structure, visual graphics, sound dynamics, seating and screen ergonomics — is calibrated to increase a gambler’s ‘time on device’ and to encourage ‘play to extinction,’ which is industry jargon for playing until all your money is gone. The machines have evolved from handles and reels to buttons and screens, from coins to credit cards, from a few games a minute to hundreds. Inside, complicated algorithms perform a high-tech version of ‘loading the dice’ . . . The machines are designed to exploit aspects of human psychology, and they do it well. . . .

“Slot machines so completely concentrate players’ attention on a series of game events that anything troubling about their life situations — physically, emotionally or socially — gets blotted out. Players enter what’s known as the ‘machine zone,’ where even winning stops mattering; in fact it can be unwelcome because it interrupts the flow of play. Such players only stop when their credits are consumed.”

These are some mean machines.

This is not Beverly Beach on a summer day. This is premeditated, cold-blooded robbery. — Bernie Hayden