Machines of Chance: How casino culture plays with us

We all know that "the house always wins," and yet continue to gamble against the odds. This documentary asks experts and observers to reflect on the casino as reality and metaphor. Skill versus luck, attention and distraction, fortune paired with loss: the casino reflects us, individually and culturally, back to ourselves.

If 'the house always wins,' why do people gamble against the odds?

The painting 'LV9 (Gameboy 2),' by artist Jane Dickson. Her casino series explores attention, distraction, and how casinos parallel the internet. (Jane Dickson)

*IDEAS is pre-empted tonight for CBC's U.S. election coverage. This episode will broadcast at 4 a.m. It was originally published on November 21,2019.

The casino has been a popular destination for centuries. Our desire to gamble has deep roots in history and psychology, and from Macau to Las Vegas, we pay billions of dollars into the gambling industry, worldwide. 

But given that casinos are out to make lots of money from us, even the casual visitor knows deep-down that big wins are rare and the "house always wins." So why do we continue to play?

First, the world of casinos compels us. Their past is surprising, colourful, and rich, according to gambling historian Dave Schwartz. 

Novelist Michael Redhill is a fan of poker, finding himself attracted to both the high stakes competition, and the psychological element of the game.

"A lot of writers I know love the game're communicating, whether you're talking with someone else at a poker table, or you're being silent."

But there is a darker side to the world of casinos, of course. 

A player tries his luck at a casino in Niagara Falls, Ont. Digital slot machines account for most of today's casino play and profits. (Lisa Godfrey)

New York artist Jane Dickson has made a series of paintings in Las Vegas casinos. She finds that the maze-like design of casinos feeds our self-destructive compulsions. She sees a parallel both with the online world, and the current have-and-have-not economic conditions in the U.S. 

However, architectural designer Gordon Mackay says the practice of manipulative design has been waning, in favour of more open, inclusive spaces where gambling is just one option for fun and entertainment.

Still, there are signs the bricks-and-mortar casino may be giving way to something less tangible.

But there's also the casino as metaphor: Candida Yates, an academic at Bournemouth University in the U.K., sees gambling similes and the language of risk and reward being used politically, by the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.

For her, that means a rejection of the depth and complexity necessary around the big issues of our era.

Yates acknowledges that casinos and gambling can be exciting, but in the realm of "casino politics," at least, hopes that we can "tolerate a leader who is less exciting, less sensational."

Five ways that casinos can play with our brains

  • Gaming floors can lead us on
    In his influential Casino Design Principles, researcher Bill Friedman advises casino operators to deliberately create "structured chaos:" narrow aisles that steer visitors into a gaming floor maze, with short lines of sight that focus them on slot machines.
  • Slot machines rule
    75-90% of casino profits now come from slot machines where players simply interact with digital information, rather the play games of skill.
  • Losing is disguised as winning
    Slot machines featuring multiple betting grids seem to multiply your chances, especially when lights and sound signal a win. But most wins are small, and actually add up to a net loss on the original bet. This can encourage problem gamblers to keep playing, found gambling researchers at the University of Waterloo.
  • Sticking with one machine does not increase your luck
    Electronic slot machines are computers, with wins programmed both unpredictably, and to reload anew on each play, not — as we often think — gradually increasing the probability of winning.
  • Casinos are watching us 
    Loyalty cards offer rewards, but also track a player's gaming habits in minute detail, sometimes utilizing in-machine cameras and biometric recognition. This can determine the player's overall profit value to a casino, and lead to outreach that will motivate them to return, notes author Natasha Dow Schull.

    Remember that the odds are not in your favour, and stick to spending limits set before playing, advises this video from Gambling Research Exchange Ontario.

Guests in this episode:

  • David G. Schwartz is an historian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the author of several books on gambling, including Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling.
  • Gordon Mackay is strategy director for Mackay Wong, which designs casino interiors for clients in Canada and internationally.
  • Michael Redhill is a writer based in Toronto, and a poker aficionado. His novel Bellevue Square won the 2017 Giller Prize.
  • Jane Dickson is an artist in New York who created a series of paintings exploring casino culture in Las Vegas.
  • Candida Yates is a professor of Culture and Communication at England's Bournemouth University, and has written about casino culture and politics.

* This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.

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