Vice Squad
Sunday, May 09, 2004
Designing Reinforcement

My venture into a New Orleans casino two weeks ago reminded me of something that I had already sensed: the designers of slot machines have really figured out how to get a customer to put another quarter in, to play one more time..and one more after that, and so on. This is the chief marker of an addictive good or activity, that it displays "reinforcement": past consumption begets future consumption. Today's New York Times Magazine offers up a fascinating article (registration required) on how that reinforcement is designed into the sophisticated slot machines of the computer age.

The tricks vary with the intended audience. Novices like machines that have lots of small wins; these are called "cherry dribblers," as they take your money in small increments, not in big chunks. The notion of the "near miss" is important, too, in reinforcing play, although there really isn't such a thing as a near miss -- there are only wins and losses. Having two "bars" out of the requisite three is a loss, and no "closer" to a win than having no bars.

It is the computer chip that has resurrected slots, and now they take $30 billion per year from gamblers in North American casinos -- 70 percent of casino winnings. Most slots, according to the article, are aimed at women over 55 years of age.

Probably more on this excellent article tomorrow...surely that tease will keep the Vice Squad reader coming back!

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