Vice Squad
Saturday, May 15, 2004
What Constitutes a Slot Machine?

Last week I mentioned an article detailing how slot machines are designed to induce us to fill them with money. Just as the pleasure pathways in our brains evolved in a world without purified cocaine or distilled alcohol, so did they evolve without slot machines. People seem to be programmed to find intermittent reward schemes to be particularly motivating: if things always turn out good or bad, there's little reason to put forth any effort. But lots of negative feedback combined with occasional, random positive reward, can be quite reinforcing, as we "search" for what we can do to reproduce the good outcome. Such an "intermittent reward" system has been brought to a state of near perfection by the designers of slot machines, and some people succumb to gambling addiction.

But today's question is, what is the definition of a "slot machine"? The reason it matters is that Indian tribes that operate casinos have to sign agreements with the state in which they are located. The agreements detail what payments the casinos have to make to the states. A typical term in the agreement is that the casinos pay to the state a percentage of the revenue earned by slot machines. But what if you have a machine that looks and acts a lot like a slot machine, but somehow falls outside the definition? Then the revenue raised by that machine doesn't fall under the slot machine provision, and you can avoid those payments to the states.

The Supreme Court of the United States, believe it or not, was recently asked to resolve the "what is a slot machine" issue, but it declined to take it up. Here's the story from; here's an excerpt:
States fear Indian tribes with casinos could avoid sharing revenue with them by replacing slot machines with machines that look and play much the same but are classified differently, under recent federal court rulings.

The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers New Mexico, has ruled that machines featuring bingo- and lottery-like games are not slots under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The 8th Circuit, based in St. Louis, has ruled the same.

The Bush administration, backed by nine states, had asked the Supreme Court to hear an appeal of the rulings, arguing the machines were "indistinguishable in any meaningful sense from any other slot machine along the casino wall." The Supreme Court on March 1 declined to hear the appeal.

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