To a Casino - you are a fruit fly

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Slots dangle reward just out of reach
Monitor staff
March 19, 2010

Some veteran opponents of video slot machines, the crack cocaine of gaming, are in financial extremis. They are caught between their desire to help the downtrodden, their opposition to the ills that come with expanded gambling and a governor who, like his predecessors, prefers a 17th-century tax structure to its alternatives.

The lawmakers, and we're specifically thinking of people like Rep. Beverly Rodeschin, should not trade one moral failing, the state's unwillingness to meet the needs of those who cannot care for themselves, for another. No lawmaker should switch positions based on a promise to use $50 million in gambling revenue to restore cuts in social services. The money would be a one-time gift, but the gambling and its attendant problems will be forever.

Easy access to casinos and slot machines will create more gambling addicts. It will starve local businesses and harm families, who will have to make do with less, because at a casino the house always wins. Thanks to an ever more sophisticated use of technology and psychology, the house is winning more than ever. That's something wavering legislators should think about before succumbing to the deceptive lure of easy money.

In an experiment that suggests that people are not all that different from fruit flies - they share about 60 percent of our genes after all - researchers at Emory University and Baylor College of Medicine found that the pleasure-inducing neurotransmitter dopamine increased when fruit juice instead of water was squirted into the mouths of human test subjects. But dopamine is also produced when a reward is anticipated - and slot machines promise a reward every few seconds.

That makes it hard for people to respect the limit they set when they walked in the casino door, get up from the machine and go home.

To make matters worse, casino operators led by the Harrah's chain, which patented its method of tracking customer bets, are taking full advantage of computer science to induce customers to visit more often and spend more each time. The chain targets not high-rollers but average Joes and Janes. Studies show that the poorer people are, the bigger percentage of their income they spend gambling by playing slot machines or buying lottery tickets. Harrah's customers are given a rewards card to use when betting that makes them eligible for free drinks, dinner and other gifts.

Slot machines do not generate symbols randomly. Computer programs determine when a customer will win or nearly win. The rewards cards tell the casino how much a customer lost before quitting last time and how much has been won or lost on the current visit. When a gambler nears his or her limit, several things may happen. The machine could produce a near-win for a big prize to suggest that riches are just around the corner or deliver a small win to keep the customer playing. A casino employee could arrive with a coupon good for a free drink, dinner or some other prize to make the customer feel like a winner.

The rewards system made Harrah's casinos the most profitable in the industry, and many casinos followed suit. Odds are, if slot machines come to New Hampshire so will rewards cards, little pieces of plastic that promise happiness while emptying pockets.