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How Principles from the Casino Were Applied to Your Cell Phone

The casino and social media use some of the same techniques to keep you engaged.

Key points

  • Digital products are designed to maximize the time people spend on a device or in a particular app.
  • Developers have leveraged techniques that casinos use, such as eliminating cues that people should stop or change their behavior.
  • Similarly, YouTube recommends content that is increasingly provocative or sensational to increase engagement.

In her book "Addiction by Design," anthropologist Natasha Schüll shows how slot machines manage to put users in a special state where worries, fears and awareness of the environment and themselves disappear.

She describes a kind of trance state, perhaps the real reward of the game, that allows people to disconnect from the here and now while awareness of time, place and even the sense of self disappear altogether. The common phrase given by gamblers to describe this situation is "the nothingness zone."

Interviews with heavy gamblers reveal that while they are playing in the casino, time stands still. Heavy gamblers who smoke say that they find themselves lighting one cigarette after another without noticing, as each cigarette turns to ash. This suggests that from our brain's perspective, playing is more rewarding than a cigarette in delivering dopamine, a neurotransmitter that produces a sense of pleasure.

What Does Gambling Have to Do With Digital Experiences?

One of the most common concepts among app designers is TOD (time on device). They realized that to keep people engaged as long as possible, it is not necessary to excite or create a mental challenge, but to maintain a hypnotic flow of activity.

In the past, both the casino and the games were filled with loud sounds and lights. Today the focus is on building an intimate, acoustically adapted environment that will not provoke the system too much and thus allow a gradual entry into a trance state.

Apps mimic the reward mechanisms in our minds. Touch screens are programmed to respond differently depending on the type of action, with vibration, sound and lights. Receiving feedback in response to an action encourages repetitive, if not compulsive, behavior. Just like interacting with a slot machine — you pull the handle and get reinforcement, and the machine responds with lights and sounds. Expecting the reward triggers the obsessive repetition.

One of the amazing stories in this regard is that gamblers who suffer from severe pain stop feeling pain as soon as they start playing, and the pain returns immediately with the loss of the last penny. If we were under the impression that the reward of gambling is the thrill or opportunity to earn big, it is clear that the real attraction may be the ability to exist in the nothingness zone.

All this does not happen by chance. The casino and our mobile phones are designed in such a way that will draw players (and users) to spend hours and even whole days in the casino. The music, the atmosphere, the fact that there are no windows or clocks, the carefully chosen colors and the close analysis of the behavioral patterns of the guests — each element is carefully designed to make sure that we are drawn into the game. These principles have been mimicked on dating apps, social networks and mobile games, where they have been perfected.

Which Principles Were Copied Over to Mobile?

Not only is a mobile device designed based on the same principles of a slot machine, but it also allows the same disconnection from the environment, the same coveted nothingness area. We sometimes don't access social networks, smartphone games or even dating apps like Tinder out of a desire to take part in the activities, catch up with friends or find a date. The reward comes from the change in mental state, the disconnection from the here and now provided by the monotonous scroll in the feed downward (or sideways in the case of Tinder) in a motion reminiscent of moving the gambling handle while the content continues to change like the drums in the slot machine.

Have you noticed that people have been daydreaming less lately? One of the basic functions of daydreaming is to allow our brain to reset and relax, to take a break from the stimuli in the physical environment. Today it is no longer needed. Every time we open our mobile device, we provide our brains with this desired break from reality.

Mobile interaction does not require mental investment, thought or intention. A unique activity pattern characterizes our brains on social networks. This unique brain activity differs from the activity that characterizes a state of relaxation, stress or any other state of alertness. The condition is known as flow — high emotional involvement without investing resources.

One way to sweep the user away, to immerse them in this state of flow, is to remove the stopping cues that signal to the brain when it's time to move on to the next activity. Although they do not seem significant and most of us do not notice their existence, stopping cues fulfill a significant function in our lives.

The alarm clock is the first hint that informs us that it is time to get up and start the day. We feel tired when it’s dark outside because the body releases a hormone called melatonin, signaling that it’s time to go to sleep, and when the plate is empty we understand that the lunch break is over.

Netflix's Biggest Competitor: Sleep

In casinos and in the digital world, there are no stopping cues. The casino has no windows or clocks, while in the digital world mobile alerts, news updates, and emails keep coming. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are designed so the content never stops, thus causing us to consume content non-stop.

Immediately after finishing an episode on Netflix, the next episode begins, which leads to the difficulty of disconnecting from the screen (aka binge watching). Indeed, Netflix's CEO said that its biggest competitor is not YouTube or cable, but the fact that people need to sleep at night. Indeed, a 2019 survey found that 36% of respondents said they would prefer to give up sex for a year over Netflix.

Algorithms Personalize the Experience of Losing

Now let’s talk about the algorithms that decide the right timing and intervals for reward or punishment. In gambling sites, the algorithms are engineered so that they adapt themselves to the psychological needs of each user. People who have been identified as risk averse will lose gradually. For every $2 they lose, they will earn $.30. This marginal profit is accompanied by lights, sounds, vibrations. Our mind interprets this as winning for all intents and purposes so we do not feel like we've lost all our money. If, on the other hand, you are identified as a risk lover, a reward schedule was developed especially for people who seek to win big and therefore do not mind losing a few times along the way.

Another algorithm produces "engineered randomness." Statistically there is no difference between missing the win in one or five strokes, but psychologically the difference is huge. So the "Near Miss" concept makes the user feel that he was very close to victory and thus motivated to try again.

The same rewards schedule was also developed for YouTube. A former YouTube engineer who was responsible for developing the recommendation engine says that algorithms have a tendency to radicalize content. If, for example, a girl was looking for a video about diet, thanks to the recommendation engine she would end up watching a video on anorexia. The algorithms know how to lead you to the most provocative, sensational item. It’s not that the developers of YouTube wish to harm people, but it is more effective in grabbing attention.

Like any other player in the capitalist society, they try to understand how they increase profits by making users spend time in the app for as long as possible.

And if you need proof that it works, remember the last time you just opened your phone to check the news and found yourself two hours later, wondering where the time had gone.

More from Liraz Margalit Ph.D.
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