For over twenty years I’ve spent (or wasted, as my wife would say) countless hours playing Civilization, Meier’s award-winning strategy game. Every time I play the game I enter an almost trance-like state of complete immersion. According to positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, what I’m experiencing in that moment is known as “flow.” Csíkszentmihályi describes the mental state of flow as,
being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.
According to Csíkszentmihályi, there are ten factors that accompany the experience of flow:
1. Clear goals that, while challenging, are still attainable.
2. Strong concentration and focused attention.
3. The activity is intrinsically rewarding.
4. Feelings of serenity; a loss of feelings of self-consciousness.
5. Timelessness; a distorted sense of time; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing.
6. Immediate feedback.
7. Knowing that the task is doable; a balance between skill level and the challenge presented.
8. Feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome.
9. Lack of awareness of physical needs.
10. Complete focus on the activity itself.
While it’s not necessary to experience all ten factors for flow to occur, I experienced all ten when I play strategy games like Civilization, Age of Kings, or Axis and Allies. I’ve been in a state of flow other times, of course. Sometimes it occurs when I’m writing, building electronic devices, or working on a carpentry project. But the state of flow is never as complete as when I’m playing a game.
I have to take ultimate responsibility for my own actions, including the time I spend playing games. But could the game designers be somewhat accountable for my compulsion? Should they bear any responsibility for creating the experience?
Unlike my wife, I don’t blame Sid Meier. He’s created a wonderful game that, if experienced in moderation, can increase human flourishing by satisfying our need for play. But there is one group that I believe bears a large share of the blame for creating an experience of flow that can destroy lives and immiserate our fellow citizens: designers of slot machines.
As economist Robert H. Frank writes in the New York Times:
“Addiction by Design” (Princeton University Press, 2012), Natasha Dow Schüll’s gripping account of slot machine gambling in Las Vegas, looks into the technical wizardry underlying modern slots and their effects on players. According to slot designers and casino managers surveyed in the book, the mission of these machines is simple: to separate patrons from their money in the most ruthlessly efficient — yet psychologically agreeable — ways possible.
The machines create an experience so compelling that some people stop playing only when they’ve exhausted every available resource. Ms. Schüll, a cultural anthropologist on the M.I.T. faculty, interviews a slots player who sees the machines as so immersive that winning becomes a distraction, something that matters only because it lets her play a little longer. “It’s like being in the eye of a storm,” the woman says, later adding, “You aren’t really there — you’re with the machine and that’s all you’re with.”
Psychologists describe this state as flow, a feeling of being so absorbed in what you’re doing that you become completely unaware of the passage of time. Artists, writers and others who achieve flow in their work call it one of the most pleasurable psychological states, one that greatly enhances productivity. But in hindsight, at least, flow as experienced by some slots players is a state that leads to ruin.
Slot machines, in other words, are designed for a nefarious purpose. They don’t exist for the casual player, the type of person who can resist becoming enslaved to the machines. They are created specifically to prey upon the psychological weakness of fallen humans.
Slot machines exist primarily to take the money of what the gaming industry calls “problem gamblers.” Problem gamblers account for 40 to 60 percent of slot machine revenues, according to studies conducted over the past decade or so. A large-scale study in 2004 found that people who live within 10 miles of a casino have twice the rate of pathological and problem gambling as those who do not.
In an ideal world, such predatory gaming would be prohibited by society. But our culture opposes almost any restrictions on vice, no matter how soul-destroying, if the harm to others is not direct and immediate. The best we can hope for is to gain broader acceptance for a more indirect solution. We could limit the harms of gambling by simply convincing Americans that the government at all levels – local, state, and federal – should not give legal, administrative, regulatory, and promotional advantages to businesses that host slot machines.
That’s really all it would take. Prevent the cronyism and casinos would wither away. Casinos can’t survive without the life-support provided by politicians. They thrive because monopolistic regulations and taxpayer dollars keep them from bankruptcy. Take that away and slot machines would die the ignoble death they so truly deserve.