We’ve been hearing a lot lately about the “experience” of gambling. Last month, we ran a cover feature about the visionary John Acres, and how he believes we’ve somehow lost our way in providing this experience to our players. He believes the technology which makes our jobs easier actually removes us from personal contact with the players, thereby decreasing their enjoyment of the experience. On the other hand, Acres says we fail to use the technology we have to enhance that experience because we’re focused on the technology and not the player.
I wrote a sidebar to the Acres piece about the Barona experience in California, where they use technology to get closer to their players. They don’t use those automated kiosks that spit out money when you insert your slot ticket, but instead hand you your winnings. Believe me, there is no image more powerful than seeing someone get a pile of Benjamins during a hand-paid jackpot.
In the Los Angeles Times last month, Stanford history professor Mark Braude wrote an op-ed called “We don’t go to casinos to win or lose, but to break even together.” Like most academics, he gets lost in the psychology of gambling, citing a couple of gambling historians (who, like Braude, I’ve never heard of) who contend “games of chance allow us to reflect on a fundamental paradox of living in a capitalist democracy: economically, we are pitted against one another in fierce competition, yet politically we must foster communal bonds with our fellow citizens. Casino gambling is one of the ways we symbolically try to untangle this Gordian knot.”
Heady stuff, that. Somehow, I must have missed those blue-haired seniors getting hyper-aggressive at the Blazing 7s machine.
But after referring to Sigmund Freud, who claimed long ago that gambling is a way to annihilate yourself, Braude does come to a conclusion that made sense to me.
“Rather, the enduring popularity of casinos has nothing to do with the outcome of winning or losing—but how and where it’s done,” Braude writes.
Here, we can draw a direct line to the message Acres is spreading. John likes to tell a story about a woman he encountered playing a specific slot game that was invented by one of John’s friends. As he’s talking to this woman, Acres dials his friend and puts the slot player on the phone with him. She gushes about how much she has enjoyed his game over the years and how much it meant to her. Bear in mind here, she rarely won playing this game. But the experience was so compelling that she gladly incurred those losses as the cost of entertainment.
How it’s done can also refer to the games you play. Like this woman’s experience, slot makers are endlessly searching for the Holy Grail of the perfect game that is at once compelling and interesting, but also profitable for casino operators. The recent table game revival also speaks to the “how” and the “communal bonds” that the two historian brainiacs were discussing.
Gambling is a also performance, insists Braude. Each hand of blackjack is like a one-act play where the players and the dealer have starring roles.
“I’ve witnessed no greater joy at a casino than when the blackjack dealer is the only one to bust and the whole table wins,” he explains. “Together, our little group beat the system. Money feels light as air and we are reminded that, despite guiding so much of our lives, it’s just an abstraction.”
Braude’s conclusion also bolsters the importance of the “place” you gamble. So it isn’t so bad to pour millions of dollars into a facility to attract gamblers and put them in the right frame of mind to play. Maybe there’s something to that feng shui moment that our Asian operators are always trying to achieve.
But the place you gamble is very subjective. We’ve all heard and understand the “location, location, location” mantra that is true not only in real estate but also in gaming. Most casinos can draw a circle around their location—usually between 20 and 50 miles—that produces 90 percent of their business. Does it matter to those players what the casino looks like or what the experience is if it takes them half the time to reach than the next closest casino? I’m sure no one wants to take that chance, so much attention has to go to the place.
So let’s try to remember the experience as we develop new technology, better games and more fanciful casinos, because few players will keep coming back if the experience isn’t compelling—no matter what the joint looks like.