Dangerous Games: The Dark Side of Slot Machines’ Bright Lights

If you walk past the foyer of any casino in the country, you’ll find yourself almost instantly surrounded by the glitzy displays, flashing lights, overwhelming carnival-like sounds, and bright colors of rows upon rows of electronic gaming machines (EGMs).

Nationwide, there are more than a million EGMs — which include slot machines, video poker, and electronic table games. Together, they generate a whopping 65% to 80% of gambling income in many states, and as much as 88% of revenue at some casinos. In our neighboring state of Iowa, just 15,000 of these machines generate 90% of state-licensed casino revenue — and over $16 billion in wagers from June 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022.

Every month, slot players here in Nebraska pour an average of $95,000 per machine into slots. And the same situation is playing out in every state across the country. That’s why slot machines and EGMs are considered the most addictive form of gambling available.

Those who play slots become addicted to the game 3-4x faster than those who play cards or bet on sports. Here’s why:

All EGMs, but particularly slot machines, are designed to hold your attention from the moment you sit, until you’re lulled into a trance-like playing state called “the zone.” This hyper-focused trance is so compelling, the lights and sounds of winning actually become irritating — not exciting.

Casinos focus on maximizing “the zone” because the longer you sit at a machine, continually pressing the ‘Spin’ button, the more you lose. And the more you lose, the greater their earnings.

Think about the strategic ways casinos encourage you to stay at that slot machine longer:

  • When you’re at a slot machine, you’re isolated from other players. It’s just you and the machine, so you’re not delayed by waiting for other players to take their turn, or sharing each game experience with others — as is the case with roulette, poker, or horse racing, for example. Unlike slot play, engaging with other gamblers slows down the action, allowing you to think about what you’re wagering. Suddenly, that next $100 isn’t just cash. It’s rent, groceries, daycare, or borrowed money. In this way, slow play acts like a yellow light.

  • Every slot machine is specifically designed to allow for seamless gameplay, so each round flows into the next. That’s the key ingredient to creating “the zone.” This seamless experience allows you to complete hundreds or thousands of rounds every hour, without realizing how much time has passed or how much you’ve spent. Astonishingly, some gamblers have been known to urinate themselves while playing slots, as “the zone” overcame their conscious thought and self-awareness.

  •  The small, low-stakes bets lure you into playing longer, and gambling more. When you’re betting with pennies or dimes at a slot machine, you’re insulated from the feeling of loss. But because every game is over in mere seconds, those small bets add up quickly — especially for the significant number of players who spend 16 hours, or more, at the machine.

  • The entire casino is designed around the slots, from the ergonomic chairs that allow you to sit comfortably at the machine for hours, to the refreshments delivered right to your machine. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a clock in a casino, and all the windows are heavily draped to remove any sense of time and daylight. Even the carpets are carefully chosen to guide you towards the machines.

These four factors work together to create a game that’s highly addictive, notoriously expensive, and widely available. But these aren’t the only factors set against you when you play slots.

The dark side of the bright lights

When players rack up heavy losses and struggle to stay away from these highly-addictive EGMs, feelings of shame and guilt can cause them to hide their gambling and avoid seeking help. The greater their losses, the harder it is to ask for support.

On your own, it’s especially difficult to take control of your gambling. Between the highly addictive nature of these machines and the reality that they’re built to serve the casino — not the players — slot machines fulfill one purpose: To separate you from your time, money, and values.

But there is a way out, if you’re willing to take the first step.

There’s one action that’s never a gamble: Working with an NPGAP-certified problem gambling pro.

There are many ways to change your gambling for good. One way is by setting your own healthy boundaries and leaning into your strength. Another is to consider getting help for your gambling by working with a pro from the Nebraska Problem Gamblers Assistance Program.

Any Nebraskan can reach the free, confidential helpline by calling 1-833-BETOVER (238-6837) or texting 402-806-7344. Justin Antons, a trained professional in problem gambling, will answer your call.

When you work with an NPGAP-certified problem gambling professional, you’ll have access to the resources, tools, and support you need for yourself or a loved one. It’s the best way to take control of your gambling and enjoy real change.

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