Rolling Alone

December 21, 2006

Posted by Jay Livingston

The news today is that Pittsburgh, my old hometown, is going to get a gambling casino. All slot machines.

Up until about 25 years ago, the action in casinos was at the tables. People crowded around a crap table generate excitement, almost a team spirit since most are betting with the shooter rather than with the house. And everyone gets a chance to be the shooter, as the dice pass from player to player around the table. Roulette and blackjack are calmer, the players seated, and the house, rather than one of the players, spinning the wheel or dealing the cards, but the players are still there together, aware of each other’s bets.

The tables were where the casinos made their money. They courted the high rollers, comping them rooms, food, and even air fare. The slot machines were small-time stuff, a way to keep wives from getting bored.

Then the balance began to shift until now slot machines account for most casino revenue, typically 75%, even higher in some places. So why not just get rid of the tables altogether and have nothing but machines? From the casino’s point of view, there are lots of reasons to get rid of the tables, mostly things like labor costs, health benefits, and other potential difficulties that arise when your employees are human beings.

But what is the attraction for players? Is that they too feel more comfortable alone with a machine than among other humans?

There may be other reasons as well. You don’t have to worry about how much to tip if you win; you don’t have to tip at all. Also, the machines are far more complicated than the old three-wheel one-armed bandits. They resemble video games, with different levels you can move through and different choices you can make. The generation raised on video games may feel more comfortable with these machines and may find a simple pair of dice or deck of cards incredibly one-dimensional.

Even the traditional games are becoming mechanized. You can play poker, craps, or roulette at an electronic console rather than at a table. I guess I’m hopelessly old fashioned. I’d be less likely to trust a programmable computer to give an honest roll of the dice or turn of a card than I would a real person holding the actual dice or deck.

The sociological question is the one Putnam raised about bowling. Does this transformation of gambling yet one more way that social life is becoming more fragmented and individualized? What makes public social life interesting is the possibility of new experience, something we never expected. The more individual control we have over our environment, the more we remove the possibility of these unplanned encounters.

In the fully mechanized casino, people minimize the chance of a random social encounter while at the same time they cede complete control over their money to a flashy random-number generator.

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