Addiction by Design book review

Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las VegasAddiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas by Natasha Dow Schüll

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an amazing work of anthropology. The amount and quality of research poured into the author’s study of machine gambling makes for a convincing account of how the casino and gambling machine industries continue to refine and perfect slot machines, video poker machines, and other electronic gambling devices in order to keep gamblers in their stools and feeding money into the machine. The odds are stacked against the average gambler in many ways beyond simply the random number generators powering the spins of reels and deals of cards. Not only does the author give us this view into the industry through technical and anecdotal details, but also offers an overview of local, national, and multi-national regulatory frameworks governing the industry: their complexity and ultimately their limitations. The discussion of lobbying activities by the industry to focus the point of responsibility for gambling on the individual using arguments from neo-liberalism and funding research to build up analysis about problem gambler’s individual psychology and predisposition rather than the role of the machines was fascinating.

The larger takeaway from the field of science, technology, and society is the revelations around how problem gambling is a co-construction between the machines and their human users. The author offers heartbreaking accounts of gamblers who can’t stop gambling, who have structured their lives around the practice, and hurt themselves and their families in the process. We readers see what it means to be truly addicted to something. The effect is a deeply humanizing account of gambling addicts.

One advisory for potential readers: this is a piece of rigorous academic scholarship, whose audience may include lay readers and policymakers, but is definitely meant for other anthropologists and science, technology, and society scholars. There are many references to philosophers and sociologists like Erving Goffman, Gilles Deleuze, Bruno Latour, and others. This makes the book a very dense read. I appreciate the situation of the work in the academic literature but it definitely raises barriers to a broader audience. That said, the author does an excellent job of constructing a road map through the work and helping readers keep track of where they are in her argument and where threads are coming together, which really helps the accessibility. Overall, I highly recommend Addiction by Design.

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