Blurred Lines: The Gamblification Of The American Arcade

Video-game arcades are starting to resemble actual casinos. What does that mean for kids?

“Forget slot machines and money wheels. American casinos may soon look more like video game arcades.”

This was the lead of a story in The New York Times in July of 2016 that heralded the debut of gamblified video-game terminals on casino floors in Las Vegas and beyond, a ploy meant to get millennials to actually wager money instead of restricting their Sin City activity to eating, drinking, shopping, and doing whatever one does to get in the proper mindset for a Calvin Harris or Chainsmokers set.

By all accounts, while VGTs have achieved success in states like Illinois, they’ve yet to catch on in Nevada — and likely never will.

“The video-game machines … did not resonate with our players,” said Vince Collura, vice president of casino operations for the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino, which has since pulled such games off its floor. “We tried a couple different versions and all versions … produced revenue that was far less than our floor slot machine average. Once you add in fees, the video-game machines were closer to breakeven.”

“I think the betting scheme on them was kind of complicated for people,” said Chris Gump, general manager at Baldini’s, a Reno-area casino. “One of them that comes to mind that had a few installs up here, it was like a basketball shooting game. You place your bets and you hit a button when the shot meter was in the correct zone. It looked like a video-game three-point contest. There were just a bunch of rules to it, so for somebody trying it out for the first time, it could be confusing as to why you got bonuses, how you win or don’t win. And the overall payouts on those games aren’t very good. You’re not playing for your really high jackpots. It’s definitely more of a game where you’re paying a little to win a little and eat up some time to have some fun, which is fine. … It could just take one game that’s incredibly enjoyable and sparks something, but I don’t think it’s come along yet.”

Fair enough, but let’s go back to that NYT lead and turn it on its head. I recently visited the Funland Arcade in Seaside, Ore. — the Pacific Northwest’s version of a Jersey Shore boardwalk — with my wife and two young daughters, and was struck by how much the arcade floor resembled that of an American casino. Spend enough time at one of these joints, and it’s only natural to want to try your hand at the higher-stakes version once you come of age.

I grew up pumping quarters into pinball machines, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out, Pac-Man, and Pole Position. My reward was not monetary — it was the real-time amusement and the opportunity to top my personal best or coldcock Bald Bull to the point of submission. Once those quarters were gone, they were gone. To earn them back, I’d have to deliver papers, bag groceries, or resist the urge to put an anchovy in the center of a pissy customer’s pizza at Little Caesars. Such were the vocations of my youth.

Cards, not quarters

At Funland, there are no quarters required. Instead, you use paper currency to fuel up Player Power cards, which are not dissimilar to the players’ cards doled out by casinos. They make you feel special, like you’re part of an exclusive club. If you do well at a game, points are added to your card, and at the end of a session, those points can be redeemed for cheeky prizes like candy or a five-jointed plastic snake.

Funland’s Wheel of Fortune arcade game, manufactured by a company called Raw Thrills, looks a whole lot like IGT’s reliably popular Wheel of Fortune slot machine. Would it surprise you to learn that Raw Skills got its start developing casino games for IGT before shifting to a more child-friendly landscape?

Photo: Cary Seely

“I’m not here to tell you that it’s all pure coincidence. I think that it’s a small world,” said Brianne Doura-Schawohl, vice president of U.S. policy and strategic development at EPIC Risk Management. “In our arcade games, we’re not seeing the Skee-Balls anymore, we’re seeing games that are eerily similar to the very things that, as parents, we go and enjoy recreationally in our adult time.”

“There is so much overlap between the themes and games and titles you find in an arcade and the games and themes and titles you see in a casino,” added Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. “I think there are arcade games that have been gamblified and casino games that have been arcadified.”

Deal or No Deal and Pac-Man are other double threats, if you will. And in the latter game’s case, Bandai Namco developed both the kid-friendly and casino versions.

Feeling the flow

Why do some people feel the need to play video games or slot machines for hours on end? It has a lot to do with the concept of flow.

“The flow state is an unusual experience where you find yourself effortlessly playing the game and you forget about everything else,” said Mike Dixon, a University of Waterloo professor who holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology and has studied the cognitive impacts of gaming extensively. “In slots, if you set time or money limits before playing, you forget about that. You lose track of time. If you talk to these gamers, they’ll set out to play for half an hour, then three hours later, they’ll wonder, ‘Where did all the time go?’ That’s flow.

“It’s also a very rewarding state,” he added. “Moods get elevated. I had one guy who said, ‘The only time I’m not thinking about how s—– my life is is when I’m paying slots.’ He was also in constant pain from a back injury. Imagine how attractive that is to people who can’t focus on their day-to-day lives.”

Video games have essentially the same effect.

“There’s all this eye-catching animation, but the other thing about flow is the more skilled you are at video games, the more flow you experience,” said Dixon. “Unlike slots, which are purely games of chance, in these video games that do have elements of skill, if you’re a really good player, the urge to keep playing is greater.”

“What you are seeing in the physical arcades and online is alarming to many of us in the addiction field and prevention space,” added Doura-Schawohl. “It is grooming and indoctrinating our youth into this culture that is quite rapidly normalizing gambling. Everybody is trying to compete with the online sector. They know that the kids are playing these games online, so they’re bringing them into their physical arcade locations as well.”

An opportunity for parents

Jamie Salsburg is a recovering gambling addict who hosts a podcast on the topic. He has two kids, aged 6 and 8, and laments the lack of “play involved” in the arcade experience nowadays.

“You put the coin in, you win X amount of credits or tickets,” he observed. “It definitely starts to resemble a modern casino in a lot of ways.”

But Salsburg doesn’t explicitly blame game developers and arcade and casino operators for shoving youngsters down this seemingly slippery slope.

“The games themselves are one avenue that can lead to gambling,” he said. “Parents have to have discussions with their kids about different games or toys — Pokemon cards, LOL Surprise Dolls. They’re all games of chance. They could all be considered gambling in a lot of ways. It’s an opportunity to talk to kids about gambling, how the product can make them feel good and bad. We all play a role in having to mitigate addiction. I don’t think it’s fair to put it on any one group.

“When your kid asks you, ‘What’s that lottery machine?’ at the store, the easy way out is to say, ‘That’s for adults,’” he added. “But what I’ve seen with my kids is that when you do have a discussion about it, they get it. It helps them be better consumers overall. A lot of things that make people want to gamble are the same things that make them want to go back and buy more clothes.”

The National Council on Problem Gambling’s Whyte agrees.

“We can take some of the consumer-protection lessons that we call responsible gambling and maybe call it responsible gaming and push it into the game space,” he said. “We’ve learned the lesson the hard way on the gambling side that if you don’t do good consumer protection and wait until someone forces you to do it, it’s much worse for you and everybody else. Sometimes the regulations and restrictions that come down are much more onerous than if you sat down with a group like ours and said, ‘Let’s work on some stuff.’ If you’re thinking long-term — corporate social responsibility, reputational risk, legal risk — you can do responsible gambling and make money.”

Lead image: Shutterstock


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