7 March 2006

Ontario study on how casino design affects gambling criticized

Oh, Canada, you're barking up the wrong tree

How would you like to get a half-million dollars to tell people how to do their job less effectively? Would you feel cheated if you were prevented from actually carrying out your inefficiency study?

Recently, a news story suggested that just this sort of thing has happened north of the border. An Ontario marketing professor successfully received about $500,000 (Can.) to "study how casino design affects gambling" with an eye toward suggesting how casinos can redesign themselves to be less conducive to gambling.

Putting aside for a second the seeming absurdity of asking a marketing professor to advise a business to make itself less attractive to customers, the idea that casino design encourages gambling is hardly a revelation. But the professor applied for and received a grant from the Ontario Problem Gambling Research Centre, a body created by the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.
David G. Schwartz

The story gets interesting because another provincial body, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation, runs the Fallsview Casino in Niagara Falls, where the professor in question planned to intercept patrons, watch them play and ask them about their gambling. The OLGC, which is charged with running Ontario casinos with an eye toward the bottom line, balked at helping the professor.

Still, there is a happy ending: armed with another $500,000 grant, the professor launched a three-year study using 3-D images of gambling halls to test potential patron reactions to different settings. It sounds almost like "The Matrix" with slot machines.


Why might casino operators be sensitive to charges that their designs induce gambling? Commercial gambling is based on the premise that customers will lose more than they win. The house edge is, in a sense, the premium players pay for the privilege of playing any time they want in an honest game. Like any other business, casinos use marketing to lure patrons in. Casinos are obviously designed to facilitate access, comfort and pleasure.

But where does clever marketing become psychological manipulation? Pathological gambling is probably as old as gambling itself (which might be as old as 40,000 years). Though problem gambling isn't confined to any particular type of gambling, the commercial casino industry, as the most visible legal gaming industry, shoulders a great deal of the public relations burden for it.

One could argue that other forms of gambling, from bingo to illegal sports betting, are just as amenable to problem gambling, but casinos make attractive targets because they are large and flashy -- unlike lottery outlets or off-track betting, which are usually unglamorous.

It makes sense that casinos would want to make themselves as attractive to patrons as possible. Isn't that, after all, what most businesses do?

Urban legend credits casino designers and operators with a pitiless knack for identifying and exploiting human weaknesses: flashing lights, bright carpet, loud noise and pumped-in oxygen, all causing unwitting players to lose their inhibitions and gamble without stopping. This legend gives casino operators a bit too much credit and casino patrons too little. Though a small proportion of gamblers have legitimate problems knowing when to stop, most of those who enter the casino are perfectly able to set time and loss limits.


The Ontario study posited that the urban legend is right: bright lights, clanging coins and garish carpet push patrons into a state of cognitive debility, where they have little choice but to continue gambling. But thousands of people work in casinos every day; few of them tarry even a second before hurrying off the floor at the end of their shift. For many, repeated exposure to the "cognitive overload" of the casino leads to indifference, or even open distaste, toward any form of gambling.

Most gamblers make rational decisions about how much to gamble, and many would be insulted at the implication that they are consistently tricked by lights and noise into them doing otherwise. Those who cannot control their gambling need help, and the first step is to keep them out of the gambling environment. Modifying casino design by dimming the lights or showing gamblers pictures of children with balloons -- seriously, that's one of the suggestions of the pending study -- will not help them and may do more harm than good by suggesting that a problem gambling can't happen in a "safe" casino.

Gambling is a phenomenon that, as persistent as it has been, is at its heart little understood. It needs more academic study from many perspectives. But spending $1 million to tell casinos how to make themselves less attractive to customers -- in a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to ameliorate problem gambling -- is probably a bad bet.

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