I’m reading the book Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas by Natasha Dow Schull (great book).  It gives a detailed account of how casino buildings, gambling machines and all of the operations around gambling are designed with painstaking detail to ensure that visitors are “drawn in” and stay seated gambling their days and nights away, spending as much money as possible.  Coercive?  Yes.  Frightening?  Yes.  But I can’t help but wonder… are there ways we can apply some of the strategies used by casinos to make our spaces more “coercively healthy?”

I’ve done enough research to know that the built environment can impact human health in very positive ways, and this can (and often does) influence how we plan and design public parks, walking paths and fitness centers. But health in America is pretty awful – two thirds of us are overweight!  Isn’t it time we kicked things up a notch?

After reading about the amount of money and time casinos spend to understand our psychology and behaviors, I think it’s time to leverage some of this research for benefiting our health, not just sucking money out of our pockets. I mean, gambling makes a total contribution of around 240 billion U.S. dollars to the U.S. economy annually (according to Statista).  Why should all that research be used for gambling alone?

In Addiction by Design, Shull shares many of the design features casinos use to their advantage.  Some of them are definitely not in the category of “healthy” by any stretch of the imagination, but several of them are likely candidates.  To name a few:

  • Rounded circulation patterns. Casinos use “curved walls” not right angles to gently draw visitors into their building and into gambling areas. In one study, people walking by a casino were twice as likely to enter the building solely due to the fact that it had a curved wall pulling visitors toward the doors. Could we encourage people to walk by windows or green space more often if we nudged them with curves vs. angles?
  • Smaller, more intimate environments. A “sea of slot machines” in a very large space is uncomfortable to most people. Casino designers have found that gamblers are most likely to use machines and for longer periods of time in smaller spaces and smaller groups. I can’t help but think about open work environments (“seas of cubicles”) and the push back they often get, but also about the rows and rows of workout machines at my gym. Breaking down larger work environments can encourage better concentration, but also make us more comfortable. And what about trying smaller, mini-gyms?  888 Casino does a nice job of diagramming changes in casino planning (there is a movement towards the layout on the right).

Addiction by Design

  • Playing into our device addiction. Over the last 35 years, machine gambling has gradually increased to 71% of total casino revenues over table games. Machines are carefully calibrated to keep a gambler sitting by it for hours on end. If you think about it, slot machines are not all that different from our iPads, iPhones and laptops. All of them are designed to keep us engaging with a device for as long as possible.  In fact, researchers believe that our preference for machines over table gambling is largely due to our comfort levels with other devices (which is too bad, because the odds of winning are not as good on machines).  So, how can we use this knowledge to our healthy advantage? One of my favorite examples of playing into our addiction is this bike charging station in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. You can charge your phone there as long as you like, but you’ll have to work for it!

Amsterdam's Schiphol airport

  • Gamify. It goes without saying that the design of slot machines and other games in casinos are designed to keep us playing. Just like video games, there are points, levels and other addictive elements (lighting, music, etc.) within the games themselves that keep us engaged as often and as long as possible. Most machines have moved from handles to push-buttons (buttons double the rate of play, from 300 to 600 hands an hour), and then to “video gambling” (experienced video gamblers compete a hand every 3-4 seconds or roughly 900-1,200 an hour).  But this scary fact might not be all bad.  Jane McGonigal, a senior researcher at the Institute for the Future and the author of The New York Times best seller Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, has done a tremendous amount of research on what she calls “being gameful,” using computer games of all kinds to minimize the negative impacts of post traumatic stress disorder and depression, to improve happiness and resilience, even to promote weight loss (read here for more on gamification).  I’m starting to see companies use games more and more, and to integrate it into their workspace.  Here is a shot of a Wii tournament in the German-American Chamber of Commerce in Atlanta.

Reality Is Broken

As much as I would like to wag a finger at the gambling industry for manipulating us to gamble, I have to say that they’ve uncovered some interesting data about how we can be nudged.  And I think we should leverage every tool in our toolbox to be happier and healthier at work, at home and in our community.   Besides, it’s a lot better to be nudged (led to making good decisions on our own), than nagged.