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States of Mind: The Zone vs. The Machine Zone

People outside the US state of New Jersey have no way to play video poker online. Instead, they flock to the numerous casinos built around the country, spending their time – and often their money – playing in the slots parlor and the table games floor. While the latter is usually filled with noises of people chatting, cheering or maybe cussing because of their lack of luck, the slots parlor is usually completely silent, filled with people with their eyes fixed on the spinning reels, and feeding the machines with an endless stream of coins. They are in a mental state MIT anthropologist Natasha Schüll called “the machine zone”.

What is “the machine zone”?

Natasha Schüll spent a decade in Las Vegas, talking both to casino operators and slot machine players about their preferred games (yes, both of them prefer slot machines). The conclusion she reached was that slots enthusiasts don’t play the game to win money. Instead, they are seeking out a mental state where “Everything else falls away”, Schüll told Roman Mars in an episode of the 99% Invisible podcast. “A sense of monetary value, time, space, even a sense of self is annihilated in the extreme form of this zone that you enter”. Playing the slots, she said, “is not about winning; it’s about getting into the zone”.

The state of mind described by the players is similar to “the zone” described as “a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity”. But there’s a fundamental difference between the two – the “machine zone” comes without the sense of meaning and mastery of the flow. And it only lasts for as long as the player keeps playing the game.

Do online slots cause the same feeling?

Interestingly, the answer seems to be no. Playing slots online at the Vegas Palms is a much more casual experience where players focus on the entertainment value of the games rather than their immersive and addictive nature. Recent studies have shown that in New Jersey, where online casinos were legalized a few years ago, the prevalence of gambling addiction – the almost inevitable side effect of the “machine zone” has remained unchanged. This confirms a previous study completed by the Harvard Medical School’s Division on Addiction that has reached a similar conclusion.

Online casino players, it seems, spend less time gambling than their real life counterparts, and spend far less money on their habits. Perhaps it’s the different environment that has the final say – playing online at the Vegas Palms without the casino environment specifically designed to make people want to play more – that keeps them tied to the screens of their favorite games and takes them into the state that robs them of their time, their individuality (and perhaps even their money).

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