The casino industry is seriously big business. Don’t believe us? Get on Google StreetView, and have a walk around the Vegas Strip. All those enormous, opulent buildings? They were built on a mug’s dime. With so much cold, hard cash at stake, it’s not surprising that casino operators are willing to use any trick going to get you through their doors and reaching for your wallet. Some of these will be obvious, and others less so. Some of them are even hotly debated topics in the world of design. Either way, they’re all united by a common goal – to get you to bet.
Our first secret of the casinos is hardly one at all. It is, of course, booze. Ever notice how there’s no cover charge, and seemingly endless free drink at casinos? This is no accident. It goes without saying that a drunk person is a less frugal one. Personal constraint is infamously much more difficult to manage when intoxicated, and the casino operators are all too aware of this. The casinos are buying their liquor in such bulk that a free beer, or even premium whiskey or two is hardly going to send them broke but it very well could keep you hanging around for another hour or two pumping cash into your favourite slot machine.
It’s no coincidence that most of the dealers in a casino are 20-30-year-old women, with dazzling smiles, and endless charm. Even the male croupiers fit this general description, and are just as important for luring our newly intoxicated female punters towards the tables. The casino managers understand that people are much more likely to continue playing a game hosted by a cheery faced, attractive youngster, than a jaded, dour-eyed middle aged bloke with an odour problem. As is often the case in our society – sex sells. Casinos understandably like to cash in wherever they can.
No matter what game you play (excluding live poker where you pay heavy rake fees on winnings), you will be playing at a disadvantage to the house. It’s simple mathematics. Casinos are legally obliged to print their edges next to games. Whether it’s slots, blackjack, or roulette, a breakdown of just how the casino guarantees their profit is always provided.
Take a game of roulette. In this very basic example, we’ll suppose we’re betting on a colour – let’s say black. I put £10 on black, and wait for the croupier to spin the wheel. If I win I’m paid out £20, if I lose, the casino takes my stake. Now, this would be all well and good, and a fairly paid game were it not for the “zero”, and potentially “double zero” sections of the wheel. Being as there are 37, or 38 (depending on the variation played) numbers on the roulette wheel, and only 18 black numbers, we understand that the payment ratio does not match the odds of winning. Put another way, if you bet on both red and black every single spin, all day, you would still lose money over time. This is known as the house edge.
As mentioned, every single casino game going has some house edge. Whether it’s the tiny 0.5% edge on a perfectly played game of blackjack, the 2.7% for European roulette, or the comparatively huge 5.26% edge of US Roulette (double zero), only alters the casino’s positive expected value from all games offered on the floor.
This one is an interesting one, and whilst there is consensus opinion that certain layouts and design features do encourage the proliferation of gaming in a space, there is hot debate over which approach is the most effective.
Friedman’s Labyrinthian “Gaming” Design
Long-time Vegas gambler turned casino design consultant, Bill Friedman, penned what many consider to be the classic understanding the concept. He argued that to get punters to spend the most cash, it was necessary to confuse, disorient, and deprive certain senses. This all sounds a little bit Guantanamo Bay but we’re not talking about waterboarding and time in solitary confinement. Rather, ideas such as maze-like floorplans, forcing customers to pass many machines, and tables to get anywhere in the casino – including out of the front door. According to Friedman, it was best to keep people inside guessing at what time of the day or night it was. This meant no clocks, and no windows. Additionally, he proposed that the best place to locate popular machines was near the door, and even recommended that there be the opportunity to gamble in the lobby of the building itself. Overall, he was convinced that the more bombarded with opportunity your guests were, the more they would push towards the cashiers.
This wisdom seemed to hold true for a long time, and still today, you’ll see many examples designed along these specifications. However, in recent years, a new approach has begun to gain some traction, and those that can afford to seem to be renovating en masse.
An Alternate, “Playground” Approach
Casino designers Roger Thomas, and Steve Wynn started the move away from Friedman’s work at the Bellagio. Rather than have people feel “trapped, or overwhelmed”, they attempted to “seduce [punters] with a sense of magnificence” arguing that “people tend to take on the characteristics of a room.”
Instead of adhering to classic “gaming” design principles, they opted for high ceilings, spacious, well-lit areas, grand adornments instead of wall-to-wall games, and lavish décor.
The science part
Based on several of their own studies, a team from the University of Guelph backed up the “playground” model of Thomas and Wynn. They confirmed that people respond poorly to feelings of confusion, bewilderment, and anxiety from a bombardment of lights, sounds, and endless passageways past machines. They instead claimed that it’s a more profitable approach to stimulate customers’ playful sides. Their extensive reports found that customers were more likely to engage in riskier behaviour when they felt safe, and relaxed. In one such test, subjects were sent to a variety of different casinos, each following one of the two contesting design principles. This study found that in areas following the Bellagio’s lead, punters ranked the experience as one of pleasure, and were more likely to enter a mental state of “restoration” in which mental fatigue is offset, providing relief from their daily routine and distractions. Of course, a more rested person is much more likely to stick around late into the evening.
Whichever school of casino designed is followed remember that everything on the casino floor is there on purpose. For whatever reason, each design, and hospitality feature has the end goal of encouraging you to part with your cash. Whether it be the beautiful croupier, the endless waiting staff with mugs of beer, the myriad passageways between noisy, flashing machines, or the lavish décor signalling wealth, and opulence, they’re goal is to increase the house’s expected value. Be aware of this when visiting casinos, and don’t let a good time turn sour by betting what you can’t afford to lose.
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