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“The brain somehow registers a win,” Kevin Harrigan says. “No matter what you think, physically you’re being affected by these things—the lights, the sounds, the graphics—as a win. You can get 150 to 200 of these false wins, which we also call losses, an hour. That’s a lot of positive reinforcement.”
Scott Stevens’s story is not anomalous. Given the guilt and shame involved, gambling addiction frequently progresses to a profound despair. The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that one in five gambling addicts attempts suicide—the highest rate among addicts of any kind. There are no accurate figures for suicides related to gambling problems, but there are ample anecdotes: the police officer who shot himself in the head at a Detroit casino; the accountant who jumped to his death from a London skyscraper in despair over his online-gambling addiction; the 24-year-old student who killed himself in Las Vegas after losing his financial-aid money to gambling; and, of course, Stevens himself. The Vorhees
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Yet another feature made possible by virtual reel mapping is the uneven distribution of winning symbols among virtual reels, known as “starving reels.” For instance, a 7 may come up four times on the first virtual reel and five times on the second but only once on the third. The first two reels are thus much more likely to hit a 7 than the last one, but you wouldn’t know this by looking at the physical reels. Just as the craps player expects the dice to be numbered 1 to 6 and the blackjack player expects the dealer to use conventional decks of 52 cards, it’s natural for the slot-machine player to expect equal odds on each of the reels, says Roger Horbay, a former gambling-addiction therapist and an expert on electronic gaming machines. “Unbalanced reel design enables EGMs to present to the player screens which are rich in symbols but which are designed to limit winning combinations in a manner incommensurate with the appearance of the screen,” Horbay writes in “Unbalanced Reel Gaming Machines,” a paper he co-authored with Tim Falkiner in 2006.
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Mountaineer Casino and IGT both declined repeated requests for comment. The casino’s attorneys did maintain the industry position, however, in a motion to dismiss the Stevens complaint, asserting that “nationally utilized and government approved slot machines cannot be found defectively designed or lacking proper warning because of a plaintiff’s unreasonable misuse.
She lived with us for 56 years. She raised me and my siblings without pay. I was 11, a typical American kid, before I realized who she was.
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Stevens parked his Jeep in the gravel lot and called Ricky Gurbst, a Cleveland attorney whose firm, Squire Patton Boggs, represented Berkman, where Stevens had worked for 14 years—until six and a half months earlier, when the firm discovered that he had been stealing company funds to feed his gambling habit and fired him.
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West Virginia might have been a difficult venue in which to make Stevens’s case. The state has a proprietary interest in the slot machines’ software, and legalized gambling provided more than $550 million in fiscal year 2014, according to the Rockefeller Institute of Government. (For the sake of comparison, the state’s total tax revenues were only about $5 billion.) Little wonder that the court’s ruling focused on the “economic boon,” “increased public revenues,” and “enhanced employment opportunities” provided by gambling, as opposed to the state’s responsibilities to problem gamblers. As Sharon Eubanks, Noffsinger’s co-counsel on the Stevens suit, notes: “What this tells us is the states are addicted to gambling themselves. They seem unwilling to deal with the social costs.”
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P roblem gamblers are worth a lot of money to casinos. According to some research, 20 percent of regular gamblers are problem or pathological gamblers. Moreover, when they gamble, they spend—which is to say, lose—more than other players. At least nine independent studies demonstrate that problem gamblers generate anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of total gambling revenues.
The preferred mode of gambling these days is electronic gaming machines, of which there are now almost 1 million nationwide, offering variations on slots and video poker. Their prevalence has accelerated addiction and reaped huge profits for casino operators. A significant portion of casino revenue now comes from a small percentage of customers, most of them likely addicts, playing machines that are designed explicitly to lull them into a trancelike state that the industry refers to as “continuous gaming productivity.” (In a 2010 report, the American Gaming Association, an industry trade group, claimed that “the prevalence of pathological gambling … is no higher today than it was in 1976, when Nevada was the only state with legal slot machines. And, despite the popularity of slot machines and the decades of innovation surrounding them, when adjusted for inflation, there has not been a significant increase in the amount spent by customers on slot-machine gambling during an average casino visit.”)
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Cigarette manufacturers were held accountable for the health problems caused by their product after Jeffrey Wigand, a former executive at the tobacco company Brown & Williamson, spoke out in the mid-1990s about the way his firm had manipulated the levels of nicotine to make cigarettes more addictive.
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By mid-afternoon on August 13, 2012, Stacy had started to worry. Why hadn’t Stevens responded to her texts? That wasn’t like him. She texted him that they would eat dinner early to accommodate the girls’ evening activities. “Why aren’t you answering me?” she texted. But she got no response until about an hour later, when he sent his last text to her: “I love you.”