Time on Device

PHOTO Carl Raw on Unsplash.com

MARTY

The pleasing musical notes (always in the key of C) float gently out of the slot machine’s tiny hidden speakers. The volume rises gently to a comfortable level, one that would never overstimulate the gambler’s nervous system. Then it tapers gradually down and away, but then there is one little uptick in the volume. Psychologically, the mind finds the sound pleasing, so when it grows softer, the brain ‘chases’ it, the little uptick is a ‘reward.’ Just one more feature reverse engineered to maximize ‘time on device,’ or TOD. The end-all, be-all metric in the gambling industry.

There are no sharp corners in a casino. No intersections or tees. All such structures have an implicit decision node. The casino wants to remove all such decision points. They don’t want the customers to ask themselves, ‘Do I want to go left or go right?’ Those questions, questions, might lead the gambler to ask, ‘Do I want to continue gambling or perhaps I should go outside? Get some sleep?’ That is not how one maximizes TOD. What they want to do is gently lull the gambler into a mindless state of compliance.

No detail, regardless of how small, is ignored in the holy quest to lure people in, get them to sit down, and begin pouring dollar after dollar of their hard-earned money into the machines.

The visual design of the electronic gaming screens IS optimized to curve one towards a state of mindlessness. Just sit down in your cozy, dimly lit corner, and start playing. The machines of course throw you a win every once in a while, but more often, it will throw you a false win. If you bet a dollar, and the machine pays out $0.32, that is NOT a win. But that is exactly how the machine treats it by displaying the same sequence of lights and notes. Every single user in here is like Pavlov’s dog. Rather than a single doggy treat, each one is overloading their reward-center with ‘fake rewards.’ It’s as addictive as any chemical. In fact, at the brain level, it is chemical. It is all chemicals. Studies have shown that some video poker game users can play up to 1200 hands of poker in an hour. That’s a hand every three seconds. If that’s not Pavlovian, I don’t know what is.

I’m in the Pink Flamingo. A more modestly sized casino than where I usually go. But this place was Margery’s favorite. This corner was her favorite corner. I remember, the zealous new recovered member that I was, I would stand behind her and plead with her to stop gambling. I would be chased off by one of the interchangeable bald, beefy security personnel eventually.

So why am I here? I’m trying desperately to take the blue pill and re-enter the ‘matrix’ of zoned out, disassociated, mindless, unconscious bliss. I’m trying again to meld with this machine, a newer model, and become wholly disembodied and in a counterfeit state of flow.

The music is soft; the lights are comfortably low, there are now challenging decision points on my way to my chair today. Even the carpet pattern is marked by gently swooshing arcs that beacon me like the Sirens, deeper and deeper into the windowless gaming rooms.

My name is Marty. I am a recovered gambling addict turned gambling game designer. It’s a little difficult to let myself be swept away by these visual and auditory stimuli because I used to be the one designing these games. A ‘little’ difficult, but I’m optimistic that with my commitment, I will make it happen. Losing Margery was just too much. I just need to zone out for a month or six, and maybe then it will hurt less. Ridiculous, I know, but such are the rationalizations of an addict.

This is a newer machine. I notice two tiny little black buttons, one in each of the upper corners of the screen. The background pattern of subtle curves rendered in two similar shades of black makes the buttons nearly invisible. There might be more of them.

They finally did it, I think. They’ve introduced AI, or ‘artificial intelligence,’ to the games. I suspect the black buttons are little tiny lenses of digital cameras. I can’t very well disassemble the device as I’m desperately trying to dance the dance of the disassociated today. But I’d be willing to bet (haha), that the optical sensors are feeding image data to some computer buried within the machine or perhaps somewhere else in the casino – it’s not unlikely that a manager somewhere is overseeing the feed of images and tweaking the algorithm’s weighting of factors, to maximize TOD. It is a new technology, after all. Somewhere, even now maybe, digital images of my face are being scrutinized, deconstructed, and analyzed by a computer. They are certainly looking for indicators of being zoned out. Dilated pupils, flat affect, lethargic movement, consistent times between the rounds. It can, theoretically at least, tease out such mental states from pictures of me. It can sense boredom and, more importantly to them, my frustration over losing.

Previous designers knew you had to throw the user some fake wins and some legitimate wins occasionally or the casinos would make no money. But it was a sort of blanket, industry average. The same percentage payouts for every gambling game user. With AI, this just got (again, just my hunch) a whole hell of a lot more sophisticated. Not everyone behaves according to an industry profile. Some users will tolerate fewer losses before growing disgusted and walking away from a machine. Others might tolerate more. With AI, the two users are no longer performing against the same average behavioral profile. They each get their own. And the casinos get richer, a lot richer.

I’ve only been playing for two hours, I think. I check my phone – it’s been nearly four hours. This surprises me, scares me. I reconsider whether I should be here. Maybe I should call my sponsor, Peter, but then I remembered he was going to Lake Tahoe to take his family skiing this weekend. Oh well, onward soldier.

The normal payout on this family of machines used to average about once every twelve minutes. Lots of fake wins occur more regularly but like said, all fake wins are nothing more than losses disguised to look like a win. I’m down $380 so far, so the payout on this machine is definitely below its expected payout. I get chills suddenly. I want to be here, but I want to be zoned out. And yet I fear this technology.

My mood has been pretty down. Since the funeral. So the new algorithm might be exploiting that. Time to run a brief experiment.

The staff turnover rate here is pretty high, so if there are human nodes anywhere in this new chain of technology, some overseer or manager, I doubt he or she will recognize me. It’s only been two years since I left game design, but in Vegas, two years is a lifetime.

I sit up straighter in my chair – trying to do ‘alert.’ That’s the first fake stimulus I’m going to give the algorithm. An alert consumer is not the ideal customer. They want mindless, blank eye zombies that will plug in and slowly bleed all of their money into the machine. I play two rounds and lose both.

For the second stimulus, I stretch again. I look around. Look at my phone for a few seconds. Also not ideal behavior for the model gambler.

I play three more rounds and get a fake win on the second.

Okay, time for my third stimulus that might help me know conclusively whether there is a sinister AI technology at play here or not. I couldn’t just go from flat to frustrated in an instant. The overseer (if there is any) would’ve flagged such a shift in behavior. The AI would have likely caught it as well.

I do ‘frustrated at losing.’ I grimace a bit. I’m trying to game the technology that is currently trying to game me, so I’m careful to not overdo it. I play three more hands and get wins, real wins on the last two.  

‘There, there, go back to sleep, baby gambler,’ I hear some HAL-like voice whisper in my head.

But one time isn’t proof.

I try to do ‘zoned-out-good-little-obedient-and-mindless’ gambler for a few hands, but I’m surprised by how hard it is to pull out after the fifth hand as if I’m running underwater. The lights are different. Mesmerizing. I almost feel hypnotized. I think there’s more trickery afoot here than just the AI.

During the five zoned-out hands, I had two small fake wins.

More acting, more checking my phone, more acting like the gambler who is about to walk away. I know I can’t overdo it. The AI can probably sense when it is being played. Besides, any game designer will not allow too many wins. At some point, you have to cut your losses and simply let the frustrated losers go.

I do several more rounds of zoned-out, followed by irked frustration. I’m now 99% convinced they equipped the new games with AI. This can’t be legal, can it? I have to laugh. I came here wanting to bliss out. To disembody. To disassociate and not feel anything. And here I am running tests to reverse engineer what the machine is doing. Come on. Pick a lane, Marty!

MITCH & MICHELLE

“Marty?” a voice says from behind me. I turn on my stool.

It’s Mitch. The dealer who’s been hounding me to sell him my vintage restored Cadillac. But I can’t bear to part with it, even though he keeps offering me more money each time. He’s a personable, thin man who is always impeccable with how he dresses.

“Hey, Mitch. How’s tricks?” I lean into him. We give each other a quick sideways hug.

He just stares at me for a second. “Are you … ” he starts then glances around, steps closer to me, and lowers his voice “Should you be in … here Marty?” he whispers.

I’m impressed. I’ve always thought of him as being a man of integrity, a ‘stand-up’ guy, and this just proves how right that impression was. He could lose his job for suggesting anyone, confirmed gambling addict or not, leave a casino. The casino, being the vindictive sort they all invariably are, would make sure he lost his license, and he would be done in this town. By the time they finished with him, he would be lucky to get a job as a barista at Starbucks.

“Shhhh. I appreciate it, but I’m fine here. Don’t get yourself … ” and now I’m the one whispering, “fired on my behalf. Please, Mitch.”

“But …”

“Really, I’m fine.”

We just look at each other. My neck starts to tighten, so I swivel fully around on my stool so I can face him directly.

“I’m sorry to hear about Margery, man. That sucks. You two were always something. I’ve never gotten along with an ex of mine … I’m sorry, man. I’m just being maudlin now, aren’t I?”

We are silent for a beat.

“Does Michelle ever come in here anymore?” I ask.

“No. She was blacklisted … after. You know this town, Marty. People talk. By the following week, no place in town would let her in. Last I heard, she up and moved to Tahoe. Turning tricks there now I guess.”

Michelle was a part-time dealer, part-time prostitute, and part-time drug dealer. The kind of drugs that Margery had used to end her life. I’ve never hit a woman before, but if Michelle came in here, I would be tempted to.

“So things are okay here?” I say.

“Yeah. You noticed we got some new machines in I guess.”

I glance around.

“Yes. These new machines are something else,” I say. “But I wonder if this won’t blow up on Harold at some point.”

“If what might not blow up?” Mitch says.

“You know,” I say as I act like I’m stretching. I end with my right hand, brushing against one of the black dot lenses on the machine.

He looks confused.

‘Oh lord, he doesn’t know. Mitch isn’t that good an actor.’

The new technology in this thing is scary. I can’t decide if it is better or worse – not know about its existence.

“Well, look, man, I gotta get on home. Sheila will be home soon, and I promised I’d make dinner. It’s our fifth anniversary tomorrow. You still taking care of my caddy for me?”

“Move along, hotshot. I’m not selling,” I say and laugh.

“Are you sure Marty? I can go thirty thou now. What do you say?”

Thirty thousand? That’s ten thousand over his last offer.

“I see you thinking there. Sheila’s father passed. He left us a bit of cash.”

I think about the offer and decline. “It’s my baby Mitch. Who sells their baby?”

“Well, if you change your mind, you got my number,” Mitch says. He gives me another side hug and then he is gone.

I return to my experiment. Probing the machine in front of me. Testing it. Gathering data. It’s not the disassociated, disembodied state I was looking to be swallowed into when I came into the Flamingo today, but it is an interesting diversion.

I do several more rounds, some longer, some shorter, retesting, retouching, re-verifying the suspected behaviors. I bump up against the diminishing returns limit of the machine and I sense it has written me off as the wins, even the fake wins, become more infrequent. Time to do the thing that all gamblers do in such situations. Move to another machine. Such actions in no way alter your win percentage, but I want to see if the AI is centralized or distributed. This technology gives me the chills. This is a powerful new level of exploitive technology. One that the investors who funded it would likely go to draconian lengths to keep secret.

MARGERY

I think of Margery an embarrassing number of times a day. As husband and wife, we were a train wreck, but as exes, we worked well. We were good friends. Best friends. And we were occasional lovers. She was as comfortable and as cantankerous as an old, favorite pair of shoes. We shared so much. Similar childhoods, both from Illinois, a fondness for losing ourselves in hugs that lasted for hours. Unfortunately, we also shared being gambling addicts.

I got sober of gambling through a non-denominational, secular Twelve-Step group. She used to ask me questions about it, at first. But then I became too pushy with what I thought she should do, and we sort of cooled off for a few months. In the end, she fell back into despair and bought half a gram of heroin, a drug she’s never done as far as I know. She overdosed in one of the cheaper rooms at the Flamingo. I’ve stayed there once, in that room. I’m not sure what I was hoping to find. Maybe some contact with her spirit? Maybe dreams that would allow me some quiet closure with my ex-wife turned best friend? I got neither.

I find a new machine that is at least eight feet away from the previous machine. I make sure it’s equipped with the suspected lens dots.

‘What if I’m imagining all of this? I could do these tests all day long, but no matter how many tests I ran, I will always be a sample size of only one person. I might be imagining all of it?’

I push the doubts down. Settle myself on the ergonomic stool, insert my money card and begin playing. After four minutes of more or less zoned-out hands, I gradually put on my ‘frustrated with losing’ face. My winning percentage sinks even lower.

‘What does that mean?’ I think.

It means one of two things; either is as likely as the other.

One, the AI is centralized and moving machines did nothing to pull me out of the written-off box the algorithm had put me in. At some level, it knows that I know.

Or two, perhaps the more likely scenario; I’ve imagined the whole thing. The lenses might just be decorative black fixtures. The performance might simply be a coincidence.

I run my hands through my beard. I hatch a plan I know I will never execute. If I shaved my beard, dyed my hair, put on glasses, and maybe some makeup to alter the perceived signature of my face, would the system still recognize me? I remember Mitch’s confusion and decide to table that plan for now.

I lose myself in the gambling. For the next four hours, I sink into a mindless state of disembodiment. I feel nothing. I also lose $600. I only play the penny slots, but I still manage that much in one day.

PETER

A bee is buzzing in my pocket. I come out of my stupor.

My phone is vibrating, telling me I have an incoming call. I pull the phone. It’s Peter.

‘Damn it.’

My sponsor is calling me? Odds are Mitch called Peter and told him one of his sheep had strayed from the straight and narrow. I’m definitely not selling Mitch my Caddy now, I think angrily, but then I remember he had offered thirty thousand and my certainty seems to dissipate. I watch the call until it rolls to voicemail. I could’ve sworn I’d blocked his number this morning. Extreme I know, but I’m in a mood that could only be characterized as extreme at the moment.

Getting sober was the hardest thing I think I’ve ever done. But I had to. I remember Margery, Michelle, and I were having a drink at the Flamingo’s lounge. They had banned smoking in there years before, but the place still smelled of smoke to me. We called the place ‘Smokey.’ Both because of the smell and because one bartender was a dead-ringer for a young Burt Reynolds. Michelle and Margery both flirted with him shamelessly.

I had been depressed but doing my best at keeping it hidden away. I had asked Michelle if her drug dealer could get heroin. I remember the betrayed look that Margery shot at me after I asked the question. Before Michelle could even answer me, I got up to go to the bathroom, my face hot with shame. That look, the one my ex-wife/best friend gave me, was the nudge I needed. I can still see that hurt, pained look on her face when I close my eyes at night. That look of disappointment, judgment, and hurt sank deeper and deeper into my psyche, and I believe it is what led me to my eventual sobriety.

I had hoped that Margery would follow my lead. I hoped she would embrace the calmer, less distracted state of existence the path to recovery led me to. But it wasn’t to be. I tried. I nagged. I cried. None of it worked. I thought our childhoods might not have been so similar after all. I saw hers had been far worse than mine. It broke her from the start. Disabled right out of the gate. A flawed individual that dressed, spoke, and moved about as a grown woman, but was still, underneath all the masks, clothes, and mannerisms, just a wide-eyed, frightened little girl.

WAKE UP CALL AT THE PINK FLAMINGO

I was the one that found her. Covered in vomit, her skin blue. She had, I later learned, died by asphyxiation, literally drowning in her vomitus. The night before she had seemed fine, happy even. She said Marla had made her drinks too strong. She couldn’t drive herself home that night. I asked if she wanted to come back to my place for the night. She had declined and hugged me tightly. I still remember that hug. So many signs I could have seen, should have seen, but I missed every one of them. And now I am in hell. We had planned to meet for brunch that Thursday morning, but she didn’t show, so I decided to surprise her in her room. I even took a Cialis, in anticipation of her possibly feeling amorous.

That was three weeks ago.

I look at my winning percentage. It’s turned slightly upward. And now I’m really confused about the machine. I try to decide I don’t care. I want this oblivion. Why question the ethic of how that state of mindlessness is delivered? It makes no sense.

Disguising myself? Shaving my beard? Was I ready to do all of that? How many looks could I manage before the computer got savvy to the subterfuge? Three? Maybe not even three if it was sophisticated enough. The only way a data mining surveillance like this could work is by recruiting others. I think about the size of this operation and the danger inherent in even knowing about it – if it even exists; I remind myself. The idea of recruiting others? Who do I trust that much? With Margery gone, that number seems to hover right around zero.

I was blackout drunk at her funeral, of course. I had to go. Besides me, there were only a handful of other mourners who had shown up. I used to think I was an addict’s addict, that I could become addicted to anything.

Gambling? Been there, done that.

Online shopping? Don’t mind if I do.

Overeating? Have you been to a Las Vegas casino buffet? They are insane.

Drugs? Please, that’s child’s play for me at this point

Sex? Oh yeah.

Drinking? My poor kidneys, if they could talk, would curse at me and ask me to lighten up.

The days and weeks after her death, I tried to lose myself in all of them. All of them except the gambling, that is. Then, immediately after her funeral, I found my drunken way to Caesar’s and was gently escorted off the property when I passed out against a Poker-5000. I’d lost $738 in four hours before my brain shut down from a close call with alcohol poisoning.

ONE MONTH LATER…

I’m back at the Flamingo. I feel weak and probably shouldn’t be drinking. They say you shouldn’t donate plasma more than once a month, but there are ways to cheat. Six hundred bucks, cash. For an hour lying on a couch while machines separate whatever ‘plasma’ is from my blood? That’s an easy decision.

While you would think $600 would last a long time, you would be mistaken. I’ve limited all my bets to a penny now. Still, I can go through the six hundred in a few days.

I’ve abandoned my quest to learn the truth about the possibility of the machines being equipped with AI. Not that I released my suspicion that it’s happening. I believe it is happening, but I no longer care. Each day, more and more, I only care about the lights, the musical notes, the sweet, sweet space of being numb, feeling nothing but detached.

I still see Mitch once in a while. The offer is up to $32,500. But I really shouldn’t sell. Not just because it’s my baby either. They evicted me from the tiny little studio where I was living, so now, I’m sleeping in the caddy every night.

TWO MONTHS LATER…

I slide back into my favorite stool at the Lucky Leprechaun. I’m trying to wean myself off of the Flamingo. It feels unhealthy to be there. Though I am headed there later today. I check my phone. Mitch’s shift doesn’t begin for another two hours. I pat the front of my suit jacket. The business envelope containing the Cadillac title and maintenance record. I am selling him my Caddy today, but it’s okay. I’ve figured out the sequence of lights and facial gestures at the Leprechaun. I’ve gamed the game. I can, and will win. I just need the 35k to get me started. I will be okay in a month, two tops. Just watch me.

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