We mailed a penny today to more than 200 prominent Massachusetts journalists, public officials, business leaders and philanthropists, calling on them to use a penny slot machine at a casino outside the state. We titled it “A Penny Is All It Takes,” a sharp contrast to the millions of dollars spent by casinos on TV ads and mailings that don’t even mention the word casino or even show a photo of a slot machine.
In eight years of conflict over casinos in Massachusetts, only one news story has focused on the design and technology of electronic slot machines, the actual ‘commodity’ that is the sun and the moon of the casino business.
There is no debate whether slots cheat ordinary citizens. These gambling machines are built mathematically so users are certain to lose their money the longer they play. At the same time, the machines are literally designed so citizens cannot stop using them, exploiting aspects of human psychology and inducing irrational and irresponsible behavior. Every feature of a slot machine – its mathematical structure, visual graphics, sound dynamics, seating and screen ergonomics – is designed to increase a player’s “time on device” – which means how long a person plays. Penny slot machines predominate on the casino floors because low-to-middle income citizens are the target market for regional casinos.
Our message today was direct: a penny is all it takes to decide if casinos and slot machines are in the best interest of you, your family and everyone in the state. We asked when they returned to Massachusetts, to widely share what they learned about the machines.
We posed three specific questions for them to answer and to share that judgment with other people:
1) Are slot machines rigged? Do they cheat ordinary citizens?
2) Are slot machines financially and socially harmful if used by citizens in the way their designers intend?
3) Will slots create more unfairness and inequality in the state or less?
A key underlying reason why there has been no examination of slot machines is because most people, especially opinion leaders, rarely use a slot machine if at all. It’s especially true for the slot machine makers, casino operators, and the state officials they partner with, one of the most telling and revealing indictments of this public policy. (You can read the list of promoters who don’t gamble in our letter on Pg.3) They don’t lose any of their own money but they want you to lose a lot of yours.
The penny attached to the letter was given in memory of Scott Stevens, a successful business executive from Steubenville, Ohio who used a slot machine the way its maker and promoter intended: he could not stop using it. In August 2012, the married father of three daughters took his own life with his hunting rifle, sitting on a park bench in a children’s community soccer park he raised money to build. In the days afterward, a letter arrived in the mail addressed to his wife Stacy. Stevens mailed it before taking his own life. It read, in part:
“I know you don’t believe it but I love you so much! I have hurt you so much. Our family only has a chance if I’m not around to bring us down any further. You’re such an unbelievable wife and mother. I know you will hold the family together…”
While millions of men and women like Scott Stevens and their families have sacrificed and hurt so much to provide needed revenues to American government, no one has ever thanked them for their ‘service.’
Scott Stevens’s life is worth at least a penny.
We strongly encourage you to mail your own letter along with a penny to people you want to engage on this issue in your community or around the state. You can copy and paste our letter or write your own. Thanks.
UPDATED: I updated this post with a graphic from MIT Professor Natasha Schull’s recent book investigating slot machine design and technology Addiction By Design . It shows the absolute, guaranteed mathematical certainty that citizens will lose their money the longer they use slot machines. Yet the machine is designed so citizens can’t stop using it. From Pg 112: