Essays on Technology and Culture

Alexis Madrigal on The Machine Zone

Schüll spent more than a decade going to Las Vegas and talking with gamblers and casino operators about slot machines, which have exploded in profitability during the digital era as game designers have optimized them to keep people playing.

What she discovered is that most people playing the machines aren’t there to make money. They know they’re not going to hit the jackpot and go home. As Roman Mars put it in a recent episode of his awesome podcast, 99% Invisible, on Schüll’s research: “It’s not about winning; it’s about getting into the zone.”

The Machine Zone: This Is Where You Go When You Just Can’t Stop Looking at Pictures on Facebook

Some interesting thoughts by Alexis Madrigal on why we’re so compelled to flip through Facebook photos, scroll on Tumblr, or dive down the Wikipedia rabbit hole. I’ve caught myself doing this at least… oh, twice or more a day. It’s a quirk of our brain chemistry working against us, the mirror image of the “flow state” that keeps us working when we’re challenged to the edge of our abilities. While the machines of Las Vegas, as described in the excerpt above, are clearly designed with addiction in mind, I’m not sure if the addictive elements of various social platforms and the like are quite as deliberate. It’s a happy accident—happy for their stats and advertisers, at least—that we’re compelled to scroll on and on. Not that there’s incentive for them to change it.

That said, reading Alexis’s article proves an interesting companion to the recent Gamasutra article on “chasing the whale”—the big buyers that keep free-to-play games afloat. Where Gamasutra discusses the ethics, Alexis discusses the psychology that keeps people clicking, buying, and stuck in the “machine zone” of repetitive tasks with no constructive benefit. Both are worth your time. Awareness is, perhaps, the only way to get out of the zone, and back to reality.