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Vacant slots: the ghost in Macau’s slot machines

The machines may be immensely popular in casinos elsewhere but in Macau the table game is king. Olivia Rosenman looks at the challenges facing electronic gaming companies in the world's largest gambling centre

 

As if it were leaking sweet juice, Macau's big pineapple appears to draw in people, swarming like ants around its base. The Grand Lisboa, 260 metres tall, is supposed to look like a giant lotus flower, a symbol traditionally associated with good fortune, but it has been described as one of the world's weirdest buildings, reminiscent of an oversized version of the tropical fruit.

Inside, on the casino floor, the high ceiling affords a sense of space, despite a sweaty, steady crush of people below. Tourists revel in the frigid air-conditioning. Many are here just to watch, edging around the hordes clustered at "hot" tables. The carnival of flashing lights and childish, synthesised sounds seems out of place in a room full of serious baccarat players throwing down single bets of up to HK$300,000. Now and then a gleeful yelp or pained groan erupts from one of the tables, echoing throughout the room. No one reacts, least of all the croupiers.

Dressed in smart black jackets, with Mandarin necks and suggestive gold buttons, their rhythm is steady: bet-taking, dealing, again and again.

The click-clack of casino chips competes with pop music and the dim hum of voices. An announcement issues unintelligibly from the speakers. Every few minutes, women appear, pushing trolleys stocked with green tea or sweet rice dumplings: each shallow box packed snugly with two small, purple balls. A third trolley is piled with Kent, Marlboro and a Chinese brand of cigarette with the inelegantly translated brand name Lesser Panda. A woman with a rubbish basket collects scrunched-up plastic cups, empty sweet boxes and cigarette-packet cellophane. Each time the trolley procession passes it is received as enthusiastically as the last.

Lining a plush, red-leather wall on the far side of the room stand two banks of a less popular attraction. Of some 50 seats in the leftmost bank of slot machines, less than 10 are occupied - and at least three of the people in those are doing no more than taking a break from the action elsewhere. These empty seats represent a problem unique to Macau. Electronic gaming machine (EGM) companies, mostly American and Australian, are used to dominating the casino floor.

Macau's gaming revenue is almost four times that of the entire state of Nevada, home to Las Vegas and the United States' gaming industry. In Nevada, slot machines bring in almost twice as much money as do table games. In Macau the slots account for a paltry 4 per cent of takings.

Slot machines face a huge status problem in Macau due to what industry insiders call "cultural aversion". The table game is king here; in 2012, more than 91 per cent of Macau's gross gaming revenue was earned around baccarat tables.

"Will slots ever take over baccarat? I do not see that happening," says Jeff Ng Ka-chun, marketing director of Macau-based poker consultancy firm Kings Consulting.

"Historically, gambling is performed as a form of social activity among the collectivistic Chinese," according to Desmond Lam Chee Shiong, a gambling expert at the University of Macau.

China's recent history has shaped preferences and behaviour and Western EGM companies are trying desperately to understand how and why.

Lam, who teaches an evening course on Chinese gaming culture to casino executives, describes a strong motivation to gamble in society. He connects this drive with China's relatively recent transition from poverty to prosperity. To this must be added a spate of gambling movies and television series released in the 1980s (for example, The Shell Game [1980] and God of Gamblers [1989]) in which skilful, witty protagonists use supernatural powers to win big around gaming tables.

"Everyone wants to look cool like the actors, learn the skills (be it earthly or supernatural) and beat the house," Lam wrote in a gaming journal in 2005.

The Chinese gambler has a peculiar set of cultural characteristics, according to Natasha Schüll, a cultural anthropologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in the US, and an expert on slot machines. In a chapter written for the book Qualitative Research in Gambling, published late last year, Schüll describes a "desire to win big, a strong appetite for risk, a belief in luck, a distaste for the asocial nature of machines gambling and a distrust of slot machines".

Says Lam Iao, chief executive of Laxino, Macau's only gaming-technology company, "The majority of these players … it's in their blood, they all believe in table games. It's something they can touch, they believe those games are more fair."

Schüll's chapter, "The Global Gambling Industry's Crusade to Sell Slots in Macau", examines the strategies casinos are employing to get local punters to sit in front of their machines, which are not denying yet more floor space to table games because there is a government limit on how many of the latter a casino may operate.

"The Far East, with over four billion people and under 30,000 slots, is regarded as the most promising foreign frontier for the spread of machine gambling," she writes. So-called "cultural adaptation" works on two levels: adapting the machine to the host culture and, more insidiously, by adapting the players to the machines.

It's not an unfamiliar science to the gaming industry, which has long enlisted the expertise of designers, architects, psychologists and IT specialists. Industry stakeholders "invest a great deal of resources and creative energy into guiding player behaviour through technology, endeavouring to create products that can extract maximum 'revenue per available customer', or revpac," writes Schüll in her most recent book, Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas.

The gaming industry strives to create an environment in which "gamblers seek to lose themselves", she writes. However, the mechanical rhythm of electronic play can be costly in terms of mental, physical and financial well-being.

Addiction By Design opens with a chilling account in which a Las Vegas paramedic describes the difficulty associated with casino calls. Players collapse in front of slot machines with such regularity that most paramedics in the US city have experienced the scenario. In one Nevada county, two-thirds of cardiac arrests in 1995 were suffered in a casino.

The maze-like layouts of casinos are notoriously successful in disorienting customers in space and time, keeping them inside the venue and playing for longer, but paramedics suffer the same problem and often have a lot of trouble finding their patient.

"It all looks the same - you go up and down elevators, there are no direct routes, the carpets lead you around and around, you lose your sense of direction," a paramedic recounts in Schüll's book. What is more alarming is the scene he describes when he finally reaches his patient: "The gamblers just wouldn't move to let us out," he recounts, remembering a call in which he was forced to start an intravenous line while stuck in an aisle between two rows of machines.

Walking around the slot machines in the Venetian Macao casino, it's hard to imagine that happening here. Whereas the table games are packed tightly together, crowded with huddled masses, the slot machines are well spaced. Strewn around the edges of what is the largest casino floor in the world (at more than 50,000 square metres), modern machines topped with tall LCD screens are so far apart that the Michael Jackson soundtrack for the King of Pop machine has no impact on the neighbouring Dark Knight consoles, equipped with "MegaFX Surround Chairs which fully enhances the player experience with 5.1 surround sound electronics", according to the Nevada-based manufacturer, International Game Technology.

The Venetian Macao, owned by Las Vegas Sands, is a brightly lit behemoth and the centrepiece of Macau's Cotai Strip. While paramedics on call might not have trouble squeezing equipment between rows of machines here, finding their way inside in the first place could prove problematic. Organised around the colossal casino floor are 3,000 hotel rooms, more than 600 duty-free shops, 70,000 square metres of convention facilities, a 15,000-seat arena and a canal system complete with Venetian-style gondolas.

The area around the Venetian Macao's slot machines feels brighter, cleaner and far less seedy than those in Las Vegas described by Schüll. Even the lingering prostitutes are almost indistinguishable from the women using the slot-machine area to take a break in. As in the Grand Lisboa, only a handful of people are actually playing, and only a few of them seem to be "in the zone".

"The zone" has been described by gambling researchers as a "state of suspended animation", by EGM manufacturers as a state of "continuous gambling productivity" and by a slot machine addict as "like being in the eye of the storm". A young mother with a severe addiction tells Schüll, "Your vision is clear on the machine in front of you but the whole world is spinning around you and you can't really hear anything. You aren't really there - you're with the machine and that's all you're with."

One woman at the Venetian Macao slots has apparently reached "the zone". In front of a machine with a Mediterranean theme, she has engaged an autoplay function and is leaning back in her chair, watching dispassionately as the reels spin again and again and again. When a brief fanfare of lights and sound erupts, suggesting some sort of win, she sits forward, pushing buttons impatiently to try to shorten the delay in play.

In an attempt to keep track of them - and thus better sell to them - Macau's casinos are asking their customers to make themselves known. "Be known, be rewarded," posters throughout the Venetian Macao implore. Reward clubs offer discounts at in-house restaurants and shops, discounted hotel rooms and priority queuing rights. The Sands' "diamond" level of reward card offers access to a VIP lounge, birthday gifts and complimentary late checkout from hotel rooms. The biggest spenders are rewarded with free helicopter flights from Hong Kong. However, the sensitivity surrounding gambling on the mainland means that most of the people in Macau's casinos don't want to be known.

That is a thorn in the side of the casinos, who want information about their players in order to entice them to play longer and visit more often. As Schüll describes in her book, the first digital player-tracking system, a punch-card system that was launched in the US in 1985, played "a critical role in the turn from intuition to science". Modern player-tracking technologies have transformed slot machines - which no longer take coins but personal cards that are registered by the casino - into sophisticated networks of "electronic surveillance devices".

"Tracked gamblers are treated less as individual subjects than as 'dividuals' in the Deleuzian sense - bundles of traits and habits that can be systematically compared to those of others, allowing casinos to more precisely identify and market to distinct customer niches," writes Schüll. "Casinos can also triangulate any given gambler's player data with her demographic data, piecing together a profile that can be used to customise game offerings and marketing appeals specifically for her."

 

ACCORDING TO NG, it is China's growing middle class that gives EGMs hope. Will that rising force enable slot machines to eventually take over in Macau as they have elsewhere?

"No", says Iao. "Mass gaming floor to overtake VIP? Now that's a possibility."

And while most observers still believe that the mass market will prefer table games, restricted finances may well send some of them looking for something they can play for longer, with smaller bets and for more rounds.

At eight o'clock on a Wednesday night, the Venetian Macao's Market Street food hall is packed with families who have been attracted by "a gourmet paradise of great cuisines and styles" from around the globe. Tired parents try their best to quiet excited children. It's difficult to imagine anyone here in front of a VIP baccarat table - but it is not such a stretch of the imagination to think of them dropping the children at Kid Zone and popping off for a quick play on the King of Pop.

 

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aplucky1
maybe if these machines were not veritable black holes people would play them

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