By the late 1990s, she had moved to Las Vegas to conduct research on compulsive gamblers, talking to a vast number of addicts and industry executives, and even working in a gambling-addiction treatment program.
The phenomenon Schull wound up studying is both one that most of us can relate to — we’ve all tuned out the world while online, or playing games — and one that gets carried to extremes in gambling addicts.
For a small percentage of the population, these games become an all-consuming pursuit, a way of shutting out the world and its problems for long, long stretches of time.
But eventually, most compulsive machine gamblers recognize the hold that high-tech gaming has come to have over them.
“This experience of being in the zone is one we’ve all had, whether it’s e Bay auctions or sitting on the train compulsively using our phones,” says Schull, an anthropologist by training.
As one gambling addict told Schull: “I could say that for me the machine is a lover, a friend, a date, but really it’s none of those things; it’s a vacuum cleaner that sucks the life out of me, and sucks me out of life.” Schull thinks this point — that for machine gamblers, it’s not about the money, but the escape into the “zone,” as Mollie and other gamblers call it — has eluded politicians who wrangle over casino openings and expansions throughout the United States, where more than 30 states currently have some form of legalized machine gambling.“It’s a real stumbling block for policymakers to understand that,” Schull says.She adds: “Everyone believes the harm is how much money is spent, and that what’s driving the compulsive gamblers is a desire to make money. the ‘zone’ is really what’s driving this experience.The idea of winning money falls away when you get to the point of addiction.” We’ve all visited the ‘zone’ — but few people live there Schull’s book is the culmination of a long process of research: She started delving into the subject in the early 1990s, when she wrote an undergraduate thesis at the University of California at Berkeley on the ways casino architecture helped drive customers to gamble more.
Take, for instance, Mollie, a mother and hotel worker who compulsively played video poker, running through her paychecks in two-day binges, and cashing in her life insurance to get more money to play.
“The thing people never understand is that I’m not playing to win,” Mollie told Schull.