To get the full Vegas vibe, play this while reading.

The purveyors of plenty

Casinos leave nothing to chance. They are experts at entwining customer value with business value. Managing personnel and infrastructure, they coordinate every service touch point into the ultimate façade. This is a journey into the aesthetics and artifice of casino experience design. And what it tells us about ourselves.

One of my good friends, Dana, visits Las Vegas annually. She’s utterly brilliant at playing the game. I have never been one to indulge in gambling, only having stepped foot inside a casino twice. On both occasions, I’ve spent most of the evening watching high rollers cash in and out. Yet the cathartic neon induced spectacle offered by the casino intrigues me to this day.

Perhaps it’s the resourceful techniques used to suspend the banality of the everyday. Or the unbound potential of being on the cusp of life-changing riches that fill you with dopamine. Or, just maybe, it is the systems of control that evoke a momentary escape from the capricious nature of the world. That moment where your mind is at ease before the algorithm swoops in and reclaims it all. What happens in Vegas tends to stay there as the casino oft takes more than she gives.

The semiotics of seduction

Have you ever wondered why it’s so exhilarating? When winning becomes synonymous with deserving, having skin in the game is part of the fun. Fortune seems to favour the fearless to those who flirt with the fate of your finances. Customers are granted thrones before being thrown from the building. Icons and idioms flash before us from the glimmering exteriors of slot machines. Phrases like “Bar”, “Bonus” and “777” are inter-spaced with images of crowns, horseshoes, and symmetrical pairs of cherries. Superlative metaphors of affluence serve as substitutes for success. All meticulously crafted to feed the irresistible urge to try your hand.  

We often imagine total relaxation as complete bliss, yet the opposite is true. Psychoanalyst, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, defines happiness as an emergent property of being in flow. Flow emerges when people do things that provide so much pleasure, they do it for the sheer sake of doing it. Gamblers are second to none to this feeling. ‘Being in the zone’ they call it. The key to achieving this state of mind, is the cognitive reward component. Images, sounds, and music are curated so that every play session prepares you for the next pay out. The reward feeds the urge to continue playing your hand.

Light and sound are a major part of the game experience. Monotonous music plays on a continuous loop to encourage immersion, and distract from the passing of time. Slot machines are overloaded with stimuli so players rely on the machine to tell them whether they have won. Environments lit in red light cause greater arousal. Long exposure to red light can even induce short-term memory loss, and heighten pulse rates. The Arcade-style casino utilizes the red light as the facilitator of aggressive gambling. The aim is to overwhelm the senses, and dissociate the player from their environment.

The Arcade-style comprises labyrinthine layouts of flashing lights that entrance the subconscious mind. These layouts are designed to affect the perception of time and promote a solitary game experience. Dizzying patterns and obscure shapes cover the floor carpeting, players have no choice but to keep their eyes fixated on the slots. The maze of machines can often feel anxiously claustrophobic, as certain venues regulate oxygen levels to incentivise visitors to further indulge themselves.

From sanctuary to spectacle

The next generation of naturally-lit casinos are built on the principles of service design. Services are split into two stages. The Frontstage, refers to every aspect of the casino that is visible to the guest. The Backstage, includes the protocols and infrastructure, invisible to customers, except when they check in or cash out.

The Playground-style draws upon super-modern architecture and interiors, include moving water, green spaces, and fake skies. These environments are intimate and comforting, while offering efficient and unobtrusive fraud detection. Masquerading as idealised gated communities that focus on player well-being, they use strategies to maximise indulgence, making players stay, play, eat, and party for longer.

Exclusivity is a major draw for many establishments, and for good reason. There is something for everybody at the Strip. ‘Paris Las Vegas’ with its half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower, is marketed towards the LGBT community. ‘The Cosmopolitan’ features a full-fledged art gallery. ‘The Venetian’ has gondolas that feature Italian love-song singing men that push your boat through its shopping centre. And Mandalay Bay hotel-casino moved a statue of Vladimir Lenin from a village in Ukraine to its Red Square Restaurant. They even beheaded the statue, and placed the head in a block of ice in a vodka locker at the bar. The outrageous yet unique concepts of the casino-hotels add to their appeal and only attract more people. People not only want to gamble, they want to be part of an experience. They crave what they haven’t yet seen.

Casinos are adversarial environments, where surveillance is an essential part in maintaining order. They get away with total surveillance of both guest and staff by working with independent security contractors. Dealers are obliged to show ‘clean hands’ to cameras before and after dealing a round of blackjack, and rotate out of their table after a set period. If dealer behaviour appears to be irregular, a surveillance team will review the footage and take disciplinary action.

Security systems are implemented to prevent fraud, rather than to ensure the safety of guests and personnel. Hotel hallways rarely have cameras. In result, many thefts take place in casino hotels. In 2017, the deadliest mass shooting in modern United States history took place at the Mandeley Bay hotel. Following the incident, the housekeepers union of Las Vegas petitioned the major casinos, requesting that panic buttons be installed for their cleaning staff. However, their demands were not met.

Guests are free to wear whatever they please, while staff wear professional attire designed to blend into the background. Medieval metaphors like ‘The Cage’ and ‘The Pit’ refer to specific sections of the casino. The Cage is the cashier station where players swap money for chips, and where they cash in on their way out. Pits are areas where players gamble in groups. They owe their name to the table positioning, through which players can be observed from neighbouring aisles.

Risk, reward, and the customer life cycle

Infrequent pay-outs ensure that customer engagement remains high. This enables the casino to sell more food, drinks and alternative forms of entertainment. Since revenue from gaming is falling, this secondary source of revenue is a necessity. Psychographic behavioural models of guests determine which comp recommendations maximise customer life-cycle value. They also determine how to optimise profitability of spaces and services. Las Vegas casinos permit self-banning. Many casinos run gambling addiction warning posters and screensavers on their slots. Some slot machines limit the amount of spins per hour per unique visitor.

Now, there’s a neat trick casinos use to maximise profits. They’re called ‘Comps’, short for complimentary ‘free’ services. And they encourage guests to spend more time and money. These freebies include anything from drinks, concert tickets, through to room upgrades, and limo usage. There is a catch, however. They are only eligible for these rewards, if they use their club card everywhere they go.

Club cards are used to check in at table games, slot machines, and when consuming other services. Their usage is rewarded with tier credits and reward credits. Tier credits are used to achieve and keep a higher membership status, needed for more prestigious comps. Reward credits pay for services in the casino’s ecosystem. These cards are used to keep track of every transaction. From the very moment you walk through the doors until the second you leave the ecosystem of affiliated shops and restaurants, they analyse the depth of your wallet.

Respect is a cornerstone to hospitality for all guests, but service levels depend on the customer’s membership status. Casino-resort Caesars Palace has several levels of membership. These include Gold, Platinum, Diamond, and Seven Stars status. How much money you spend determines your level of access and priority of service delivery. Guests are treated like assets during their stay, and those which bring the most business, receive the utmost respect.

Diamond members don’t have to use the ‘cattle lines’ when checking into their hotel. Seven Stars membership includes two free cruises per year, and complementary flights to and from Las Vegas. An inordinate influx of income is generated from Seven Stars members. Members belonging to this top tier, must spend over 250,000 dollars every year to continue to meet the requirements.

The domestication of uncertainty

People believe that if a particular event occurs more often than they expect, it’s less likely to happen again. This is what’s known as the Monte Carlo paradox, and it’s an important part of our subconscious decision making. You see, slot machines are engineered to skew the perception of the odds of risk and reward. Originally slot machines were known as ‘one-armed bandits’. Their user interface comprised a single lever and would only show a single line of results. Over time, however, the machines were re-engineered so that a larger part of the spinning wheel became visible during play. This change was made as casino owners discovered the potency of the fear of missing out that gamblers experienced as they hit what they thought were near-wins.

The beauty of modern slots is that they are weighted to hit near misses more often than if the odds were truly random. Give a player the confidence that they are poised to win, and they’ll be playing for hours on end. Insult is added to injury when their funds run out and the slot machine becomes unresponsive. They face the choice of either raising the stakes, or baring witness to the potential success of another player. Some slot machines have progressive bonuses, and a big jackpot that requires the largest bet, whereas wide area jackpots can be in the millions of dollars and are visible on a big screen.

Gambling taps into a deep, latent wish; to be free and to belong. Vegas manifests desire through the celebration of decadence. Surrendering to the vice of greed and taking pleasure in the process is the liberating feeling that so many guests gain an addiction for. Exclusive membership benefits and Elvis wedding ceremonies interject the drab of the predictably ordinary with vibrant serendipity. Yet desire disappears as soon as it’s fulfilled. It must be kept in motion if the casinos are to profit. We need “formal frames to confer consistency on our desires”, as Slavoj Žižek calls it. Casinos provide these frames through the promise of the fulfilment of the American dream. “Win big if you take a risk.” Casinos provide these frames as the promise of the elusive fulfilment of the American dream.

Does the house always win?

Yet, as we know real dreams are built on hard work. And so casinos, too, have to continuously innovate. They face competition from online gambling, and the nightmare of events like a global pandemic. COVID-19 has forced them to enforce customer deterring social distancing and no smoking policies. Disinfection plans for every touch point where guests and employees come in contact have been put in place, and many Las Vegas casino-hotels have had to lower their room rates to attract a profitable number of customers. Appealing to a less affluent clientele of first-time visitors, this has given rise to an increase in violence. As the Queen of Hearts explains, In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass: “Here it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Like their welcome and unwelcome guests, casinos too, need to stay on their feet to stay in the Red Queen’s rat race.

Don’t hate the player

In all its splendour the name Sin City, should not be taken lightly. Vegas, is a haven for the sinful. An opulent refuge where the rich can flaunt their affluence in the name of sport. Here, older men can freely mingle with younger women, and women can associate with men above their social standing. Hedonism is not just accepted but celebrated. Burlesque bars and Playboy jacuzzi pools provide entertainment for those who are single and looking. The lustful lavish in losing themselves in the profusion of fun and freedom. Though Las Vegas embodies the heights and excesses of the American dream, for many this dream never comes to fruition.

Lured in by the promise of good fortune, many only find drugs and dejection. Unable to realise their plan they are left to ponder their failings beneath the desert sky. In the shadows of the most iconic monuments of wealth, the homeless live one day at a time, surrounded by decadence and squalor.

Those willing to come to terms with the truth understand that Las Vegas excels in the art of artifice. Fate is a fickle lady, after all. And nothing is what it seems in the heart of Sin City. In a time when inequality divides the United States like never before, the rise and fall of Las Vegas testifies to the complexity of human nature, and the socio-economic structures in which it is unravelled.

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