28 March 2013

Psychology, Slot Machines, and Writing

I spent last weekend in Laughlin, Nevada. This is a small town with Vegas-envy situated across  the Colorado River from Bullhead City, Arizona. Las Vegas is where the Young, Sexy, Rich, and Hot go; the Old, Infirm, and Less-Affluent hang in Laughlin.  And yes, I know the group in which I fit.

Casinos in general aren't my cuppa. I don't have any moral objections to gambling, per se; in my opinion, adults are free to choose their actions and consequences. I simply don't like handing money over without getting a guaranteed tangible return. No casino will ever put me on a "whale" comp list, or a black list for that matter. (For those of you who may not know, a "whale" is a person who gambles exorbitantly obscene amounts of money and casinos are thrilled to have them lose those amounts at their places, so they "comp" their stay-- everything is provided free for such folks, aka "comped", meaning complementary. The "Black List" holds all the names of people caught or suspected of cheating at a casino, and it's usually shared with every gambling establishment in town. Not being mathematically inclined, counting cards or calculating statistical probabilities to cheat ain't never gonna happen in this brain, so they have nothing to fear when I walk through the doors.)

What I found fascinating is the complexity of gambling psychology. A few decades ago, casinos were divided fairly evenly: maybe 30% slot machines, 30% table games (blackjack/twenty-one, roulette, and craps), 20% higher staked table games (bacarrat and poker rooms), 10% Keno (like bingo) and maybe 10% in a small sports book where people could watch and wager on horse racing, greyhound racing, and professional sports. Then gambling on college sports became legal in Nevada (and only  in Nevada to this day, though New Jersey is making a bid in their legislature), exploding into a huge money-making venture and immediately permeating American culture. Native American reservations legalized gambling on their lands and suddenly everyone was within driving distance of a casino. No need to take a vacation to Las Vegas; Grammy and Gramps could drive to the Rez, gamble a few hours, eat at the buffet, and be home by nine.

And that has changed the casinos in Laughlin. Now the percentages have skewed to 60% slot machines, 20% table games, and 20% sports book. Keno is gone and the separate poker / bacarrat rooms are gone, incorporated as individual tables amid the blackjack, roulette, and craps section.

Slot machines have morphed drampatically as well. There are machines for every interest: Maltese dogs, TV shows, Native Spirits, movie stars (yes, i saw a John Wayne machine), and cats. Lots of cats. I played "Miss Kitty", which is the name of my mother-in-law's cat, and "Kitty Glitter" because it had an orange tabby that looked like my own Fritzgerald the Bastard Cat of Tombstone. I practice a philosophy called "Hit and Run": as soon as I win anything, I cash out and leave. I may not win much, but I certainly don't lose the farm.

All these different interests embodied as slot machines are the perfect example of using psychology marketing. You learn what make people like, what they enjoy, what hooks their curiousity and then blam! You entice them to push buttons with pretty pictures, flashing lights, and pleasant/familiar/happy sounds from their fave TV shows or personalities.

This is what writers need to consider. Think about how many slot machines focus on animals/pets. That's why the series involving a mystery-solving cat is a huge seller. Black Beauty, The Black Stallion, and Misty of Chigoteague are but a few horse-centered stories. I'm not saying we all need to write animal stories but we all need to seriously ponder who is the target audience of what we write before we get started. Narrow your focus to that audience and you'll develop a following of readers who flock to your books like cat lovers in Laughlin line up to feed "Miss Kitty" some five dollar bills.

Some of the other machines I saw were a Michael Jackson machine featured prominently in the central layout of the casino, "The Hangvoer" of movie blockbuster fame, TV shows  such as Hee Haw, The Munsters, Wheel of Fortune, Charlie's Angels, and I Dream of Jeannie. I wonder how much casinos pay out in licensing fees; obviously it is nowhere near as much as they take in from folks who hope to win big but usually are lucky to break even.

Next blog I'll share finding inspiration in playing tourist away from the casino...