The addictive properties of drugs, gambling machines, algorithm-led compulsions, and policies that permit them have ramifications. The narrative that industries and marketist governments uphold where individuals are free to make their own mistakes, fails to hold up in the light of the evidence. This free-choice narrative in, for instance, the UK Gambling Act 2005 permits harm on British citizens: 340,000 gamblers, 55000 of them between 11-and-16, 279,793 drug misusers, and an understudied game addict population that might number at 1-in-100 Britons, or 683,868.

Drug addiction, gambling addiction, and game addiction may seem so different as to be incommensurable. Yet, this is a misunderstanding of how connected addiction causes and methods are: they share the substrate of addiction: addicts and addictive methods conducive to losing oneself in The Zone. The default and pervasive onus on persons actually misrepresents how addiction is caused and condones impractical remedies.

There is an industry-funded narrative that addiction belongs to its users’ flawed character. Chris Reilly, a research director at the American National Centre for Responsible Gambling, a center dedicated to helping those with ‘gambling disorder’ but funded by gambling companies, says “It’s a mistake to focus on the machine, because it’s just this thing,”. She elaborates that “We don’t know why the gambler has cognitive disorders” and “That’s what feeds their addiction.”. Experienced addiction therapists such as Roger Horbay, though, rejoinder that “We’ve been treating these people like they’re messed up, but it’s the machines that are messing them up,” he says. “A lot of the so-called cognitive distortions were actually caused by the machines”.

Neither position of blaming either the user or the device can be entirely coherent, however, because addiction is best understood as a relation between the characteristics of technologies, persons, and policies altogether. Users are in such a bad way financially, emotionally, or socially, that they turn to drugs, gambling, or games for relief available in The Zone. So, ultimately, blame is shared with the character of technologies and policies that forced users’ hands into self-medicative practices to begin and end with. Public policy and technology regulation and infrastructure influence well-being that, in turn, influence addiction that in turn influences well-being in a loop. Consider how the major determinants of drug misuse are social deprivation and its accompanying pressed need for psychological escape.

Most users use their addictive drug, app, or game, in order to self-medicate. Unfortunately, such self-medication has a propensity to propel a downward spiral where use causes more social deprivation that further propels the want to self-medicate. For example, feeling so incompetent and indebted that one loses motivation to work, and instead one finds relief in drugs, gambling, or gaming that have costs in time, friends, and income streams. Such outcomes are liable to further lure users into the affective withdrawal and abandon available in The Zone. What one gambling industrialist explains of gamblers is true for addicts across the board: What they really want to do from all the research I’ve ever seen is to play and forget themselves(p.170). With one caveat, however, that the ends of forgetting themselves are valued above the means. Among addicted gamblers, for instance, gamblers never play to make money, to win; the reward comes from the affective withdrawal of The Zone. So, gamblers in fact do not want to play per se, but to forget themselves, by whatever means works for them—sometimes gambling machines, sometimes apps, sometimes games, and sometimes drugs. Sometimes a combination of these tonics. 

The populist press narrative nonetheless has two dissonant conjectures to hand where a drug like heroin (chemicals) addicts its victims whilst users (persons) addict themselves. Hence, the fact that drugs are blamed for social problems and misbehaviour whilst drug users are held responsible for their mistaken usage. This trend is evident in a Google ngram below.

Variants of addiction like ‘drug abuse’, ‘gambling addiction’, and ‘game addiction’ are included for comparison. The peaked term ‘drug abuse’ indicates how the burden is traditionally placed on users who erroneously use drugs, whereas its decline hints at the burden-shifting to drugs themselves, rather than users. A hierarchy is evident, too, in what writers associate addiction with: drug addiction counts higher than gambling addiction, and gambling addiction counts higher than game addiction. The former seems to be considered more addictive than the latter addictions are considered to be. And when you look at the numbers for different addicts, as cited at the start of this article, that is disproportionate with the facts; even as word use may describe intensity, the magnitudes difference belie their addictive similarity. 

Asking why people segregate addictions, accepting drugs as addictive (chemical), but parse off situations (personal) and applications (technology) is a good question. Presumably, this conceptual division between chemical, technological, and social addiction makes sense from an essentialist standpoint. An ‘essentialist standpoint’ refers to the fact that all humans generalise objects and bodies as carrying essences and when that essence is neat and definable, like amitriptyline pills and heroin syringes, for example, acceptance of an ‘addictive’ essence sits well with our intuition. Even the label ‘addict’, remember, attributes an addicted essence to a person.

Nevertheless, the depletion of pleasurable and affirming chemicals in socially isolated, deprived, and disadvantaged people is just as chemical a cause for becoming addicted as any drugs themselves. As affective neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp and psychoanalyst Lucy Biven elaborate in The Archaeology of Mind, neurochemicals diminished in persons who are learned-helpless, low social status, stressed, and isolated force persons to desperately and ineffectively substitute chemical feelings induced through social-wellbeing with drugs, or other addictive technologies for that matter, that offer relief, distraction, and escape from painful chemical experience. A chemical experience that is induced through social action, like stigmatisation, and social inaction, such as superficially cost-effective policies; policies that prioritise punishing after above helping before.

Thinking about addiction, in this way, as interlaced with social conditions and its devices, affords a more complete picture than otherwise. The underlying psychological needs behind addiction are piteous. Such a comprehensive picture and understanding of underlying needs, could foster better public opinion and better public policy for UK addiction problems. Such a picture is drawn in Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas (Natasha Dow Schüll, Princeton University Press 2014), an ethnography that makes abundantly clear how addiction is orchestrated through the characteristics of machines, policies, and persons altogether.

Schüll illustrates how designers make addicts through manipulated sidewalks that wind into casinos, mazelike room designs that render visitors lost and guided, swift button pressing, and behaviourist intermittent rewards that lure usage through proceeding from more-wins to fewer-wins as users use and lose time and again. Did you know, for example, that seats are made cushier to encourage overnight stays? That industry fitters removed lever-pull machines because the seconds’ delay in gameplay frustrated gamblers’ desires? Designers and even former addicts turned entrepreneurs surveil users to gain insight into what makes users sit for longer. 

labyrinthine casino design, Las Vegas, Unsplash

Some gamblers forget themselves and sit for a long time indeed. Compulsive gamblers become so entranced with the machine that they urinate and defecate sometimes without fully registering to the fact, and are impelled to leave by the extremes of pain or hunger; some gamblers secretly don nappies and stow food to allow for more time on the machine. Gamblers in The Zone are oblivious to heart attack victims toppling from their neighbouring chairs. Gamblers ignore them amid the affective abandon of pressing buttons, so entranced are they by the machine magic. So, the notion that users use devices, but that devices cannot use their wielders is dubious. An addictive two-way relationship with devices doing to users as much as users doing to devices however is counterintuitive, and against universal grammar. Saying ‘the gambling app made me gamble’, for example, sounds a tad ridiculous; more ridiculous than ‘the heroin made me use heroin’. Every sentence has a doer and done-to, but in extraverbal reality, addiction is a loop between addicter and addicted. If we think long and hard, and with an open mind, those sentences do make sense. Available drugs and under-regulated apps and unquestioned game spree liberty do ultimately permit, allow, and encourage their use; without them, there is after all zero chance of an application-gamble or a heroin-injection happening or affective withdrawal in gaming compulsives.

Gambling machines and casinos seem like exceptional devices and exceptional spaces, but they and the culture they allow are contiguous to context. In Las Vegas, for example, the therapy and pharmaceutical industry is in an economic circle with the gambling industry. Gambling machines are in pharmacies; pharmacies are in casinos. Aptly, as Schüll recounts: “It is not unusual for gambling addicts to describe the effects of their machine play as pharmaceutical-like. ‘The machine is like a really fast-working tranquilizer’ said Randall, ‘Playing, it takes two minutes to disappear, to forget, to not feel. It’s a wonderful way to alter my reality — an immediate mood shifter.’” (P.248). The self-medicating drive available in flow experience epitomised in The Zone is common to addictions from drugs and gambling, to compulsive gaming (some gamers have died at their desks after playing Starcraft, a strategy game, for a 50 hours session).

Technologies like smartphone gambling apps, moreover, combine and compound addictive potential. Instead of casinos and machines being confined to allocated and highly regulated spaces, the casino and infinite gamble options are available in gamblers’ pockets. In the UK, pocket gambling machine apps have no fixed odds for bets; in-shop betting terminals do. Despite the reality that most gambling money is pocketed through phone apps that can apply manipulative algorithms to sway users everywhere they go and anytime they want. App gambling is like a Trojan horse that has entered through the gates of regulatory authorities, with lackadaisical inspection, and insufficient cover under UK legislation, in particular, the outdated 2005 Gambling Act. Its consequences wreak havoc seemingly unbeknownst to the privileged few who write up legislation. Although House of Commons debates on regulation, have had pro-gambling advocates, one for example with “grave concerns” (MP Mark Jenkinson, Workington) about limiting spending and another speaking out against anti-gambling “ideology” (MP Scott Benton, Blackpool South), who have received money in freebies or consultancy wages. Gambling companies showered 224k on 28 Parliamentarians, 19 of them Conservative and 9 of them Labour, in 2021. Nonetheless, most negligence is not down to outright corruption but to entrenched malaise.

Unsplash, Casino Gambling, Free Use

Most of the evidence for the 2005 Gambling Act came from a time before internet use implications had been realised, such as the paradigmatic smartphone, the Iphone, that came out in 2006; the year after the Gambling Act became law. So the law needs revision to work properly for our time. The realisation of gambler innovators’ smartphone ambitions portends problems. The innovations “amount to more than the simple expansion of a consumer market; at a more intimate scale,” Schüll says, “it would further entrench the technologically mediated practices of subjective withdrawal, affected modulation, and risk management that characterise machine gambling and other contemporary human-machines interactions”.

In a sense, the internet with its incumbent surveillance capitalism is a boundless casino with customer tracking everywhere a gambler treads, and machine responses tailored to their data avatar passing from venue-to-venue online, with evermore intuitive machine-learning algorithms learning users’ propensities, sometimes better than users do consciously about themselves. Such design optimisations are a big deal, and have serious consequences. A 2021 study from the UK Government’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) demonstrated, for instance, that the simple “absence of high deposit limit options almost halved the average daily deposit limit players set”. Meaning that when gamblers were given the choice to type their limits in rather than agree to a top-down menu option, their spend limits halved. 

Nearly half the spending amount for this group, then, came from the pre-decided design of an application menu and a half from the gambler’s semi-free choice. So, the idea that gamblers are 100% responsible for the limits they set is questionable. Indeed the designer(s) of the options menu is responsible for the outcome, a responsibility multiplied over for each swayed gambler who otherwise would put a lower spending limit. And these different outcomes have high stakes: some limits are as high as £100,000, and the amount remotely gambled in Great Britain amounts to £5.7bn, tallied from the UK Gambling Commission’s research.

Las Vegas meanwhile has a public face that boasts glamour, decadence, capital excess, and the ultimate paean to consumer choice. The number of addicts in Las Vegas is higher than elsewhere. What are the reasons for that? Pervasive gambling devices, and pervasive fellow gamblers. Such a real-world experiment — that is, Las Vegas the phenomenon— makes evident how the situation and the technological, social, urban, and cultural ‘plan’ of a particular environment can make addicts out of people who, were they living in a different postcode, with different laws and interest groups and fewer devices, would never have become addicts.

Therefore attributing addictive gambling to choice and to the gambler is a flawed interpretation. With the advent of underregulated online gambling, the reach of casino companies extends into every adult or adolescent user’s trouser pocket, with applications just as able, and for their omnipresence, more able to prime, elicit, and facilitate addiction through psychology-informed design principles. Designers wield their knowledge of Skinner boxes—boxes designed with stimulus and response to condition rats—to design casinos to keep user engagement; designers use that knowledge for apps; gamblers themselves, in forums, identify the mindless feeling of being in The Zone as generated from slot machines designed to be, to quote one gambling forum, member “skinner boxes for people!” Look at the Skinner Box illustration below to see the comparison.

Such games are designed to manipulate a response that rewards the company financially and rewards users distractedly. This is an important point about skinner boxes, because such conditioning undermines justifications that claim addiction propensity to be a consumer, free, choice matter. So enchanting are the designs that one gambler Schüll describes learnt to design the machines to disenchant herself, but remains entranced if she is before one — triggered — to gamble, gamble right now. Thus, higher cognitions and wants and beliefs coexist with an engineered primal response. Wanting to avoid gambling and gaining no reward from it coexists with wanting to gamble and feeling reward from it. Just as a rat wants to press a lever after being conditioned to press the lever, so does an enthusiastic user. Ordinarily, the process is described as ‘activating the pleasure centres of the brain’ but that is an incorrect simplification: electrical stimulation, or likewise addictive stimuli, evoke a wanting that is separate from enjoying or from pleasure. 

Gamblers gamble in shared isolation

Surprisingly, rats’ conditioning can extend into their bodies where the line between ‘stimulus’ and ‘drug’ disappears. A Nature published 2002 study details how rats can be literally piloted with remote controls that are linked to backpacked electrical stimulators in their brain: the idea that the rats want to, say, walk left is correct and incorrect as different parts of their brain enact actions; one from their internal motivation and the other from electrodes making a separate motivation. Ultimately, too, if they were given the choice, rats would presumably not want a human to pilot them; likewise, and ultimately, compulsive gamblers do not want gambling habits to pilot them either. Alexandra, a recovering compulsive gambler, explains that  “Every now and then I was so exhausted that I wanted to lose. Sometimes there’s even a satisfaction — no, not a satisfaction, a relief — when I lose. When it’s all gone and I have no choice to play anymore and can go home and sleep” (p.225). Setting insufficient limits and regulation on addictive technologies is by these lights, therefore, terrible negligence. So, are there any tenable solutions?

Yes, externality prices offer a set of potential solutions. A Pigovian tax scheme incorporates a negative externality — like the costs in drugs, gambling, curbless gaming, and its fallout costs — into the market and raises such high prices for companies to pay that they must comply with regulations in order to make optimal profit. Thus the 340,000 gambling addicts in the UK (55000 of them aged between 11 and 16), 279,793 drug misusers, and understudied number of game addicts (perhaps 1–2% of Britons) could be helped from the supply-side  – making these goods harder to profit from  –  and from the demand-side  in helping people engage with wellbeing practices that avert the want for addictive escape from workaday life.

Instead of taking the form of punitive tax, the pricings can be positively considered compensation for damages, that pay for repair for demanders at the demand side of the equation. The gambling industry and the official gambling commission concede this point, perversely, in celebrating money diverted to good causes, to justify overall gambling revenue. Despite the fact that gambling is fundamentally a bad cause. As one report submitted to the House of Lords explains of the gambling industry: “60% of its profits come from the 5% who are already problem gamblers, or are at risk of becoming so.” For such profits from so few implies exploitation and addiction running out of control being the primary source of revenue.

Furthermore, the evidence that addictive technologies that are not good for individuals are somehow good for the collective rests on faulty logic. Without redistributive taxation, even the beneficiaries of gambling are unlikely to have more improved wellbeing than that taken. At the bottom line, the evidence is stark. Earl Grinols, an economist at Baylor University and author of Gambling in America: Costs and Benefits, estimates that every dollar given to a casino costs a community three dollars in social costs from crime, declined productivity, and unemployment welfare. “It’s a social negative,” Grinols says, “Casino gambling is bad for the economy.”

Trade worries, therefore, that high-threshold taxes would encourage addiction-propensive businesses to leave the UK are misplaced since mitigating addiction and curtailing companies that profit from it preserves the public good and, for instance, cost-saves money for the NHS. The reality is that most profit comes from problem addicts, and the gambling industry’s favoured demarcation between problem gamblers and fun-lovers, drug policies’ division between drug addicts and recreational users, compulsive-gamers and gamers-without-risk, fails to hold up against the data’s skewed harm-to-benefit ratio and the synergistic reality of addictions, social conditions, and psychologies. For proof of concept, consider that legalised but massively taxed and rehabilitation-rebative drug policies have reduced the war against drugs in Portugal — and fourteen other nations— to an occasional skirmish, since all drug use became legal in 2001.

A United Nations report gives the minutiae detail, here. Drugs, gambling, and games of course are not banned outright in a liberal society (unlike in China, for example, where President Xi Jinping restricts adolescents’ gaming hours) but leveraging taxation and regulation can ensure that there is a golden mean between the freedom for some to play and the freedom from others’ exploits. Given that the addictive wanting and relieving oblivion of The Zone is common to all addictions, then a proportional addiction-susceptibility tax is worthy of consideration in drafting UK policy and revised gambling, drug, and digital-product legislation for all technologies that more-and-less accommodate addiction. Considering addiction and its conditions as contiguous and relational is also liable to allow better disputation and solutions at the local level and a public appreciation for the full gamut of addictive potential, whatever its instantiation.