20 December 2021
My parents had gambling problems. They were both really fond of scratch-offs when I was younger, and it escalated from there. They viewed them as investments, in the way you might think of a business venture. Their addiction continues to influence my relationship with food in adulthood, as well the kind of tech I’m willing to build. I even learned how to steal stuff real good! Mostly snacks.
There was this gas station down the way, at the entrance of a reasonably ritzy retirement community. It had a golf course and everything. The whole thing was just off a highway, real “up and coming” real estate on the edge of Wilmington. It was a big deal when we first got a Walmart. My dad would stop there on the way home every day, emptying his shallow pockets of the meager tips he made as a cab driver. He’d dump anywhere from fifty to a hundred bucks on the things, every week without fail. I shit you not, he called it an “investment”. His words. I think that paints a really interesting picture of his perception of the odds. He’d get really excited when he’d win, like, twenty dollars off of it. Just no concept at all of the money he’d poured into it.
My mom, she liked to do this, too. She’d come home with a whole stack of the things, scratching them off with a quarter at the kitchen table and getting the silver shavings everywhere. That quarter was probably worth more than the paper the tickets were printed on. She’d scratch ‘em all off, swear for a while. I’d check the pantry, which would be empty, (because of course it was) and mom would lament how she couldn’t afford to do grocery shopping for the month. But she’d do it between sips of one of the half-dozen stovepipes she always seemed to have money for, and I’d be brushing silver shavings off of my clothes in the lunch line the next day, with an empty promise that I’ll bring money tomorrow, please just let me through.
This was a new industry in the 90’s, utterly unregulated, and The Economist estimates that there were around 400 online betting establishments filling that space by the end of the decade. If you ever wondered what kind of absolute dummy would follow one of those sketchy ads for online gambling, what kind of idiot could possibly contribute enough money to keep their lights on and make the whole enterprise worth it, well, that’d be my mom. In the evening hours, you’d find her on the edge of her seat in her bedroom, half-lit in the glow of an old CRT monitor, hanging onto the robotic voice of an automated keno announcer. She’d periodically whoop with joy, or, more often, rage. And I’d just think, there went dinner this week. Breakfast, that was a forgone conclusion. I either got that for free at school, or went without. And that was just the way things had always been.
I remember once, she won $200 off of it. I really wish she hadn’t. It’s kind of amazing that they paid it out, actually. I wouldn’t expect most services to do that, especially the grifty circles she ran in, but I see the wisdom in it now. She was so goddamn excited. You’d expect her to treat herself well after such a victory, maybe cash out and quit while you’re ahead, but her condition did not improve, nor did anyone else’s in the household. She started to view keno as an income source. If I put in X, she reasoned, eventually, I will win it again. Naturally, she put all of it directly back into the platform. And she lost all that and more again swiftly. But she won, once! That meant it was possible. Any plea to the contrary would just make her angry. It was best to just let her go. She began to rack up absurd credit card debt.
Not healthy, mind, just feeling full, which I came to learn was a distinct thing. I used to sneak out of my room, around four or five in the morning when my stomach woke me up, and creep into the kitchen. I had to dodge all the creaky spots in the floor, because mom was a light sleeper and delighted in depriving others of things they wanted. So I’d creep to the pantry, and scan it for things I could eat raw. Nobody ever taught me how to cook (in my adult life, I’m still learning), and anyway it was too noisy to risk. This kind of operation had to be perfectly clandestine. 1
I remember this particular kind of cookie. My parents liked them, I think. They were similar to Oreos, but store brand. The cream center was really grainy in your mouth, like sand, almost crystalline. They were also disgusting; my stomach churns when I think about them, even today. But they were often the only thing I would consistently have access to which could be eaten without noisy preparation, so I’d steal as many as I thought I could get away with. Then I’d reach into the plastic packaging, very carefully, and turn a few in the row sideways, so on inspection it would look like the package was full. I learned to do that because my mom would check, the petty piece of shit, and if she even perceived her trove had been diminished there would be consequences.
This created sort of an arms race, in which I would constantly develop new methods of stealing food from my own house as my parents developed new methods of hiding or monitoring it. I subsisted off of one, or if I was lucky, two meals a day until I moved out at 19. It was really stressful, not knowing where my next meal would come from, but it was also kind of funny. Who steals food from their own house? You can’t even begin to explain that to somebody if that’s not the kind of life they live. It doesn’t land. So you just have to laugh.
Growing up, all of the adults in my life would remark on my rail-thin physique, concluding that it was just hereditary. You’re so lucky, they’d tell me, you can eat whatever you want. In actuality, I was starving.
I’m still noticing the effects of how I was raised today. Honestly, I still have no idea how to properly portion food, and swing wildly between eating absolutely nothing for a day, or twice what any reasonable human would need. Some days I’ll just start shaking, and realize I can’t remember when my last meal was. My friends have learned to check on me when life gets stressful, to make sure I’ve eaten. I imagine this is something your parents would normally teach you to regulate.
None of this would have been necessary if we’d had enough money for food, if it was abundant enough to trivialize its value. Yet we always seemed to have money for keno and scratch-offs. As you might imagine, I really do not have any patience for gambling today. I’ve seen enough of what it does to people, and I’ve spent enough of my childhood hungry, to ever see the appeal.
My first tech job was an exceedingly toxic startup in Fayetteville. We worked out of a roach and rat infested double-wide trailer, on sports infographics software that was, at least initially, less flexible than MS Paint. I commuted for three hours a day to get there and back, despite it absolutely being a remote-friendly role, because the owner liked to have butts in seats. Now it was my turn to live off of credit cards, because the wages I was making from my two jobs weren’t high enough to cover rent.
I don’t remember the precise occasion, but shortly after I was hired at this startup, the CEO bought us lottery tickets as a “bonding activity”. And honestly, yeah, that’s kind of the vibe of Fayetteville, isn’t it? I couldn’t invent a more fitting scene than a bunch of poor, fresh-out of college nerds who have no idea what they’re worth, with some businessman dangling what passes for an opportunity these days in front of them.
“But if you win more than $20,” he told us, “the company gets half of it.” He wasn’t joking.
Considering he’d been running the same “startup” for twelve years, I guess it was less of a gift and more outsourcing his luck. His obviously wasn’t very good.
I refused to accept my ticket, and that probably did not endear me to him. Yeah, it was already paid for, but it was the principle of the thing. I gave it to a coworker, and he scratched off two instead. He didn’t win anything. Nobody ever does, in the long run, that’s the point of it.
A year later, an engineer stitched together a rigged wheel-spinning simulation to draw eyes at a conference. The CEO would signal who high-value prospective clients were, and at the press of a button, they would miraculously “win” a few free months of our software. I objected to this grift, as well, and so they left me at the office to “hold down the fort”.
The one positive was that they didn’t charge for entry (though they did require submission of contact information for sales purposes).
A few years later, at a different company which I actually quite liked, I was assigned to work on an app that would gamify physical activity. The idea was that companies could use the data gathered from their employees who owned smart watches to lower their own collective insurance premiums. Those employees would be incentivized to meet step or calorie goals with the chance to win various gift cards.
I was initially uncomfortable with this project because of its proximity to gambling, but my supervisors assured me that employees weren’t directly paying to be a part of this program, the participating companies were. And since those companies weren’t receiving the gift cards or any other kickback other than lower premiums, it wasn’t technically gambling. 2 No money was being directly exchanged for a chance at a prize; therefore we wouldn’t be funding a casino’s transactions, just a membership to something that behaves like a casino. Besides, it would make (some, able-bodied) employees healthier!
This wheel was also rigged, of course, but not in a way that impacted the odds. It’s really interesting how it worked, actually. At the moment the backend call was made, it had already been determined whether you won or lost. 3 That determining system was a black box owned by the client, and we took it on the client’s word that it was fairly determined. Who knows!
Meanwhile the front end really was fully physics simulated. It can’t be understated that my team did an incredible job with it, it felt fluid and wonderful. It had haptics which would simulate the gentle tick between wheel segments, spun in both directions, and honestly was satisfying to play with. But behind the scenes, the math would subtly influence the wheel’s momentum so it always landed where it was supposed to, which had already been determined before the wheel was even on screen (to account for edge cases in which cases in which that call took too long to resolve. After all, a perpetually spinning wheel waiting for a phone home would ruin the illusion).
If you’ve ever been to an arcade or Chuck-E-Cheese or something, you’ve probably gotten conned by a similar machine that uses the aesthetics of a game of skill or otherwise appears reliant on physics, but is actually rigged at the hardware or software level. Mark Rober has this excellent video demonstrating how this is done with a particularly common “reflex” game, which is even distributed with instructions for owners on tweaking the desired win rate. And yeah, of course it is. It feels really obvious when you look at it backwards. Who would ever put a machine in their arcade that could randomly bankrupt the business?
In the end, we shipped our fitness app, and it’s out there somewhere with somebody else’s name on it (such is consultancy life). I hope it’s helped somebody, though I remain skeptical that something like that really can.
I was surprised to encounter the same problem twice, but now that I think about it, this boundary of mine is probably going to come up more often as time goes on..
For example, it goes without saying that a career in game development is completely closed off to me, even if my skills would be quite transferable, as randomized microtransactions have become ubiquitous with online gaming. While I personally first encountered them after the free-to-play reboot of Team Fortress 2 around 2010, the origin of the loot box in gaming pre-dates it by several years.
Bright colors, loud noises, and triumphant music imply that something truly valuable has been obtained. A variable rate reinforcement schedule convinces players that the next big reward is just around the corner, and UI is carefully crafted to reduce friction on impulse purchases. Meanwhile obfuscated currency, be it gems or coins or funbucks, makes it difficult to measure how much has been spent, or how much the next item will cost. Despite the similarity to traditional gambling and familiar, often devastating consequences to end users, this space remains largely unregulated and rife with predation.
These parallels are not an accident. Game development studios have an understanding of psychology, and are leaning on the same strategies employed in casinos in order to maximize player engagement and spending. Consider that the very thoughtful article above on reward schedules is authored by the head of user research at Bungie.
To be clear, there are benevolent uses for this knowledge. Hopefully, its being used to ensure the primary game loop is compelling from beginning to end. But by my experience, player enjoyment isn’t being maximized in modern games; exposure to spending opportunities is. The game in between is just a mechanism to inflict psychological stress, to prime the player to open their wallet.
You could make the argument that I could still work in games if I wanted to, even with my strict anti-gambling policy; after all some games have no auxiliary monetization strategy at all. And it’s true that I had the luxury in my previous positions to limit or modify my involvement in the development of technology that could be used for gambling. But game development is such a highly sought industry, that I doubt I would have that sort of luxury today. The individual hire is expendable, after all. There’s no way to know what I might be assigned next, which mega-corporation might acquire us, or whether I would have the leverage to refuse an unethical request. So, much like in gambling, the only winning move is not to play. 4
Steering clear of gaming might not be enough either, given the proliferation of cryptocurrencies and NFT’s for speculation purposes. For every genuinely interesting application of blockchain technology, there are a hundred grifts where someone is getting burned. So I’m beginning to recognize that I’ll have to tread carefully from now on, even in the development of general software, if I want to stay true to my principles.
My proximity to gambling software, much like my proximity to gambling addicts, has taught me a few things.
There’s also an entire science behind making things feel tactile and pleasant to interact with, regardless of whether the outcome of that thing is good for you. There is a razor-thin line between using cognitive psychology to encourage healthy habits, and using it to manipulate someone for financial gain. The same knowledge empowers you to do both, and its up to you to use those powers for good.
I’ve seen the argument that, people who gamble have the right to choose what to do with their money, and anyway, if I don’t build it, someone else will. This argument is apparently quite compelling to a lot of people.
But it hits differently for me. The types of games that my mother used to pour money into instead of providing for her children aren’t just a relic of the early days of the internet. They still exist, in greater numbers than ever, and still have devastating consequences. And most critically, every single one of them is made by a team. They can’t spring from nothing.
While you might choose to imagine the average user as a responsible, rational human simply engaging in the free market or some other mythical creature, I can’t help but think of little Val in the next room, ribs clearly visible through her shirt, with no agency or ability to escape. Some nights, I can still taste those nasty cookies, which were my salvation even when they grew stale.
I’m not on a crusade to ban gambling or anything. I accept that for people who don’t share my history, it can be fun in moderation. You aren’t evil for supporting it, and I don’t hate you. Hell, even I’ve paid a bit here and there for Genshin Impact at this point, despite my history.
But for as long as I have the ability to choose what technology I work on, I will walk away from projects with gambling elements every time. That’s my own boundary, and I’m dead serious about it.
Allsup, Maeve. “Activision Blizzard Sued over ‘Frat Boy’ Culture, Harassment (1).” Bloomberg Law, 21 July 2021, news.bloomberglaw.com/daily-labor-report/activision-blizzard-sued-by-california-over-frat-boy-culture.
Blake, Vikki. “Activision Lays off a Third of Raven Software’s QA Team.” Eurogamer, 5 Dec. 2021, www.eurogamer.net/articles/2021-12-05-activision-lays-off-a-third-of-raven-softwares-qa-team
“Busted Flush.” The Economist, 5 Oct. 2006, www.economist.com/special-report/2006/10/05/busted-flush.
Farivar, Cyrus “Addicted to losing: How casino-like apps have drained people of millions” NBC News, 14 Sep. 2020, www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/addicted-losing-how-casino-apps-have-drained-people-millions-n1239604.
Henwood, Doug. “Why Bitcoin is a Scam” Gravel Institute, YouTube, 10 Sep. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0AAUrMuMPlo.
Harwell, Drew. “Is Your Pregnancy App Sharing Your Intimate Data with Your Boss?” Washington Post, 10 Apr. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/04/10/tracking-your-pregnancy-an-app-may-be-more-public-than-you-think/.
Hopson, John, “Behavioral Game Design.” Gamasutra, 27 Apr. 2001, www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3085/behavioral_game_design.php.
Kale, Sirin, “‘I Put My Life Savings in Crypto’: How a Generation of Amateurs Got Hooked on High-Risk Trading.” The Guardian, 19 June 2021, www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/jun/19/life-savings-in-crypto-generation-of-amateurs-hooked-on-high-risk-trading.
Kelly, Makena. “How Loot Boxes Hooked Gamers and Left Regulators Spinning.” The Verge, 19 Feb. 2019, www.theverge.com/2019/2/19/18226852/loot-boxes-gaming-regulation-gambling-free-to-play.
Rober, Mark. “ARCADE SCAM SCIENCE (Not Clickbait).” YouTube, 3 Jan. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXBfwgwT1nQ. 5
Wright, Steven T. “The Evolution of Loot Boxes.” PC Gamer, 8 Dec. 2017, www.pcgamer.com/the-evolution-of-loot-boxes/.
It’s worth acknowledging that, obviously, money issues are only half the problem on display here. My mother also enjoyed the control that came with being the arbiter of mealtime, but her personality issues would be another story entirely. ↩
And I mean, I guess? I think it gets grayer if you consider health insurance coverage part of your total compensation (which I do), or that companies have been caught using employee health information, even provided voluntarily to a third party, in creepy ways. But, fine, I suppose it could be worse. Which is apparently where the bar is now. ↩
To be fair this is the correct way to architect such a system, else the client could easily manipulate the results. I imagine that’d be bad for business. ↩
A younger Val, who was once convinced she would make games for a living, would be devastated to learn it’s no longer an option. I’m at peace with it, though, given all of the…rotten everything going on in the industry. ↩
jfc that’s a hilarious title for a citation. ↩