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Illustration: Rob Funderburk

The psychology behind casino design

Colors, crowds and even certain odors can affect how much you play and how long you stay.


As we walk through the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Indiana, general manager Dan Nita describes the “conspiracy theory” behind casino design: They have no clocks or windows so people will lose track of time and spend more money.

While you won’t see natural light or clocks in most casinos, it’s not for the reasons you might think, according to Nita. “We recognize that everybody has their own time devices, whether it’s their phone or their watch,” he says, pausing under a glittering chandelier. Direct sunlight, he continues, would create a glare on cards and machines.

Granted, if the lack of clocks at the Horseshoe is what’s making that chain-smoker go to town at the Sex and the City slot, Nita probably wouldn’t be the one to tell me. But the man has science on his side. In a recent review of more than 15 psychological studies on casino design, British psychologist Mark Griffiths found no conclusive research on the effect of windows or wall clocks on gamblers. Still, Griffiths, who has been studying gambling since the ’90s, turned up plenty of unexpected factors that play into how you spend your cash on the gaming floor.

Picture a casino and you probably conjure an image straight out of The Hangover: blackjack players throwing down bets with Flo Rida’s “Right Round” playing in the background. Casinos modeled after that mold may have you betting at lightning speed, too. In one study, Griffiths found 56 volunteers to play roulette, piping in different combinations of music and lighting colors. A combo of red lights and fast-tempo music made people bet at a faster pace than did white lights and no music or slow music, probably because it matched gamblers’ images of a sexy, high-stakes casino.

Crowds matter, too. In 2009, scientists at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, sat down a group of 484 male and female gamblers in a simulated casino, studying how they reacted to various stimuli, including the number of people gambling near them. When the gaming floor was less crowded, females reported the urge to gamble more than they had planned. Why? The women may have felt inhibited when they knew their behavior was being observed by many others, researchers say.

And here in Chicago, Dr. Alan Hirsch, founder and director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Streeterville, has studied the effect of certain scents on gamblers. When a casino in Las Vegas pumped a pleasant but unidentifiable scent (Hirsch says a mixture of so many notes that you wouldn’t say “Aha, rose!” or “Aha, violet!”) into a slot-machine area on a Saturday, the machines raked in about 50 percent more money than on the previous or following Saturday. The smell may have boosted gamblers’ moods, causing them to stay longer and spend more, Hirsch says. Or it may have triggered sexual arousal, which he says leads to “a more aggressive behavior pattern”—in this case, more aggressive gambling.

Meanwhile, architects are doing their part to debunk the myth of the “cave” casino, incorporating windows into many newer blueprints to be more energy efficient and to offer more of a resort experience, says Ethan Nelson, president of Las Vegas’s Steelman Partners, a firm that designs dozens of casinos each year. Locally, you’ll see this in the Horseshoe’s Village Square Buffet, which offers views of Chicago’s skyline. And, on the main floor of Des Plaines’s new Rivers Casino, you’ll find clerestories—high windows that diffuse sunlight to prevent glare, says architect Charles Porter of Development Management Associates, the firm that designed Rivers.

As we wind around the Horseshoe, Nita lets me in on one more casino myth: that you’re meant to get lost on the floor so more games will catch your eye. This one, however, may hold a nugget of truth. David Canter, a British psychologist who studies the way architecture influences human actions, compares a casino’s layout to that of a department store. “I don’t think [architects] want to deliberately make casinos confusing,” he says. “But I think it’s very much the idea that people get swallowed up into it and feel comfortably part of it.” If Gov. Quinn loosens his stance on state gambling laws, maybe Macy’s would do well to stick a few slots between housewares and the men’s department.

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