In The Psychology Of Casinos, Jonah Lehrer gets Roger Thomas, the head of design for Wynn Resorts, to dish on those interior designer tricks casinos use to create “lovely and relaxing spaces that encourage people to squander their cash.” The article begins with the story behind a four-month renovation of the high-limit slot-machine room at the Wynn Las Vegas resort.
Thomas, who is the executive vice-president of design at Wynn Resorts, Steve Wynn’s gambling and hotel company, had done the original design for the room only a few years before. He had been told to create a space for older male gamblers, and so he had ﬁlled the gaming area with overstuﬀed leather armchairs, heavy curtains, and dark mahogany panelling. “It was all very clubby,” he said. “A place for bourbon, testosterone, and cigars.” But the Wynn Casino Operations department monitors the returns of every gambling device in every Wynn casino, and the room’s yields were falling short. After some investigation, it became clear that the problem was a demographic one. Men weren’t playing these games; women were.
So Thomas redesigned the room. He created a wall of windows to ﬂood the slot machines with natural light. He threw out the old furniture, replacing it with a palette that he called “garden conservatory”—lime green, white leather, and gold. “I wanted it bright and shimmery and full of ﬂowers,” Thomas told me. “A place where a lady might feel comfortable.” Now every available surface appears to be covered in something expensive. There are Italian marbles and carpets designed by Thomas. Bowls of ﬂoating orchids are set on tables; stone mosaics frame the walkway; the ceiling is a quilt of gold mirrors. Thomas even bought a collection of antique lotus-ﬂower sculptures, which he placed near a row of blinking video-poker slots. “These gambling machines are basically big light ﬁxtures—they scream for attention—and so you normally don’t try to compete with them,” he said. “You design around them. But I wanted this room to be the opposite of every other slot room.”
Turns out, this isn’t mere sexism at work here; there’s quite a science behind Thomas’ work.
Karen Finlay is a professor at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, who focusses on the behavior of gamblers. Her latest experiments have immersed subjects in the interiors of various Vegas hotels by means of a Panoscope, which projects three hundred and sixty degrees of high-deﬁnition video footage. There are slot machines and card tables in every direction.
Using the Panoscope method, Finlay compared the mental eﬀects of classic casinos, with low ceilings and a mazelike layout, to those of casinos designed by Thomas. Subjects surrounded by footage of Thomas’s interiors exhibited far higher levels of what Finlay terms mental “restoration”—that is, they were much more likely to say that the space felt like a “refuge” and reduced their stress level. They also manifested a much stronger desire to gamble. In every Panoscopic matchup, gamblers in Thomas’s rooms were more likely to spend money than those in Friedmanesque designs. Although subjects weren’t forced to focus on the slot machines, the pleasant atmosphere encouraged them to give the machines a try.
Finlay refers to Thomas’s environments as “adult playgrounds,” since they provide an atmosphere in which people are primed to seek pleasure. “These casinos have lots of light and excellent way-ﬁnding,” she told me. “They make you feel comfortable, of course, but they also constantly remind you to have fun.”
She went on, “The data is clear. Gamblers in a playground casino will stay longer, feel better, and bet more. Although they come away with bigger losses, they’re eager to return.”
Finlay notes that the eﬀectiveness of such designs comes at the expense of the guests, who have been persuaded by ﬂowers and nice furniture to squander money on games that are rigged in favor of the house. According to her ﬁndings, Thomas’s designs have a particularly marked efect on those guests who normally don’t gamble. The seduction of his décor, perhaps, is that it doesn’t feel like a gambling environment. The beauty is a kind of anesthesia, distracting people from the pain of their inevitable losses.