The Las Vegas casino is a machine for social control that works not through repression, but disinhibition
The Las Vegas strip is alien. Its buildings are at once too fanciful and too utilitarian to be of this world, hulking rectangular prisms designed for the masses yet draped in the trappings of opulence and the fantastic. Its incongruity promises further strangeness, luring thousands to the city each year in the hopes of finding an escape from everyday tedium.
But what makes Las Vegas so interesting — if anything — is how it is just like the rest of America but more so. Though it casts itself as a bulwark of hedonism, an oasis of social rebellion where vacationers can escape the ennui and conformity of their everyday lives, there’s nothing countercultural about it. Rather, Las Vegas takes contemporary capitalism to its logical extreme, unleashing the social forces that underlie every American city and embodying them in ersatz monuments.
Las Vegas has taken to heart the famous lesson attributed — probably falsely — to Marx that to teach a man to fish is to ruin a wonderful business opportunity. It is a city of yearning, awash in dopamine and desire, where the economically powerful capitalize on managed dissatisfaction. There is no moment when blackjack players feel they have gotten all they came for, as there is always the anticipation of what one more hand might bring. The same is true of the city’s other primary industry: the business of sex. The city’s dancers and strip clubs don’t sell sexual satisfaction so much as stoke inexhaustible desire. Even casino architecture promotes dissatisfaction: The common spaces never fully achieve closure, instead gently twisting out of sight, always suggesting that something more can be had if one would venture a little further.
At the same time, the spaces are designed to refresh and rejuvenate, to psychologically prepare gamblers to play just one more round. The ploy works: After hours of wandering through the casinos watching pensioners slowly pour their savings into the slot machines’ flashing abyss, it becomes clear that some sort of psychological brake is being overridden. If mutually voluntary interactions are supposed to leave both parties better off, as neoclassical economists would have us believe, then this is a clear and enraging counterexample.
Casino owners tend to write off these all-day, paycheck-liquidating customers as “problem gamblers,” framing them as a small group of cognitively abnormal individuals unfit for “gaming” and in need of psychological assistance. The implication is that most gambling is done by “healthy gamblers” who represent the normal majority. However, while “problem gamblers” may not be representative of the general public, they are very much representative of what allows Las Vegas casinos to thrive. In Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, Natasha Dow Schüll reports that though “problem gamblers” amount to only a small subset of the general population, they account for between 30 percent to 60 percent of casino profits.
Further, Schüll debunks the myth that there is a clear cutoff between those who are healthy and those who “have a problem,” pointing out that almost all regular gamblers sit on a spectrum of reckless gambling. By fostering an artificial dichotomy between “normal” and “problem” gamblers, she argues, casinos render invisible their exploitation of existing addicts and their efforts to create new ones through the proliferation of the sorts of stimulation that can lure people into giving up everything.
Casinos feature what researchers call “playground designs” — spaces designed to energize, stimulate, and promote exploration — and a growing body of empirical evidence suggests that they measurably increase the amount people gamble. The architectural manipulation is so brazen that it is perversely accepted as natural: Of course commercial space is engineered to make us spend. And why wouldn’t there be privately owned, multi-million-dollar edifices built to control our behavior? When we imagine social control, the jump is almost inevitably made to dystopias of mass coercion and centralized authority. In Las Vegas, however we see its true form: spaces, structures, and spectacles controlled by the few to extract wealth from the many. What does social control really look like? It looks like a casino.
Consider the Wynn Hotel and Casino. Unlike many other Strip casinos, the Wynn has no fanciful theme. Rather than imitate Italy or Egypt, the aquatic or the medieval, the Wynn offers opulence, pure and unadulterated—sybaritism stripped of any sort of pretense or mimesis. It’s a place so luxurious that it needs no gimmick.
Inside the Wynn is a store selling cell phones at prices ranging from $5,000 to $100,000 dollars apiece—phones belonging to the “Signature” collection are priced at $50,000, a reflection of the 4.5 carats of solid ruby bearings contained within each. On its casino floor, there are no cheap table games. The Wynn wants to make sure guests get the message of its exclusivity.
Such an environment posits acting rich as the norm. Betting the minimum at a table game or seeking out budget dining options come to seem unnatural and embarrassing, a signal that you’re an outsider in the literal sense — that you belong outside, on the street, with the masses. The longing to seem “normal” in a locale like the Wynn inspires behavior that entrenches and legitimizes hierarchy. To fit in, we must emphasize that there are those who do not and that we stand distinct from that class. This is how inequality perpetuates itself: we perform the role of the powerful to avoid exclusion, thereby affirming and recreating the hierarchical norms and standards that justified such exclusion in the first place.
The spectacle of wealth does not merely enforce consumptive conformity, but also promotes consumption through disinhibition. It plays not merely a coercive role, but also a disinhibitory one by invoking the social magic of costume parties. The function of such events is to change participants’ behavior by creating a clearly demarcated space apart from standard modes of interaction. By putting on a costume, unconventional actions can suddenly seem plausible, with the disguise providing a sense of plausible deniability. While the illusion may seem flimsy, even the most bald-faced pretexts can radically affect behavior. As Jamie McMinn and H. Alan Pickrell note in “The Many Faces of Childhood: Costume as Ritualized Behavior”:
The psychological literature is not naïve about this tendency toward misbehavior while one is disguised … Miller and Rowland … for example, found that masked children were significantly more likely than unmasked children to disobey an adult directive, by taking more than a specified amount of Halloween candy from a bowl … Other studies have found that college students are more likely to consume alcohol while wearing Halloween costumes than those who are not.
Alcohol, too, acts as a costume. The drinking signals a special occasion while ushering in drunkenness, effectively suspending accountability and allowing for unusual behaviors that don’t fit into a typical interactive framework. Cultural anthropologist Kate Fox argues compellingly that people’s actions when intoxicated reflect not a basic biological reaction but rather a set of cultural beliefs and social norms about how to behave while drunk: “We may be enthralled by the liminal experience of the carnival, but we are also afraid of it … the altered states of consciousness induced by alcohol allow us to explore desired but potentially dangerous alternative realities,” but “the familiar, everyday, comforting, sociable rituals” that are “synonymous with drinking help us somehow to tame or even ‘domesticate’ the disturbing aspects of this liminal world.” Fox argues that “alcohol and celebration are inextricably bound together in all societies where alcohol is used,” but they are more strongly linked in societies “with a morally charged relationship with alcohol, where one needs a reason for drinking.”
Las Vegas thrives on the social magic of physical and liquid costumes with their disinhibitory effects. It is a city where costumes abound, donned by those paid to serve and entertain guests as well as the customers who overwhelmingly dress in “going out” apparel. Alcohol, too, is omnipresent, its costume-like nature made explicit, for instance, by the highly visible souvenir drinking vessels shaped like scepters or giant gold champagne bottles. These make clear that normal behavior has been temporarily suspended. More important, the casinos themselves are in costume, dressed in imitation of places both geographically and temporally distant.
The effect is that social norms that might otherwise check consumption or indulgence are suspended, a shift that sounds emancipatory but merely leaves people more vulnerable casinos’ ability to control and exploit. Creating a space where gamblers feel consequence-free isn’t liberating when those consequences are actually real and will be felt acutely as soon as they leave town. Moreover, it further relieves patrons of any sense of social responsibility that might otherwise accompany everyday living. Once removed from the real by masquerade, it does not seem abnormal or problematic to sit for hours, bleeding money onto the felt and into the coffers of the casinos, even while other humans sit hungry and desperate on the city’s causeways, their skin parched by the desert sun.
This kind of deinhibition is the inverse of the break from normalcy that occurs when disaster or tragedy strikes, when people abandon routine to help those in need. In A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, Rebecca Solnit chronicles at length this altruism and sense of community that emerges in the wake of catastrophe. As she summarizes in her introduction:
Sometimes disaster intensifies [selfishness]; sometimes it provides a remarkable reprieve from it, a view into another world for our other selves. When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up — not all, but the great preponderance — to become their brothers’ keepers. And that purposefulness and connectedness bring joy even amid death, chaos, fear, and loss.
After encountering an extreme break from normalcy, the humanity of others becomes too visible to carry on as usual, to sit alone under fluorescent lighting working on Excel spreadsheets when we are surrounded by living, breathing beings whose conscious experiences are as rich and deep as our own. In Las Vegas, however, we see the opposite, an intensification of selfishness and greed to levels that would never be permissible outside its extraordinary circumstances.
Yet the magic of costumes also threatens to unravel the social fabric of Las Vegas capitalism. A fixture of the city’s nightlife are erotically costumed women paid to dance in suspended boxes as ornamentation. My friends and I had noticed them as we passed through the casinos, but now we stopped to watch one through the plate glass windows that separated her from Las Vegas Boulevard, elevated about 15 feet above the street.
In sex work, we can recognize the colonization of bodies that characterizes labor in almost all its forms, whereby people are transformed into mechanical parts in the service of others. Here we saw a woman who was once free, now assimilated into the casino landscape, her body subsumed by the enterprise and directed toward its ends. This condition in other workers is rendered invisible by its seeming naturalness, but here the costuming of labor with sex draws our attention from the product being made and sold and directs it to the body (as the two have now become identical). Given such effort to emphasize the body, how could one avoid noticing the social forces acting upon it, the power and extortion compelling it to undulate and pose in rhythm to the music?
But then one of my friends, too, was dancing, his hips swaying back and forth in imitation of the dancer’s. He stood separate from the onlookers, facing her square on while mimicking and comically exaggerating each seductive movement she made. In his mimicry, he recognized her unfreedom, that she danced not from unconditioned desire but from servitude. And suddenly there was a reversal, and she was the one doing the mimicking, smiling with amusement as she mirrored his shimmying. While the crowd dumbly stared, the two danced with each other through the glass, their eyes alight with joy and mutual recognition.