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Unlevel Design
03.19.12

Unlevel Design

My advice for tourists thinking about checking out Toronto's north end: Don't. Avoid it. If you have unfortunate friends living there, invite them downtown. My reasons for being up here are twofold: The first, and least important, is to undergo minor invasive surgery on my ass, which is fitting given that this place feels like the ass crack of Toronto. 

The north end is the land of strip malls and high-rise towers with body counts. The 401—the busiest highway in the world—is a six-lane scar chocking all the north/south traffic into a few main arteries. This is a neighborhood of dead ends.   

I grew up here, far from the nice midtown townhouse I live in now. Midtown feels like another world. Midtown is where the downtown condo creep is just starting to arrive, pushing everybody else out. Midtown is where you can see criminally underpaid Filipino women push strollers with rich people's babies. Midtown is where a paycheck-to-paycheck writer can live three minutes away from some of the richest families in Canada. Midtown is where you can, from the escarpment, gaze at the financial district’s towers and remember what city you're in. 

This isn't the Toronto for the downtown set—the kids who don't go past the rivers, the boys and girls who've never been to the ends of the yellow line. This is not their Toronto. Go to Sheridan Mall, where the banks have security guards, and all checks are held. Where panhandlers don't even bother, because, shit, we're all broke. Count the cash-checking places with their 30-percent interest payday loans: Money Mart, Cash Max, Fa$t Ca$h, all bear traps promising easy fixes to all of your problems. It's a different world. It is the perfect place to catch a bus to a casino.

/ / /

Safeway. 

The name of the bus company is blasted in bright red letters, next to its Korean counterpart. Like all good marketing, the name carries multiple connotations. That you are going to get to your destination safely, yes, but also that your current place is one of danger and hardship.

When I ask the driver if the bus goes to the casino, a young Korean girl, 22, cuts in before I even finish my sentence. She correctly guesses that I'm new. The first ride is $30, round-trip, to the nameless casino by Niagara Falls and back. I'm supposed to pay later.

Bus rides are long, they are boring, and they can seem like an exercise in discovering eternity. Planes and trains promise comfort, or at least speed. All buses can promise is that you'll get somewhere, eventually. But this one is too nice. Comfortable seats, each with a safety belt (!), and television monitors (!!!) every few rows. There is even free Wi-Fi. And this isn't the only luxury liner: the service picks up people on the hour, every hour, even on a Wednesday morning. 

This is a deliverance from our slowly decaying urban sprawl. But I'm going to the casino on a specific mission: I want to see how gamblers play games. I want to see what I learn from watching a different gaming subculture at work. I want to know what notes can be cribbed from casinos. I want to see how the other half plays.

“Player input does not affect the outcome of the game.”

An hour and a half later, after a few stops and two episodes of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie documenting the nadir of civilization1, we're at the casino. Every other person on the bus is at least twice my age. They go quietly in single file, swiping little blue cards as they leave the bus, old hands at this. I am told to stay seated, along with another woman easily in her mid-50s, who is also new at this. When every other person is off the bus, the small Korean girl guides us from the bus into the casino. 

I'll admit that it is a disappointment. The bus bay entrance into the casino isn't the inviting cavalcade of wealth I had imagined, with a pair of gold spray-painted Adonis statues waving giant palm leaves as we enter. It is simply a customer-service booth, with a hallway leading to the food court that sells coffee and fast-food items for twice the regular price. These are the first hints that there is nothing magical here. 

A patient, tall woman, who manages a customer-service smile despite a poor grasp of English, takes down my info and hands me a card. “It's your Player Advantage Card,” she says, explaining that, when I play at the slots or at the tables, I should use this card. It will give me discounts and provide me with cashback depending on how much I play.2 

This practice is called gamification. It's a newly-minted corporate buzzword that basically translates into using game-like elements to incentivize (explaining a buzzword with a buzzword is poor form, I know) a living, breathing human being to do something they wouldn't normally do. Its proponents don't seem to realize it’s been around since the beginning of time. My wallet is stuffed with the legacy of gamification. I have the punch cards, several shy of a free coffee. I have the loyalty program that gives me points every time I buy something at the pharmacy. My credit card gives me a discount on travel. And to that pile, I add another: the Player Advantage Card. A hook to make the act of gambling even more rewarding.   

I slip it into my wallet, check my coat, and go outside for a smoke. I'm not a frequent smoker, but my shaky thinking goes like this: If I lose too much money at the slots or at the tables, if I blow $40 on black, or hit on a 17, if I feel the urge to make up for what I've lost, if I feel like I'm losing control, I’ll have a neurochemical reason to leave the floor and go outside and spend some time alone and think. A sort of addiction-based version of Indiana Jones swapping the bag of sand for the golden idol. 

When I bought the cigarettes at the gas station, I had spent a solid four seconds looking at the package. The owner, who up until that point had been ignoring me, looked up from his inventory paperwork. “New package.” It was a ghoulish photo of a woman’s presumably tobacco-ravaged face. The subtext: Your addictions will take their toll. 

Just outside the food court is a smoker's retreat that is caged off. The barricades, chest-high fences, warn of falling ice from the hotel that towers over me. Further out is another fence, to create a falling-ice no man's land. There is nobody out there, the gentle rushing of the Falls just audible, drowning out the pre-lunch food-court din. Yeah, this is pretty all right.

From inside, I hear a loud push/click from the double doors. Skinny dude, in his 20s, charges out from the casino toward the fence. Doesn't he see the warnings about the falling ice? He spares a quick look back, a purely animal move, and jumps the fence, fails, jumps again, runs through the ice zone, and squeezes between two of the barriers on the outside perimeter. He spares another look back, then keeps running. Another minute passes. Nobody follows him.  

Good for him.

/ / /

Bells; electronic bird whistles; seizure strobes; full-motion video clips of The Dark Knight; Sarah Jessica Parker’s voice; a semi-clothed Playboy bunny with bedroom eyes and a plastic smile; squeaky wheel of a concession cart; “WINNER!”; sounds of coins falling, but not a fucking one in sight; bodiless cheers from halfway across the room; “Would you like milk with that?”; “I FOUND ONE, MAGGIE? Where'd you go?” Motorized scooters humming together in single file.

“How old are you?”

I don't really clue in right away.

“Sir?”

It takes me a second to remember, it's been so long since I've been asked. 

“I'm 25.”

The security guard/bouncer squints down at my Portuguese citizenship card.

“When's your birthday?”

“The 27th of October, 1986.”

He looks at it again, and hands it back.

“Go ahead. Enjoy your visit.” 

/ / /

The cashier is deep into the casino. I appreciate the crafty design: anybody who needs to exchange money will be deep in the belly of the beast. By the cashier's cage is a brochure rack. One warns of the dangers of gambling and addiction. The other is an application for casino credit.

You will never see a casino level in a Mario game. The Miyamoto Aesthetic, which traffics in childlike wonder, is unafraid to be a little bit haunting—think of all the castle stages in the series with their soundtracks that drip dread.3 But there's something decidedly adult about the fears that casinos bring up. Money. Yes, money. You either win some or lose some, and that's a pulsing anxiety that underscores my first trip onto the casino floor.

There is also the anxiety of being lost. There are no exit signs, no clocks. The space—the actual casino itself—is large, but I can only ever see a thin slice of it. Intricately crisscrossing rows of slot machines confuse the geography, and are tall enough to obscure the view, trapping me. Try to get out, try and follow one of the paths, and you'll get to the bar, in the middle, with more slot machines embedded into the bar itself. This is a labyrinth. Mazes have dead ends; but a labyrinth, if you keep at it, will always lead somewhere.

Stuck in neverending halls of slot machines, I get to know them. Casinos have been around for thousands of years; and in their modern form, for hundreds. The table games we know and understand are here, but slot machines, developed in the late 1800s, are a relatively new addition to gambling and easily its most popular. Their popularity is due to their simplicity: insert a coin, and if the symbols match, you win. The machines here are more complex in that they allow different configurations of symbols to yield a reward. But the game remains relatively simple, with no real calculation of odds or potential moves coming into play, unlike in the table games.

Gambling’s first sharp contrast to modern videogames is its diversity of subject matter. We critics frequently lament the aliens and space marines and camo-soaked bread and butter of our industry, and these seem to be the only subjects slot machines don't deal with. Royalty (Royal Flush, Asian Princess), money (Bank Vault, Fort Knox), animals (L.A. Gator, Peking Duck, Thundering Buffalo, Buffalo), mildly baffling media tie-ins (I Love Lucy, Survivor, Sex and the City4), bizarre product placement (Tabasco): all genera of the slot machine family. The price for a play ranges from $0.01 to $2. Some machines let you change the game on the fly. Still, all these games, despite having wildly different subject matter, play the same and use the same set of rules. The diversity is useless and signifies nothing.

The ones that confuse me are the marquee games—big, flashy pieces of work, like the Hangover 2 machine, or one for The Dark Knight. Everybody on the bus ride here could have been a long-lost grandparent. I'm sure that most of their retirement homes don't keep copies of The Dark Knight in their VHS pile. Same goes for the Playboy cluster near the entrance: it's being played by women old enough to have worked in the Playboy Club. Or the old man playing Vampire's Embrace, with a drawn-from-poor-memory version of Robert Pattinson going to first base with some poor woman's neck on it. Groups sit around passively, watching as others play the game. The crowds don't interact, but watch—privately—and when I come near, they size me up with a look of tired ambivalence and go back to watching the game. When a machine signals a win, it cries and whistles, yet the watchers don't react. The draw, I figure out, is the high payouts. The games aren't cheap, compared to the more obscure titles, but their return is significantly higher.

The luxury of a good room, a good meal, and the luxury of being able to lose money. 

The final punch comes when I see a small placard attached to the game of Aztec I'm playing. In between pressing down on the play button to make small, temporary gains before ultimately squandering it all, I notice a little placard. “Game display does not indicate how close you are to winning. Player input does not affect the outcome of the game.” I notice that this is written on all the slot machines, in one form or another. Translation: Nothing you do matters, aside from deciding how much money you want to spend. 

To a gamer this makes absolutely no sense. Why “play” a game that I can't influence? But everybody here seems to enjoy it: they win and they lose, and they are fine absolving themselves of responsibility, and giving it to a higher power, whether it be the machine or God. There is a vanity, perhaps, in wanting to be the master of my own fate and to be responsible for my victories, but watching the old folks take no seeming pleasure in their wins makes me feel somewhat vindicated.

God, I need to get out of here.

I go downstairs to the smoker's getaway, to clear my head, and maybe change onto an earlier bus. There's another older woman there, smoking a du Maurier, holding a large Tim Horton's coffee (Roll Up the Riiiiiiiim to Win!5) with a straw sticking out of it. We both smoke in relative peace, but taking my editor's suggestion, I decide to talk to her.

“How are you doing today?”

She looks at me, then slowly turns her back to me with practiced grace, like a ballerina slowed by the weight of the world.

I never want to talk to another human being ever again.

/ / /

It's closing in on the afternoon, and a younger crowd starts to filter in. By the Spanish 21 tables I see two guys in decent suits with a female colleague, teasing her about her every move and decision, offering unsolicited advice, pouncing on her mistakes with delight. I see a father-and-son team. The father, on a run, passes his earnings to his son to pocket. I see an older man get angry at the dealer for a bum card, spewing conspiracy theories and denial.

The War table is where it's at. I remember a fellow critic and man that I respect greatly, in a Scottish accent that's starting to get chipped away by his stay in Canada, telling me that War has the best odds. Players get a card, dealer gets a card, high card wins. Ties mean doubling down the bet, but winning gets you a 3:2 payout. Not bad, and its lure is plain to see: this is another game where control is forfeited and player input is minimal.

“That's the 19th time I've gotten 3s,” a younger woman says. She's got a trucker hat on, no makeup, and she's been planted at that seat for four hours. I am certain that she's been counting. 

The casino isn't about the games. I start to realize that. The games are one part of this holistic experience. I am supposed to stay in a room; I am supposed to come to a show; I am supposed to go to their one-star-food, three-star-decor restaurant that stinks more of money than canard á la rouennaise. Luxury. The luxury of a good room, a good meal, and the luxury of being able to lose money. That is why Vegas works as well as it does: it's a city-shaped alternate reality where you are always somewhere in that casino experience. 

The House will always win. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but you will never beat it.  

I've decided that I'm done, that I'm out of there, that this is “not for me.” I'm down a bit, and what I thought was going to be an anthropological trip to uncover the missing link in some sort of gamer mentality proves to be a bust. The people here, the pensioners and the sinners, don't want control. The comedian Norm MacDonald, a man who is no stranger to compulsive gambling, said, "I do know this, when I would go broke—’cause they say that gamblers want to lose, which always seemed odd to me—but I will say that the three times that I went broke for a lot of money, I would have this very freeing feeling."6

The extreme gamblers aren't the same as extreme gamers. They aren't the control freaks, the obsessive-compulsives, the entitled assholes, the perfectionists. There are no reloads, no perfect runs, no control. We go back to videogames to perfect and tinker, but try that at a casino, and you will lose. And losing here has a real cost. Not just time, but money, real fucking cash. The House will always win. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but you will never beat it.  

I take $40 out of my pocket and walk up to a blackjack dealer, alone at her table. I am on a kamikaze mission: I want to see what it's like to play to lose.

She gives me chips for my cash and I bet—she helpfully points out where to put the chips—and she deals. She looks at me expectantly. 

“Hit me.”

She shakes her head. She knocks the table. I get the message, or think I do, and knock the table. She nods, and tosses me a card. I bust.

I throw in my last few chips.

She tosses me my cards. I knock on the table. She slides me the card. I try to do the mental arithmetic, but not fast enough for her. “19,” she says, not kindly.

“I'll stay.”

You will never see a casino level in a Mario game.

She is frustrated now. She waves her hand horizontally, cutting the air. Again, I accept her tutorial and replicate the motion.

This time I win. And the next time too. And on the next hand I get a blackjack.

“Good job,” she says, a sort of gentle forgiveness for being so curt with me before. 

I play, but I keep winning, mostly straight out the gate, with 20s, another two blackjacks. I stop. I have to. 

“Can I trade this in?”

She swaps out my $5 chips and gives me back two hundred-dollar chips. When I get up she seems surprised. “You did well.” She's right, and that's a bit disappointing. As much as I need the cash—desperately, as always—wouldn't it just be great to play and not try to win? To not have to worry about the rent coming up, to place it all down, and forget how many days this surgery's going to keep me out of commission? I have money now, in my hand, that isn't really mine. There a temptation to stay. To play another hand. To bet it all. It seems crazy, after a life time of playing to win, to indulge in this new feeling. What would it be like, I still wonder, to play to lose?

Maybe I should come back sometime. 

/ / /

1 The Simple Life: 'Till Death Do Us Part (2006); Specifically episodes “The Contreras Family,” “The Beggs Family,” and “The Burton Family.”

2 The actual cashback rate is discouraging once you do the math. Spending $40 gets you 1 point; 100 points nets you $10 back. For every $4,000 you spend, you get $10 back. What a deal.

3 You do, however, see a casino stage in Sonic the Hedgehog, which, at the time, was framed as the “cool” alternative to Mario, never mind that you were playing as a cartoon hedgehog.

4 I want to go on record and say that I think it's straight-up bullshit that Charlotte is used to represent the lowest payout.

5 Roll Up the Rim to Win is a thing in Canada, but, probably, baffling to everybody else. It's a sweepstakes put on by Tim Horton's, easily one of Canada's largest coffee and donut chains. It is a national event. After you finish your coffee, you roll up the rim of the cup for a chance to win. (You can usually tell a foreigner by how they try to roll up their cup. At least once a day a different person will announce their win/loss ratio, and somebody, invariably, will mention that the odds are 1 in 6. They will mention it because it has been integrated into the marketing shtick for the game and it's brilliant. Those odds are ridiculously good to somebody with a loose understanding of statistics. “If I buy 6, I'm bound to get a donut!” And watch as people carry on the mentality that they're “due” for a coffee. What it's actually comparable to is rolling a die and hoping to land on a 6, every time you play. As a man who's rolled countless dice playing Dungeons & Dragons, I know, as Biggie said, that “that shit ain't promised.” 

6 WTF Podcast with Marc Maron: Episode 219

Images via jericl cat