Macau is where Hong Kong goes to party, and in Hong Kong, partying means gambling.
Not that there isn’t anywhere to try your luck in Hong Kong. There are the clattering tiles of the private Mahjong clubs. Hushed card games on folding tables, conducted under hanging wooden cages at the Kowloon Bird Market. The Happy Valley Racecourse, where club kids drink frozen Sapporo beer next to old men hunched over bet sheets, their worlds only intersecting as they scream for the same horse.
But none of them compare to Macau. Why should Hongkongers gamble small-time, when they can hop a forty-five minute ferry to the Las Vegas of Asia? Of course, since Macau out-earned Las Vegas by seven times last year, perhaps we should start calling Vegas America’s Macau.
Macau, like Hong Kong, is a former European colony now given over to the People’s Republic of China. And like Hong Kong, it retains its autonomy in all areas but diplomacy and the military. But unlike its more straight-laced cousin, Macau’s former master was Portugal. Where Hong Kong is all high teas and Mind the Gap rush hour, Macau sports beach balcony seafood and ruined cathedrals. Then there’s the gloriously crass casinos. It’s like a Pacific Island and Monaco birthed a love child, then didn’t raise it right.
The casinos are all name’s you’d recognize. Wynn. Venetian. Bellagio. Their interiors look like cloned copies of their U.S. progenitors. The tone is different though. In Las Vegas, a dice toss or card turn throws up cheers or groans – the sounds people make when they’re playing for fun. Here, it’s less animated. More about money. Winners and losers alike lean forward with bowed spines and hands on chins. No one’s watching the nearby stage where a girl group dishes out out K-Pop tunes to unpolished choreography. In China, luck is serious business.
Video slots provide the only exception. Loud, colorful, splattered with cartoon characters and thoroughly arcade-like, their magnetic joy drags you in. There the gamblers shout, clap, and cheer each other on. I sit at a machine called Ali Baba and feed in a twenty Hong Kong Dollar bill.
It’s no secret that casino machines have learned lessons from video games. The hottest new slot machines in Vegas have customizable avatars, rumble seats, and can even save the gambler’s progress – all in hopes that gamblers will develop a Candy Crush-style addiction.
The virtualization has been a long time coming. For years slots have had pinball-like bonus rounds and themed animation to make gambling on a machine look more warm and approachable. In Macau, I saw a half-dozen video blackjack players facing off against a virtual dealer. Female, of course. Pretty, of course. Technically she could’ve been anything – a robot, a gibbon, a sentient stack of casino chips – but when money’s on the line, it’s comforting to think you’re betting against a fallible human rather than a computer, so they gave the calculator a face.
Ali Baba‘s a fairly normal slot machine at first. Hit a button to make the dials spin. Mumble, c’mon c’mon c’mon until they stop. Win money. Lose money. But hit CHANCE three times and things get interesting.
CHANCE marks where you win real money. A scenario lights up the video screen. Ali Baba might descend into the cave to fight thieves, loot treasure, or avoid booby traps. Success is totally random, but this time with visual consequences. The thieves line up above the wheel and for each CHANCE you land, you kill the thief standing above that dial and get his dollar value. The booby traps too, catch you if luck isn’t on your side. Only one game mode actually lets the player make a direct choice – pick a path, one ends in a treasure chest, the other a trap. It’s the same as a coin flip.
The randomness is legally mandated. Giving out money based on skill would privilege one player over another. According to the law, everyone must have the same chance to lose their money.
Every time I hit CHANCE, other gamblers left their machines to watch. I have good luck gambling, but only if the game involves no skill. I’ll go broke in blackjack but clean up at roulette. I hit CHANCE four times, one right after the other. Each round, strangers gathered around to cheer me on in Cantonese, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the friends I brought with me. They tell me “good job,” like I have control what’s going on, like it’s me – not the dial – that killed the big thief that was worth the most money.
And here’s the weird part: I feel like I did too.
While I’m still playing a random number generator, I feel like there’s skill involved. Though it does nothing, I find myself mashing the SPIN button hoping it’ll make Ali Baba push harder against the rocks trying to crush him. The illusion’s so strong I catch myself feeling like it’s my fault when the luck eventually runs out – and it always runs out.
I cash out while I still have winnings to lose. HK$165 isn’t a fortune – it’s about $21 – but off a HK$20 buy-in it’s not too shabby. Still, I feel myself getting that very videogame-like urge to press continue. Though I knew it was beyond my control, I had a disturbing sense I could kill that last thief if I took another crack at it.
Video games share more than a little with slot machines. Old arcade machines weren’t always designed with artistic intent or even game balance. Difficulty spikes weren’t a test of skill, they were designed to harvest money from your pocket. The “CONTINUE?” message, with its countdown clock, added social pressure to buy in for another round. In this age where social and mobile games offer real money transactions for extra turns or resources, and Dungeon Keeper Mobile can get away with blatantly stacking the deck against the player, some genres are reverting back to arcade strategies. Like kids in a car trip backseat, companies keep seeing how far they can inch across the invisible line that separates games from money-harvesting vehicles. Ali Baba‘s strategy was to distract the player into thinking they had some say over the result, and to disguise that the odds aren’t in their favor. You could arguably say the same for some games where the spinning dials sit buried in code. The reason even video blackjack players prefer to face off against a virtual human is that they feel like they can trust something that that has a face to read. It’s a trick — it’s always a trick — but the question becomes how well the lights and wheels distract you from that. Microtransaction games, arguably, are less honest than their cousins that dwell amid the baccarat tables and cigarette-burned carpets. At least slots show you the dials to communicate your uphill battle against the machine.
On the other hand, there’s no denying that playing in an arcade, with your quarter on the line, had a thrill to it. Death is cheap in modern gaming. No matter how sharp the sword or deep the chasm, you can always start again with nothing lost. In the old arcades there was real money at risk. True, only a quarter, but it was still a physical thing you could hold in your hand. It had value. When you dropped it in the coin slot, you were, in essence, gambling on the amount of entertainment you could squeeze out of it – and that made both failure and success more tangible. You were beating the game rather than merely finishing it.
I don’t particularly care how many times I died in Skyrim, but I fondly remember beating Star Wars Trilogy Arcade with one continue.
That quarter, in gambling parlance, makes it interesting. And it’s that memory that stops me from railing against free-to-play games and microtransactions simply on principle. Microtransactions aren’t anything new to the game industry, and though they have potential for abuse, I’d like to make some room for a good developer who wants to re-capture that feeling of battling a game over pocket change.
After all, if the games don’t earn their value, the market will punish them like it did when players abandoned arcades for the greater long-term value consoles and PCs delivered.
But as I walked over to collect my winnings, the thought crossed my mind: but at their heart, aren’t casinos calibrated to short-circuit logical decisions like that? And haven’t games been learning to do the same?
As casinos and video games increasingly share lessons with one another, and both urge us to take just one more try, will it become harder to recognize when it’s time to cash out?