A few weeks ago, I watched Wim Wenders Tokyo-Ga from 1985. It’s a film about Japanese filmmaker Ozu but also a “diary on film” as Wenders called it, covering contemporary Tokyo and everyday occurrences.
I especially enjoyed the part on Pachinko, a widespread vertical pinball machine in Japan that blurs the line between arcade game and gambling device.
Wender’s film portrays the parlors as places to forget time and space. The steel balls of Pachinko games create a high level of noise, the windowless rooms are filled with smoke and still, the players seem hypnotized, almost transcendental.
Without going too much into detail of the machines’ mechanics, the absurd market size and the legal loopholes surrounding the gaming machine, I want to present some research on the addiction potential of Pachinko.
Academic Input on Pachinko
One of the little academic analysis of pachinko is by Brooks, Ellis and Lewis (2008). They collected data showing that even though the number of pachinko players dropped from the 80’s to early 2000’s, the volume of play and with that the generated revenue has increased.
At the same time, the number of pachinko halls decreased while number of pachinko machines climbed.
This development indicates that the pachinko playground has condensed (both, from a spatial and population perspective), leaving a player population with increased addiction potential.
After this description of the pachinko market, the researchers present a large body of evidence that even though pachinko is classified as ‘game’ and ‘amusement’ in Japan, it possesses several characteristics of problem gambling, including the rapid pace of the game.
Next, pachinko success is linked to ‘skills’ of a player influencing the game’s outcome, which is another risk factor according to several authors.
“What is clear at this stage is that, similar to gaming machines, pachinko has all the hallmarks of a potentially addictive game.”– Cited from Brooks, Ellis and Lewis (2008)
Other potentially problematic pachinko features are its low initial stake as well as the short game cycles that can lead to frequently recurring wins. Simply put players get rewarded on a continuous base. Who would want to stop then?
Even though the machines are designed in a way that unrestrictedly take advantage of human motivation mechanisms, not all of us play pachinko or similar gaming machines. So it’s very reasonable that Brooks et al. point to personal, biological and social influencing factors. For example, they mention that playing pachinko might act as an escape of the challenging working life of the population.
Physiological Responses to Pachinko
Due to the complex and multi-facet nature of pachinko (problem) gaming/gambling, I was really excited to come across a Japanese study from 1999 pointing to physiological changes in pachinko players (even though the sample size was very small).
They compared physiological markers of the players in the university lab, when players entered the pachinko parlor and at start and end of a “fever” (a winning streak).
Results showed that beta-endorphin secretion (associated to mood changes and euphoria) rose significantly before playing pachinko. The subjective increasing level of excitement reported by the subjects is mirrored in these physiological changes.
The highest rise in beta-endorphin was found when the “fever” started.
Moreover, the researchers found a positive correlation between beta-endorphin increase while winning and hours played per week. Impressive, yet disturbing insights that indicate that physiological states are involved in habit forming.
Technology and Gaming
Experts such as Griffith argue that technology plays a crucial role in gaming addiction.
Technology creates new market opportunities such as online gaming. Nowadays you can play 24/7 alone or with strangers often even conveniently on your mobile phone.
An Australian study conducted in 2016 with over 6000 gamblers revealed that players using a mobile phone as device have higher rates of gambling problems compared to gamblers using their computer (and offline gamblers).
Next, existing machines are getting more sophisticated (and though potentially more addictive) through new technology – pachinko is an excellent example for this development.
In Wender’s film from 1985 you see an employee manually adjusting the pegs of the back-then mechanical pachinko machines. These old pachinko machines look pale and boring compared to today’s visual-audio spectacles.
“Technology has always played a role in the development of gambling practices and will continue to play a critical role in the development of increased gambling opportunities.”– Cited from Griffith (1999)
Graham Brooks , Tom Ellis & Chris Lewis (2008) Pachinko: A Japanese Addiction?, International Gambling Studies, 8:2, 193-205, DOI: 10.1080/14459790802168958
Gainsbury, S. M., Liu, Y., Russell, A. M., & Teichert, T. (2016). Is all Internet gambling equally problematic? Considering the relationship between mode of access and gambling problems. Computers in Human Behavior, 55, 717-728.
Griffiths, M. (1999). Gambling technologies: Prospects for problem gambling. Journal of gambling studies, 15(3), 265-283.
Shinohara, K., Yanagisawa, A., Kagota, Y., Gomi, A., Nemoto, K., Moriya, E., … & Terasawa, K. (1999). Physiological changes in Pachinko players; beta-endorphin, catecholamines, immune system substances and heart rate. Applied Human Science, 18(2), 37-42.