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Casinos' Demographic Problem: How To Replace Older Slot Players


Casinos have a gambling problem. Young people are not playing slot machines the way their parents and grandparents did, so casinos are hoping to bring in new players with a new kind of game. Elizabeth Kulas from our Planet Money podcast went to Atlantic City.

ELIZABETH KULAS, BYLINE: It's early Friday night at Harrah's. The casino gaming floor is filled with sound effects and flashing lights and psychedelic carpet. And someone who's spent almost 40 years working in places like this is John Acres. He's kind of a legend in the casino business. He invented the player loyalty card. Last year, he was inducted into the gaming hall of fame. He says, though, if you can look past the sensory overload, something is missing.

JOHN ACRES: The existing players that we have are aging out, and younger people are not coming in to replace them.

KULAS: John says Gen Xers and millennials - people under 45 - they do come to casinos, but...

ACRES: They come to go to clubs. They come to go shopping. They come to go to the pools. They don't come to gamble.

KULAS: John says, when we can stream just about anything we want from home, casino favorites like slots are struggling to hold their attention and generate revenue. It's a problem that Blaine Graboyes thinks he might be able to solve. Graboyes is the co-founder of New York-based Game Co. Right here at Harrah's, the company recently launched "Danger Arena," the world's first video game gambling machine.

BLAINE GRABOYES: It's definitely not like a slot machine. There's none of that slot experience.

KULAS: Walking through the gaming area, "Danger Arena" does stand out. It's raised higher than the surrounding slots, more like an old-school arcade game. There's a colorful screen and a handheld controller. It looks like it's been borrowed from a PlayStation 4.

GRABOYES: You're playing a video game, and it's a real game. The controller is really a beacon to a gamer that, you know, this is for them.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Three, two, one.

KULAS: I gave "Danger Arena" a try, stepped up, put in a $5 bill. And for 45 seconds, I'm thrown into this barren warehouse, trying to shoot as many robots as I can.


KULAS: So here's how it works - if I get less than six bots, I lose money. If I get to 10, I'll win the highest payout. For the record, I sucked at it. But no matter how good you are, "Danger Arena" pays out at the same rate as a traditional slot machine, and it does this in two ways. First, through random bonuses - you know, cash prizes while you're playing - and second, by randomly assigning the game a level of difficulty. So each round of "Danger Arena" is played on what's called a map, which affects how hard it is to shoot the bots. Sometimes it's easy, and sometimes it's downright impossible.

GRABOYES: Even the best blackjack player sometimes gets a hand that they can't be. And our game works exactly the same way.

KULAS: It's around dinner time when I meet Jeremy Smith. He's 40, a fairly active gamer, and he's just played his first few rounds of "Danger Arena."

JEREMY SMITH: It feels like it's putting more control in your hands, but when you get in there and play, you realize it's really not.

KULAS: You were doing really well, and you got four bots.

SMITH: Yeah, and I got four bots because every single other one they had around me was invincible, so it made it unbeatable.

KULAS: Even though "Danger Arena" and slots carry the same chances of winning, the reality of those odds just seems way more obvious when you're playing a skill-based game. The whole thing just feels so clearly stacked against you. It'll take a while to test the success of video games in casinos, but Jeremy, the gamer I met, he's already made up his mind. He says he won't be betting on "Danger Arena" again any time soon.

Elizabeth Kulas, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.