Casino Industry Makes a Bid for Millennial Attention

The Global Gaming Expo, which was held last week at the Sands Expo Center, is always a chance to peer into the soul of the casino gaming industry. The hopes and anxieties of casino operators and those who supply them are seen on the exhibition floor, reflected in the new products on display.

Some subtext of the 2016 show (if you haven’t been keeping up on recent gaming developments) is that the streak of expansion that drove the industry from the late 1980s is largely over; there are few jurisdictions without gambling that look to adopt it anytime soon. While there is some growth in national gaming win, many states have seen flat or even declining results.

The once-future of casinos, Asia, has proven to be not such a sure thing, with the Chinese antigraft crackdown throttling back once-soaring baccarat play in Macau and even Las Vegas. Since the recession, gaming win in Las Vegas (and elsewhere) has not bounced back, and there are pervasive fears that millennials will cut slot machines just as they’ve dropped live television.

In conference panels and keynote sessions, openness to change dominated, with the American Gaming Association’s current drive to broaden legal sports wagering prominently featured. On the floor, however, the focus was on hardware: thousands of new slot machines, table games and the systems that run them available for the perusal of those who buy them.

In general, “traditional” video reel slots got bigger, flashier, louder and more immersive, continuing the trend of greater stimulation. But that’s not the most significant change.

Walking the exhibition floor, one striking fact is that slot machines are getting taller, with more immersive interfaces. This is part of a half-century of game evolution. Players leaned into and looked down at old-style (pre-1970s) mechanical Mills and Jennings one-armed bandits. Slot stools brought the player down to eye level with most machines before bonus screens started pushing the height up. The latest games tower as high as 11 feet, physically dominating the player.

That’s a subtle but telling evolution. We are used to looking down at our phones and tablets and looking level at our PC monitors. We look up to movie and TV screens, but at a distance. While the feeling of being dominated by a machine may appeal to some, others may find it vaguely off-putting, and drift back to a friendly, unthreatening bar-top video poker game.

Skill-based games were well in evidence, as they have been for three years, but with rollout to casino floors imminent (most think it will happen by early next year at the latest in Nevada) and the continuing angst over millennial nongaming, they were much more the center of attention. There was a palpable sense that this year, these games will finally make a difference.

In essence, where traditional slots are evolving to envelope players more fully in the gambling experience, skill games are taking nongambling entertainment and adding gambling to it. Both large suppliers such as IGT, Scientific Games and Konami, and skill-centric upstarts such as Gamblit Gaming and GameCo Inc. showed off their latest skill-based offerings, ranging from gambling-enhanced adaptations of video and social games to full-on virtual reality entertainment.

Gamblit’s adaptation of Phosphor Games’ virtual reality first-person shooter The Brookhaven Experiment best shows the promise of VR. The player enters a large glass cube, is outfitted with goggles, headphones and hand controllers, and then blasts away at an array of zombies. It is completely immersive; you only see the game. It’s rendered in frighteningly realistic 3-D, and zombies come at you from all angles.

Betting on your performance in a virtual reality simulation of a zombie attack is as far from video poker as video poker is from shooting dice in an alley. It’s one solution to the alleged diminished appeal of gambling to millennials, but, as with any innovation, it is a leap into the unknown. Will those under 30 start flocking to play games in a casino that they are now playing (mostly for free) just because they have the chance to win or lose money on them? If you conclusively knew the answer to that, you could make—or save—a lot of money for someone.

So there were two, not necessarily exclusive, answers to the anxieties afflicting casino operators on display at G2E. One or both of them may turn the key to millennial gambling; this should be the year (at last) that we start to learn the answer.

And, hey, if neither avenue leads millennials to casino gambling en masse, well, there’s always next year.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.