Desert Companion

Open topic: Gaming my generation

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Arcade
Illustration by Brent Holmes

Can casinos lure the twentysomething set with gambling video games? This millennial isn’t betting on it

As a 25-year-old living in Las Vegas who has spent exactly $2 on a slot machine in the year I’ve lived here, I’m probably not the type of person who’s going to attract much attention from a casino on the Las Vegas Strip. I’m not exactly their target demographic.

That’s a problem for the gaming industry. If younger people — who are coming in increasing numbers to Las Vegas — aren’t taking part in the city’s main industry, what’s going to happen?

Casinos and gaming manufacturers seem to think the answer lies in making a new kind of slot machine or table game — ones that look more like a video game than a cliché. The theory is that people my age play video games fairly often, and they’d possibly be tempted to turn those skills into money in a casino if they felt like they could actually make money off it. So-called skill-based games are supposed to be the next big thing for gaming, and they’re slowly beginning to come to casino floors. But would they actually want to make someone like me drop some serious coin?

For the answer, one Saturday night, I grabbed $80 from the bank and set out for the Strip with my friend Nina in search of one of these games that’s supposed to save the gaming industry from people like us.

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Mad skills

For casinos, millennials represent the next big, untapped market. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority says that, in 2014, 17 percent of people who visited the city that year were between the ages of 21 and 29, and a further 27 percent were between 30 and 39 — the largest age cohort of those examined. It’s not surprising, then, that casinos would be interested in figuring out ways to get these people to spend money on their casino floors, especially as gaming revenue in Clark County fell year-over-year from 2013 to 2014.

So what’s the solution? If you listen to the experts, it’s twofold: improve the kinds of entertainment and restaurants on offer (which explains why Calvin Harris stares at commuters on high from every billboard in town, an electronic Stalin reminding us to oonce oonce our way to a better grain harvest), and to introduce skill-based casino gaming. It’s a fancy marketing way of suggesting the casinos install games that — gasp! — don’t solely rely on random chance to give someone a jackpot. Instead, these games would include user-controlled features that would enable them to possibly get a bigger payoff. The thought behind these is that younger people are keener to play a Grand Theft Auto casino game than a Wheel of Fortune one.

What would these games look like? For one, Konami has a game in the works involving Frogger, the classic game where players try to move a frog across a highway without getting hit like a Las Vegas pedestrian. But, the catch with these skill-based games is that they’re not just a rote video game: they’re probably still going to look and feel, for the most part, like any other casino game.

Let’s say, for instance, you walk past a game that has a giant Mario on the top of the cabinet. The game bleats out “Welcome to Mario Kart!” incessantly. Hey, I used to be really good at Mario Kart, you think. I could win big if I can play this game. Not so fast: Chances are, you’ll put your money into the game and push a button like with any other slot machine. You’ll hope for a random chance event to occur — like three blue shells lining up on the rails — before a skill-based portion of the game is available to you. In other words, you’ll still have to gamble away some money in order to play the game at hand; the gaming companies just hope the enticement of the latter convinces you to do the former.

Hello, young people!

But those games aren’t here yet. Nina and I started at the south end of the Strip, walking through casino floors at Mandalay Bay, Luxor and Tropicana, looking for something that could pique our interest. Instead, we saw slots with buffaloes on them— for some reason — or ones featuring characters from TV shows our parents would have watched, or comically sexist machines with buxom women or muscular men that don’t exactly play well with a couple of young progressives. Nothing screamed “THIS IS FOR YOUNG PEOPLE AND YOU ARE WELCOME TO BE HERE,” so we ignored the machines, bought drinks and took selfies in silly places, as stereotypical millennials do. Our lack of success continued; neither Caesars Palace nor the MGM Grand offering anything we would want — though a slot machine called OMG Puppies! did come close to getting us to sit down in attempts to get some Labradors to line up on the rails.

The industry has a tall order if they’re going to try to get us millennials to gamble. Even if my generation plays video games in spades, we all play different kinds. Creating a machine that caters to all of us seems like it is going to be an impossible task. How do you make somebody who adores Animal Crossing, a series of games with no real point or objective other than living in a fictional city and talking to the animals who live there, want to spend money on a casino game based on that series? Similarly, there’s a level of skill involved in making a community function properly in SimCity, but the idea of winning a jackpot based on solving issues of urban blight sounds like something more in the ken of the federal government than MGM Resorts International. If you go in the other direction and adapt well-known action titles such as Halo to a casino game, how do you do it without seeming to pander to Halo fans? At least with the Sex and the City slot machine, you know you don’t actually have to seduce Mr. Big in order to win big.

Funnily enough, though, on game quest, we did finally stumble upon something that was worth our time — and our money. We figured The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas would have the best hope of something interesting given its newness, and the P3 Studios art gallery provided just that. We had some of our best times of the night there, partaking in a performance art game show parody put on by Las Vegas artist Jesse Smigel, and it’s something we would’ve paid to have done were it not free.

But, perhaps as you’d expect after finding something so good for free, P3 is closing later this year. It’s making way for a sushi restaurant — some place where, ostensibly, millennials will want to spend money. 

Casey Morell is a producer for “KNPR’s State of Nevada.”

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