“Once something has been approved by the government, it’s no longer immoral!” – Reverend Lovejoy
Ever since Bartmania back in 1990, FOX has been keen to use licensed merchandise (often of dubious quality) to pad its bottom line on the Simpsons. This can be alarm clocks that eat batteries and can’t be plugged in, drink trays that misquote the show, or a seemingly endless number of “collectible” dolls and figurines. Tchotchkes and t-shirts may be soulless consumerism at its most blatant, but they’re also relatively harmless. The same cannot be said of video slot machines.
Video slots are (as those of you who’ve read my little ebook about The Simpsons: Tapped Out will already be aware) rigged games that are built to ensnare and bankrupt people. If you want to understand why and how, I can’t recommend Addiction By Design by Natasha Dow Schull strongly enough. But the very short version is that by employing sophisticated and well tested psychological concepts, slot machine companies can create a “game” to which some players will become medically addicted. So while most people who elect to play the machine will quickly lose a few bucks and then move along, a small percentage will get entranced, with losses running to tens of thousands of dollars and potential destitution, not to mention plenty of life ruining side effects (bankruptcy, eviction, etcetera).
The gambling industry goes out of its way to obscure this by offering token sops to gambling addiction programs and talking about “responsible gaming”, but the simple fact of the matter is that a huge percentage of their revenue comes from people who are diagnostically addicted. In other words: most of their money comes from inducing, exploiting, and fostering an illness. And now Matt Groening is joining them.
I’m singling out Groening for a reason. He supposedly has some influence or control over what gets licensed and what doesn’t. In the past, it’s been widely reported that he resisted licensing a real life Duff beer since the show remains (nominally) for children. The oft cited phrase (which I’ve seen countless times myself) is:
Groening has said he considered giving permission to make the beer a few years ago but pulled back over concern that it would encourage kids to drink.
That comes from a site called Joe Sixpack, and it’s the citation on the Wikipedia article about Duff Beer. Near as Google can tell me, that Joe Sixpack link and the Wikipedia article are the direct or indirect sources for that same quote everywhere else on-line, from the British newspaper The Telegraph to pop culture site The Mary Sue. Given such poor sourcing, I don’t know whether or not Groening ever actually shot down an official Duff license (I kinda think he mentioned it on a commentary once, but can’t find a source), but it does seem like the kind of thing he would say.
Of course, Duff is now a reality at both Universal Studio theme parks, but serving watery beer to tourists is a far cry from jamming casinos with deliberately addictive slot machines. A goofy and overpriced theme park snack isn’t going to turn anyone into an alcoholic, but a Simpsons video slot machine can and will cause real life people to become gambling addicts. A year or two after those machines hit the casino floor, there are going to be people at Gamblers Anonymous meetings who now have empty bank accounts because of something with Groening’s signature on the side of it.
A year ago, I wrote about Scientific Games’ “The Simpsons,” which created a big buzz at G2E 2015. But the game was held back and returned in a new version this year.
“Last year when we showed the game, our licencor saw it and they thought it was a great product, but I think they really wanted to make it stand out a little more,” Rosen explains. “The nice thing for us is they got their hands dirty with us and they created custom content for the entire product. They did all the animation. They did voice over sessions with Hank Azaria and Dan Castellaneta to do custom content. They had a writer write scripts for the game.”
Now, I have no doubt that FOX and News Corp are comfortable with profiting from something as nakedly greedy and predatory as video slots. They even scotched the first version of this and paid Azaria, Castellaneta, and at least one writer to go in and make it catchier (i.e. more addicting). What I want to know – publicly – is if Matt Groening is comfortable with it as well. I know this blog gets read by at least a few current and former Simpsons staffers, as well as the occasional entertainment reporter, so: has anyone asked him?
The next time he’s on a panel, or taking questions from an audience, or doing a publicity thing, I would like someone to say, “Mr. Groening, video slot machines have been definitively linked to problem gambling; knowing that, are you comfortable with your name and your creation being used for video slots?”
I want to know because I like Groening, and I like his work, and this crosses the line between everyday villainy and cartoonish super-villainy. Maybe he doesn’t know about the harm video slot machines do and just signed off on this as one more project. Maybe he does know and doesn’t care. Maybe he doesn’t know and would care enough to squelch the project. I kinda doubt that last one, but it’s worth asking, because this is vile.