Adult Playgrounds: What Wellness Can Learn From Gambling

Category: Health & Wellness
29 Feb 2024
Read time: 10 MIN
Walking through the principles of gambling and casino design, our team tie two seemingly disparate ideas together to demonstrate why brand and experience must go hand in hand, no matter the sector we’re playing in.
Written By
MOF Team
MOF Team

The wellness kick is catching. At least, it is in the Matter Of Form office after a number of the team signed a pseudo-contract agreeing to lay off the juice for 2024’s first quarter. It’s a decision that tracks along a wider shift in culture towards health as a priority as well as in line with the changing codes of luxury. 

Luxury is returning to its roots in a sense – grounding modern ideas of it in comfort, convenience and time. Health is becoming a key metric of success but health is a far broader term now than it once was. In response, brands – specifically those in travel and hospitality – have an amazing opportunity to elevate their experiences in line with this growing obsession. One that isn’t going anywhere.

The brass tacks of good brand experience are surely about making those you’re connecting with feel good. And if good’s a stretch, making them feel better. Wellness, despite its nebulous nature, means the same thing.

Buy-in ranges all the way from nil – see Rina Raphael’s book The Gospel of Wellness: Gyms, Gurus, Goop and the False Promise of Self-Care – to all-encompassing; the foundation of being for what Sophie Gilbert, staff writer at The Atlantic, calls “woo woo evangelists”. You can guess which celebrities she might’ve cast under that designation.

There’s a lot of language and thinking within the wellness space that contributes to its perception as a con by many. Perhaps because much of its value isn’t tangible or because so much of it is so performative. Irrespective of its social polarity though, wellness – at its core – is a sound pursuit for people and an incredible opportunity for brands.

Everyone waxes lyrical about authenticity, transparency, integrity and virtue but through wellness, particularly for those working in travel and hospitality, companies have the chance to hit all those marks as well as make a profit. 

  1. It’s an incredible pathway to expanding your offering – especially at a time when many affluent travellers expect a high-level, high-touch element of care.
  2. At its most basic, it has the potential to become a defining pillar of your brand and experience – tailored to your target audience and uniquely powered by brand spirit.
  3. It offers a multitude of moments to make a lasting impression, if not impact, on the minds and memories of your guests.

Formulas for success in the space are many, and we’re rarely ones to rehash what’s already been said and done. Instead, we do what we do best: smashing two disparate ideas together until we unlock something new, (semi-) intelligent and, hopefully, useful.

Translating Gambling’s Strategy Playbooks In Wellness Design

If it wasn’t clear already, we’ve ventured to the other end of the spectrum to mine inspiration for wellness and hospitality. Gambling. 

More specifically, casino design – and how design choices, from architecture to layout to atmosphere, help to fuel addiction and loyalty. This world of business has been harnessing the power of behavioural psychology for decades, yet the worlds of wellness and hospitality – arguably far more noble enterprises – are yet to do so to the same extent.

Whether you’re partial to a game of poker or anti-gambling altogether, we believe casino design provides a compelling premise to study how humans work… and play.

Roughly 85% of U.S. adults have gambled at least once in their lives. Only 1% are considered addicted. By those stats, much of the footfall in casinos is purely recreational. Patrons have been pulled in. But by what exactly? Research shows it’s some combination of architectural cues, atmospheric effects, immersion theory in practice and personal drivers. Essentially, experience design.

In gambling, the cost is literally money. And although the ethics may be questionable, it’s truly fascinating how casinos can conjure enjoyment in patrons who are losing money and then encourage them to lose even more.

We capitalise on addictive tendencies in sectors commonly considered ‘morally grey’ but are yet to leverage the characteristics of compulsion or the pull of hedonism in wellness spaces with genuine intention – not just selling snake oil.

The main cost of wellness is time (and price). Making or taking time to focus on yourself is often the first sacrifice of those who are time-poor. Busy individuals would often rather spend what little free time they have connecting with loved ones or, thanks to a pervasive hustle culture, giving more time to work. We would all do plenty more if we had time, but when our lives are so frequently frenetic and noisy, wellness has historically taken a backseat.

In 2024, however, wellness is becoming synonymous with luxury. And luxury is on the up. Where modern ideas of luxury are returning to the realms of ultimate comfort, convenience and taking true ownership of our time, wellness is becoming a priority and lifestyle all tied into one. Even those on the more dubious side of the scale are tapping in. 

So the demand is there, it’s differentiation that will define the competition. Brands will need to find unique answers to the following:

  • How do we convince time-poor people to spend time still and calm in our wellness settings, and then keep them there? And coming back? 
  • How do we introduce notions and practices of wellness to those who are dubious or who see it as a hippy, ’woo-woo’, indulgent act? 

As a design consultancy specialising in brand, CX and subtle innovation, we’re unwavering in the balance of brand and experience. Wellness – now such a crucial part of not only luxury but wider cultural codes – should be woven through the guest experience of any timeless hospitality brand looking to connect to its customers.

But how can hospitality brands connect further than what’s already being done? How can they become the provider of healing, connective experiences that facilitate these moments in ways that are borderline addictive? In ways that leave guests only wanting more.

A Short Overview of Casino Design Theory

In the early 1960s, Bill Friedman – a former problem gambler – started his career as a casino executive in Las Vegas. Later, he transitioned to academia and became a respected authority on casino management and design authoring the influential book: Designing Casinos to Dominate the Competition. In just 629 pages, he outlines his thirteen principles of casino design that reveal the psychology and strategy behind creating an environment that maximises profit and player engagement. 

Since publication, Friedman’s work has become essential reading for anyone seeking insight into the intricate world of casino operations and the psychology behind the layout and design of these hedonistic havens.

From deliberate maze-like layouts encouraging exploration and prolonged play to the absence of natural daylight that blurs the concept of time, Friedman's principles aim to create an immersive and all-encompassing experience. The strategic placement of slot machines, careful selection of colours, and the selective use of lighting are all part of a calculated effort to enhance the overall atmosphere and keep patrons entertained and spending. 

So, if you've ever wondered why casinos feel like carefully crafted labyrinths, Friedman's principles are the architectural secrets behind the scenes – and they’re begging to become the new praxis for wellness.

Casino Venlo, Holland. Photos: Barwerd van der Plas & Fried van der Laar

Unpicking the Secrets of Casino Architecture & What They Mean for Wellness

Friedman’s magnum opus was published in 2000, constructed from decades of research and experience along the Las Vegas Strip, it is the bible of casino design. However, whether we’ve come to grips with it or not, Y2K was nearly 25 years ago and nothing exists in the digital era in a vacuum. 

Friedman’s work has been the strategic playbook for many other designers, psychologists, authors and researchers in the near-quarter-century it’s been available. One such work, published in 2012, is titled Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, in which author Natasha Dow Schüll applies Friedman’s principles in an examination of the relationship between the changing technological configuration of gambling activities and the changing experience of gamblers.

There’s also Friedman’s contemporaries to consider; an article from The New Yorker, also published in 2012, tells the story of Roger Thomas – one of the Strip’s most renowned interior designers. For Thomas, “doing the opposite of what is usual” is his trademark. He was known to flout Freidman’s principles, “deliberately violating every previously accepted rule of casino design”, and it worked. For him. Everyone loves a contrarian when they’re the first.

Having scoured these sources for transferable tidbits (genuinely thousands of pages), our team has distilled seven principles that wellness brands – those bold enough to try something different – should consider in order to create a more captivating experience rooted in the proven processes and philosophies of casino design.

In essence: we’ve done the reading, so you don’t have to.


1. The Zone State & Flowing Suspension 

Much of Schüll’s book centres on the idea of ‘The Machine Zone’ – referring to a mental state that players enter when engrossed in electronic gambling machines, such as the slots. Schüll describes it as a state of deep immersion and focus, where players become disconnected from their surroundings and lose track of time. The machine zone is characterised by a repetitive and rhythmic interaction with the electronic interface of the gambling machine, creating a sense of flow and continuity. 

Until patrons get to these interfaces though, the casino environment acts as the dominant force of guidance. Both architectural choices and ambience design contribute to the influence of people inside the casino, creating the escape coveted by so many who come into these kinds of spaces.

Implications for Wellness:

Wellness offerings must be able to transport individuals from a fast-paced world of constant notifications and demanding immediacy to a space promising slow, calm mindfulness and rest. How can your brand create that ‘clean break’ between the outside world and the ‘zone’ – one of deep immersion, flow and continuity? How might you facilitate an initiation ritual to the space? Either through guided meditations, south baths or any ritual unique to your brand that aids guests in switching off. 

Once guests are in that 'zone', it's vital to keep them there. The following principles are intended to maintain that coveted sense of flow and continuity.

Ergonomic Labyrinth Spa Design - Imagined by MidJourney

2. Happy Imprisonment

Casino designers tend to use “convolution, cues and curvature” to constrict space and control perspective. Slot faces are positioned at the ends of short, narrow aisles, truncating their line of sight; people are drawn through corridors not just by cues but also by curves, as casino-goers tend to resist perpendicular turns – takes too long. While spatial scope and freedom sound appealing in theory, patrons prefer to be contained within the narrowest or smallest space possible – finding comfort in the crush. 

At the same time, however, designers don’t want to encourage disorientation so they integrate a “guided maze” or “ergonomic labyrinth”. According the Friedman, the maze is the antidote to disorientation and the key to cultivating “structured chaos” rather than “inhospitable communication”. 

Schüll notes: “While the structural, decorative, and ambient environment of the casino is certainly geared to influence patrons’ conduct, its modus operandi is to coax rather than restrain, reward rather than punish, steer rather than transform.”

Implications for Wellness:

Spas, like casinos, hold captive audiences ripe for connection. Ask yourself: how can we create a physical journey for guests, enabling discovery, delight and surprise at every ‘guided’ turn? How can we incorporate cues and curves in the architecture and interiors to create the sense of an ongoing exploration?

Even the dubious tend to lean into expert authority so it’s up to brands to embody the expert. Map out the optimal guest journey and embed gentle nudges in the right direction, helping to carve out that path for patrons. Often sprawling spa areas can feel overwhelming with their eight different saunas, sensory pools or steam rooms, leading to choice paralysis and, in turn, patrons not making the most of your offering. Without being experts, guests may not know the ‘right’ routine or how much time to spend in each experience. Here, intentional, subtle design is crucial to elegantly guide guests through the wellness journey at your hotel or resort.

3. At The Nucleus

Speaking of curves, Friedman recommends these pathways begin outside the casino property. As the Strip became increasingly pedestrian, the concept of the curve has been extended to a walking scale. Slight curves where there would otherwise be hard angles and edges had a profound effect on carrying prospective patrons into the casino property – a percentage increase from one to nearly two-thirds.

Inside, curves serve to lessen a person’s awareness of the intentional design choices such as spatial guidance throughout the floor that would ground them in reality rather than in the liminal state between flow and non-flow. Whereas out on the Strip the casino itself is the nucleus, within its walls the sole core is the gambling zones. Pathways to gambling areas “should narrow gradually, so walkers do not notice the approaching transition until they suddenly find themselves immersed in the intimate worlds of gambling action."

Implications for Wellness:

Where is your spa located within your resort/hotel? In many destinations, the spa is situated in a separate area, isolated with no direct exposure to guests, unless they have previously reserved a treatment. When wellness is a core pillar, your offering should be front and centre, immediately and easily drawing individuals in. Brands must bridge wellness spaces with common areas for guests to ‘stumble upon’ as a natural exploration of your property. Or when physically unable, consider a wellness outpost in the central lobby or reception areas – an easy-access place to discuss treatments with a skilled practitioner to find out more.

4. Off The Yellow Brick Road

Similarly, walkways that are excessively broad, overly open, or inconsistent in colour, for example, may encourage players to go directly through a property without exiting into its gaming areas. Friedman calls this phenomenon the "yellow brick road effect." 

The structure of a casino's maze should not overly explain what is ahead, but it should make enough sense to keep traffic moving towards the machines and avoid halting. There should be no stop signs or right angles, only guidance embedded in design cues.

Implications for Wellness:

Similarly to the above, if your wellness offering can’t be anything close to a hub or nucleus, is it placed somewhere for guests to happen upon it naturally? Almost serendipitously? Or is it siloed? Wayfinding is such an integral part of resort design we recommend architecting paths in a way that funnels guests towards key wellness spaces, rather than gliding past them. 

Sensory Neutrality Spa Concept - Imagined by MidJourney

5. Sensory Neutrality 

These cues often come in the form of what Schüll calls ‘sensory atmospherics’; light, colour, temperature, sound and aroma. Individually and collectively, these products have a strong modulating effect on customers' "experiential affect", assisting in both guiding them to the machines and keeping them there.

Once set up at a table or machine, these more atmospheric selections hold more influence than architectural ones. Unsurprisingly, they’re most effective when they function at a level indiscernible to the conscious mind. Communicating with patrons at a subliminal level, Friedman observes, enables them to “simply respond to how they feel.” The goal being that those feelings are ones of comfort, safety, pleasure, exhilaration. 

As is the case with most design principles, minute detail is important here. In terms of temperature, even just one or two degrees too high or too low can drive people out of an area. A balance of atmospherics is most effective when providing a subtle, even-keeled stream of sensory input to patrons' perceptual systems, facilitating the flowing suspension of the zone state.

Implications for Wellness: 

How does your wellness offering translate in sound, lighting, colour and temperature? How might we balance these atmospherics innovatively to create an ambience that facilitates the zone state and flowing suspension? These kinds of cues are far easier to experiment with than the physical structures of a property; a relief considering the difference a degree or two can make. 

Consider things like binaural beats or ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) as well as more tangible selections like materials and decor. How can a space ensure absolute comfort? 

In The New Yorker article mentioned previously, author Jonah Lehrer references a pithy phrase from Walter Benjamin: that gambling “converts time into a narcotic”. The ambience, then, must be cosy enough to accommodate guests for long periods. Roger Thomas became obsessed with chairs early on in his casino design career; the density of cushions and fabric’s weave. He tested types based simply on whether anyone was sitting there. What an easy principle to translate to wellness – figure out what soft furnishings work in your spaces and where. How? Pure, unadulterated observation.

6. Scent & Power To Stay

Easily one of the most underrated yet psychologically influential senses, scent can play a huge role in patron retention and engagement through staying power. 

Slot revenue increased by a full 45% in a gambling area where machines had been subtly treated with a particular pleasing odour, according to a study titled "Effects of Ambient Odours on Slot-Machine Usage in a Las Vegas Casino”. According to the author, some aromas produce an “affective congruence with the situational context,” encouraging longer play; an odour, “when matched to a certain environment,” can “precipitate actions.”

Implications for Wellness:

Having always played a significant role in ‘the spa’ thanks to the preference for aromatherapy and essential oils, scent is a wonderful way to express a brand in a non-tangible way. Again, ask your brand guardians what your brand’s very own ‘scent’ would smell like. Could you infuse it throughout your wellness offering to create a distinctive yet zen environment that guests don’t want to leave?

'Collective Anonymity' Spa Design - Imagined by MidJourney

7. Collective Anonymomity

Friedman states that the main goal of casino design is to create "secluded, private playing worlds" for machine gamblers by arranging "the spatial relationships of surrounding areas, the shape and feel of the structural box that encloses the setting." "Gamblers want to be alone in their own private, intimate world from the surrounding hubbub that initially drew them in," he observes, even if they prefer to wager in busy casinos.

Schüll writes, “While modernist buildings sought to facilitate communitas through high ceilings, wide open space, bountiful lighting and windows, and a minimalist, uncluttered aesthetic, casinos’ low, immersive interiors, blurry spatial boundaries, and mazes of alcoves accommodated “crowds of anonymous individuals without explicit connection with each other.” Like other popular communal spaces, casinos catered to the desires of everyday Americans to be “together and yet separate.”

Implications for Wellness:

How have you crafted moments of privacy throughout your offering? As individuals seek subspaces that enable them to be alone and truly peaceful in their own ‘zone’, what role can your brand experience play in facilitating this? Could these subspaces be spread across your property, as small nooks or alcoves just off communal areas? Could you zone by mood, or practice? Solo meditation vs group yoga? In what ways can you strike a balance between solitude and community in various areas of your destination? That’s all it boils down to… exacting balance.

Raising The Stakes in Wellness

The intersection of gambling and wellness isn’t an obvious one – at all. But with wellness becoming both synonymous and ubiquitous within the world of luxury, forward-thinking brands must be thinking laterally. How these guides and principles come to life in spaces dedicated to wellness depends entirely on the brand building them. So we thought it best to end where businesses ought to begin: with a question.

What does your brand offer by way of wellness that’s worthy of addiction?

Then let's build it.

Matter Of Form is a design consultancy specialising in brand strategy, CX and digital innovation for timeless brands. Design what's next by getting in touch with one of our consultants via

MOF Team

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