The headquarters of Scientific Games looks like any other office building on this green stretch of industrial-park suburbia, 20 minutes...

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ALPHARETTA, Ga. — The headquarters of Scientific Games looks like any other office building on this green stretch of industrial-park suburbia, 20 minutes outside Atlanta. It’s basically a parking lot, five flagpoles and room for 900 employees. But with a security pass and a chaperone, you can get a tour of the place, and eventually that will lead to a noisy, bustling factory unseen from the street.

“Pretty amazing, isn’t it?” Steve Charles shouts one recent afternoon.

Charles oversees production, and at the moment he’s standing near a printing press about as long as a football field and 12 feet wide. Close by are what look like a dozen towers, all of which come close to grazing the ceiling.

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Get closer, and you realize each tower is a series of thick spools stacked one on top of the other — roll after roll of instant, scratch-off lottery tickets, in perforated sheets. They’re festooned with zany fonts and phrases like “Jumbo Cash!” and “Pay Day.”

“This is just four days of work,” Charles yells, looking up.

During the course of a year, more than 17 billion scratch tickets will be stamped out in this plant, enough to girdle the globe at the equator 44 times.

About 70 percent of all the cards sold in this country are designed and manufactured here, then sent to state lotteries, then to stores, where they are snapped up in growing numbers.

Last year, we dropped $22 billion on scratch cards. That’s more than we spent on movie tickets and video games combined.

Apparently, we’re just getting warmed up. State lotteries say the sweet spot of this market is pricier cards with bigger jackpots — $10 and $20 cards, and million-dollar payoffs are common. Fifty-dollar scratch tickets will likely debut by the end of the year.

Some of these games are designed to take 15 minutes to play. Many offer booty that makes cash seem dull.

Play the “Wheel of Fortune” card, and you could wind up with an audition on the show. Eight winners have scratched their way onto the air.

Licensing deals popular

And through licensing deals, celebrities, pop icons and other well-known images are turning up on tickets. Elvis has a card (“a hunka hunka instant love,” it says in ads) as do NBA players, TV Guide, Monopoly, an assortment of Ford trucks, the Pink Panther, Pac-Man and the “I Love Lucy” show.

“State lotteries love it, because it’s more interesting to promote the NBA than tick-tack-toe,” says Steve Saferin, the Scientific Games marketer who pioneered the licensed card concept.

The dark side of all this is that for a small percent of scratchers, the cards are a life-wrecking problem. For many more, they’re just a problem.

“One guy, he’d go into the store and literally buy tickets by the pound,” says Ed Looney of the New Jersey Compulsive Gambling Council. “I mean, they’d put the tickets on a scale and weigh them. Then he’d get in his car and scratch for hours.”

But big-time flameouts are pretty rare, says Looney. Scratch cards don’t mint many gazillionaires, either, or turn up as plot devices on “Law & Order.”

They’re one of those low-profile crazes that seem to take hold while nobody is looking. One day, you’re at the store and you realize there are 25 scratch games for sale. Or you discover that your 13-year-old niece plays once a week. (Tsk, tsk. Must be over 18 to scratch.)

Or you find yourself rubbing the latex coating off a card for a game called “Twice Lucky” and irrationally thinking, “Wow. I almost won.” Which makes you buy another.

Some psychologists who’ve studied gambling say scratch cards, like all government lotteries, are basically a tax on the poor; the poorer you are, the more likely you are to play.

At minimum, they are a massive transfer of wealth, from the unlucky to the fortunate few and to everyone who doesn’t play. But even among detractors, the tickets inspire a certain amount of awe. They’re designed with an uncanny grasp of what makes people fritter away money on a losing cause.

We’re talking about a consumer product that generates about the same amount of money as Coca-Cola, and it hardly existed 25 years ago.

There’s a bodega in Manhattan’s TriBeCa neighborhood called Good Luck Candy and Tobacco, where dozens of different scratch games cascade down from a shelf behind the candy counter. Good luck, it turns out, is rare. All the players who trickle in one recent evening say they’ve hit a $40 winner, or better, but no one claims to be in the black.

Not Jesus Velasquez, a young guy with thick glasses who left with a card called “Word Game.” “I’ll buy $2 games now and then,” he says. “I’m definitely down. But I’ve got a friend at work who spends a lot on these tickets. He’s way down. And he can’t stop.”

Asking scratch-lottery marketing pioneer Jimmy O’Brien, or executives at Scientific Games, how they feel about problem scratchers is like asking a Ford executive how he feels about drunken drivers. Like a lot of products, this one is harmful when misused, they say. And they prefer to focus on the unimpeachable causes, such as education, that are funded by billions in scratch revenue.

Without question, scratch cards are insidiously good at delivering the sort of thrills that keep gamblers coming back for more. Losing tickets are designed to produce what’s known in the business as “heartstoppers,” a moment when it seems as though you are on the verge of winning.

It’s an illusion, of course. If you scratch just enough to reveal the serial number on any card, you can hand it back to the retailer, who will scan it and tell you if you won.

The cards pay off frequently — about one in four yields something — and at random, which turns out to be a devastating combination, as the pioneering behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner learned years ago.

In experiments, Skinner taught rats to feed themselves by putting them in a box with a lever that, when pressed, dropped in food pellets. He discovered if you rewarded the rats at random intervals and in varying quantities, they would hop on that lever long after you shut off the flow of food.

“It was hard to get them to stop, actually,” says Nancy Petry, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut and author of a book on pathological gambling. “Scratch cards are built on the exact same principles of behavior. Make the prizes frequent and unscheduled and vary the sizes, and people will keep gambling.”

Thrill of slots

It’s the formula honed by the makers of slot machines, the biggest profit center of nearly every casino. In a way, what O’Brien and the rest of the lottery business did was figure out a way to offer the thrills and perils of a one-armed bandit in a 7-Eleven. And like the slots, the fine-tuning on scratch tickets extends right down to the gaudy art on the front.

“Fat Cat is one of our best sellers,” says Dennis Miller, Scientific Games’ director of marketing, pointing to a ticket that features a cartoon of an overweight feline. “You take a fat cat and put him in a tux or give him a cowboy hat, people love it. We don’t know why.”

Scientific Games is, among other things, a lab where scratch marketing is constantly honed. It’s a little bit art, a little bit science, and every state with a lottery is forever looking for new ways to separate players from their money. What’s sold is hope, in the guise of an impulse buy.

The day Steve Charles gave that tour of the plant at Scientific Games, the press was cranking out cards at a speed so fast you couldn’t tell what was being printed. The work in progress was tickets for the Illinois lottery, featuring a strikingly irreverent cartoon of Abraham Lincoln, grinning like a drunk. The game was called “Change Your Life.”