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Slot Psychology

When trying to understand the appeal of slot machines—for some players, it’s more like a powerful grip—there are a number of factors to take into account. Despite the endless array of themes, sounds, graphics and celebrity endorsements, the internal mechanisms of the games are the same, and so are the underlying motivations for players.

Unlike other casino games, every wager made on a slot machine holds the possibility of a huge jackpot. In the case of progressive games, where prizes routinely rise into the multimillions, your pocket change can literally make you rich within a matter of seconds. The odds against this happening are astronomical, of course, but even that faint glimmer of hope is enough to keep people playing and praying. Lotteries are based upon the same premise.

“The action is fun, and the possibility of a big win is always there,” says Arthur Reber, a gaming author and professor of psychology. “Table games such as blackjack require decisions, and some of them require learning complex strategies. Others, like baccarat, have arcane rituals that slot players find intimidating. Slots are totally nonthreatening; I believe this is the key factor.”

Another factor is the nonstop pace. When playing a table game, there is downtime between each wager, whether it’s the spin of the roulette wheel or the hand of blackjack being played out. With slots, the only delay is the few seconds it takes the reels to stop spinning. Push the button, take another shot. Players can tune out for hours on end this way, completely engrossed in the game.

In psychological terms, slot machine play seems to stimulate certain pleasure centers of the brain. “There are reasons for suspecting that a variety of neural pathways and centers are involved in risk taking in general, and gambling in particular,” says Reber. “They’re usually ones that are linked to particular neurotransmitters that are associated with pleasure, like the dopaminergic systems. The cortical areas involved tend to be the same ones that are activated in other risky endeavors, like sky diving.”

How much of this do game manufacturers take into account when designing their games? It isn’t known whether “subconscious” elements have ever been incorporated into game design, but the reality is that the basic nature of slot machines is more than enough to attract a never-ending stream of players. The fancy graphics, sounds and special effects are really just the icing on the cake; the core appeal is that they offer the opportunity, however remote, to get rich quick.

Games are also programmed to frequently disperse small wins, and feature clever bonus rounds to keep players stimulated and entertained. In fact, they’ve become so entertaining that you have can have plenty of fun without winning. Modern slots have been fine-tuned to a point where you can walk away having lost your money and still feel that you’ve been entertained.

As for the few players who become hooked on slots to an unhealthy degree, Reber says, “It’s virtually unheard of to find a problem gambler with no other form of psychopathology. They invariably show a variety of other dysfunctions, most commonly drug and alcohol abuse, antisocial personalities, sociopathy and bipolar disorder.”

Just be aware that while the speed of play is one of the most exciting elements, it’s also the one that will wipe you out if you’re not careful. Consider that the Dutch parliament once reportedly had a 12-hour debate about whether the speed of the reels in their machines should be 3.5 or 3.6 seconds. That differential, a tenth of a second, can mean hundreds of thousands of dollars in added revenue when you add up a number of machines over a period of years.

This is why a slot machine is designed to be played fast. It’s also why slot experts agree on one critical piece of advice for players: Slow down. Don’t play at the casino’s preferred speed; play at your own. By taking it a little easier, you’ll be able to spend more time at the machines and get the most entertainment value.


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