Documentary – The Psychology of Slots


Poker machines, or “Pokies”, have been called “electronic morphine” and “the crack cocain of gambling”.

What is it about Pokies that makes them so addicitve. The ABC documentary Ka-Ching! Pokie Nation takes you on a journey inside the slot machines.

For a time in the late 90s, a group of Sydney businessmen were the toast of Las Vegas.

They worked for the North Ryde poker machine manufacturer Aristocrat. “And they really were like the aristocrats of these gaming conferences,” says Natasha Schull, a professor in anthropology at MIT. “They were treated like kings.”

The company had pioneered a new kind of poker machine. It encouraged people to bet smaller amounts. It paid out more often. The design broke all the rules – and made Aristocrat billions.

Today, the model the company introduced in 1987 – the video multi-line multiplier – is the most popular in the United States, where it is still called an “Australian-format machine”.

Building a better mousetrap

In the 1930s, not long after the first rudimentary slot machines began appearing in the United States, the behavioural psychologist BF Skinner was conducting experiments with rats. He would put them inside specially designed boxes with a tube and button. The rats soon discerned the pattern: each time they pressed the button, a pellet of food would drop.

Then Skinner changed the rules. Sometimes pressing the button would deliver food; others times it wouldn’t. The animal had no way of knowing when. It would stand at the button entranced – sometimes neglecting to eat or drink – pressing it over, and over again.

Skinner believed this peculiar behaviour could be induced in humans, too. Ever caught yourself scrolling endlessly through Twitter or Instagram, barely registering what flicks by? Or been overcome by a sharp urge to check Facebook?

Since social media was still about 65 years away, Skinner instead likened his experiments to slot machines. Random payouts – what Skinner called “variable reinforcement schedules” – kept punters fixated, straining to detect the machine’s pattern, a jackpot always potentially one push away.

On the mechanical poker machines that proliferated until the 1980s, designers had relatively few options for “reinforcing” gamblers. They either won or lost. Winning too often was bad for business; too many losses and the punter walked away.

In her groundbreaking 2013 book Addiction By Design, Schull writes that advances in technology unleashed a slew of new options for reinforcement. One technique, known as clustering, used “a disproportionate number of virtual stops mapped to blank spaces just above or below the jackpot symbols”.

“This ensures that [the jackpot symbols] will appear more often above or below the payline than they would by chance alone, enhancing the ‘near miss’ sensation among players,” she writes.

Designers set about tinkering with the pokies’ display and sounds to keep punters in the chair, what the industry terms maximising “time on device”; what the chairman of Aristocrat, Len Ainsworth, describes in Ka-Ching as “building a better mousetrap”.

Congratulations! You lost

In 1987, Aristocrat introduced a machine that would become the standard model in Australian pubs and clubs, and eventually sweep Vegas: the video multi-line multiplier.

Instead of rewarding combinations on just one line, this new machine let players make winning combinations diagonally, vertically and, on later models, in zig-zags across the screen.

Punters were also encouraged to bet lower sums – one or two cents – across these different possible lines, winning a little back on virtually every spin.

“The perception is that you’re winning all the time,” says Randy Adams, a game designer quoted by Schull. “When you’re really not – you’re putting 25 nickels in and winning 15 back, 45 in and 30 back, over and over.”

With each tiny win lights flash and the machine dings happily. “And the human reward system interprets each of those events, even if it’s a large net loss, as wins,” Schull says.

“Instead of riding long, dry spells to win a jackpot, you get lots of dribble wins and play longer.”

Machines such as Aristocrat’s have proliferated in the United States and Australia in the past 25 years. Here, around 55% of the money spent on gambling each year is poured into the pokies (and almost invariably into “Australian-format” machines, now common across the industry).

A highly engineered experience, the pokies appeal to a fundamentally different player than traditional games such as roulette or blackjack, Schull says.

She spent nearly three decades immersed in Las Vegas, meeting hundreds of regular slot machine players. “What I learned is, it’s not about winning,” she says.

“What trumps winning is just continuing. Players just want to stay in ‘the zone’. What these newer machines give them is not excitement, it’s a steady ding, ding, ding, ding – a sense of the same thing over and over.”

Michael Shackleford, a Las Vegas-based gambling expert who has designed dozens of slot machines, agrees: “Experts in the field say there are two types of compulsive gamblers. The kind who are addicted to the action, and they’re likely to play games like roulette. They’re adrenaline junkies,” he tells Guardian Australia.

“The other type are playing more to escape reality, whatever it is in their life they don’t like. And when they sit in front of that slot machine, they forget all of their problems. It’s just them and the spinning reels, a hypnotic state.”

Thank you for gambling responsibly

Unpacking the deliberate way that poker machines are designed to entice players is the point of Ka-Ching, the last work of advertising guru Neil Lawrence before he died in July.

The idea is to reframe the way the public conceives of poker machines and Australia’s 400,000 problems gamblers – 65% of whom are addicted to the pokies.

Currently, argue public health advocates such as Charles Livingstone, the government and gambling companies push a “gamble responsibly” message – the implication being that poker machines are inherently safe, except for a minority of irresponsible players.

As Livingstone has put it, that message “transfers responsibility for gambling problems to end users rather than those profiting from the dangerous product”.

With the focus squarely on gamblers, it is little surprise the past five years have seen regulations on the pokies relaxed across the country.

Lawrence’s documentary, drawing heavily on Schull’s work, aims to shift the focus back onto a machine they argue is highly addictive – and designed to be.


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