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Casino Guide

The Psychology behind Slot Machines

In the Beginning

Slot machines (or fruit machines) have been around since the 1800s, though they didn’t quite work with the same mechanisms and dynamics compared to what they use today. Originally these machines contained 5 drums which held 50 face value cards, with gameplay paying a close resemblance to poker. Players would insert a coin, pull the lever, then wait for the drums to stop spinning and land on a card. The idea was to achieve a strong winning hand in order to receive a prize, but because these machines had no way of paying out at the time, winnings were often provided in the form of free drinks, cigars, and occasionally women!

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However, outcomes were more limited in comparison to slot machine probabilities today – so operators would often remove 1 or 2 cards from the deck to increase the house edge. Then, a few years later, the machine was redeveloped to incorporate an automatic payout system. This is when the cards were eliminated, and unique symbols including diamonds, hearts, spades, horseshoes and liberty bells were introduced instead.

Fast-forward to 1976, when the first true video slot machine came on the scene; which was manufactured by a company in Las Vegas called Fortune Coin. The first prototype was featured at the Hilton Hotel, also situated in Vegas, and used an old, modified 19-inch Sony TV to display the game. A year later, these machines became hugely popular in casinos and could be found practically anywhere on the Las Vegas Strip.

In 1996, slot machines reached another new milestone, when WMS Industries Inc. released their machine “Reel ‘Em.” It was the first video machine to feature a bonus round, which triggered a completely different screen to display. These rounds also provided players the opportunity to receive additional payouts.

Slot Machines Go Online

The 90’s was the era when everything changed. Anything which could be optimized, was moved online – including casinos. But in the beginning, only classic casino-style games such as roulette and blackjack were available to play, and slots were added shortly after. Though these virtual fruit machines were uncannily similar to land-based slots (same types of symbols and number of reels), the fact that they were online-based enabled developers to customize them with different themes and more exotic layouts. They could also create different game features, bonus rounds and set their own jackpots. These innovative new changes is what really saw the slot machine industry become what it is today. And slot machines alone constitute more than 70% of a casino’s average revenue. 

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The Psychological Aspects behind Slots

An excellent way of summing up the psychology of slot machines: Are you playing slots or are they playing you? Because in many circumstances this is a very true and valid statement. Many gamblers have lost their souls to slot machines over the years due to their highly-addictive nature. But why would someone develop a slot habit over a blackjack habit for example? Well, of course it’s just as easy to get addicted to any kind of casino game, BUT slots are particularly enslaving because they have been designed that way – that means bright flashing lights, loud and eccentric noises, and hypnotizing spinning reels. All of these things combined can easily captivate the player and make them feel ultra-excited about the prospect of winning.

It doesn’t just stop at slots either, these measures can be seen throughout all brick-and-mortar casinos, and they are even more notorious for doing this than real money online casinos. Ever wondered why the carpets always have these vibrant and mesmerizing patterns? It’s all part of the show! Along with the fact that casinos are built with labyrinth-like layouts and generally have no windows or clocks inside them either.

On top of an abundance of noises and lights when it comes to slots – their names can also heavily impact whether or not a player chooses to sit down and spend time and money on it. Especially if they are themed around a popular film or TV series, person, place, or event. When the Game of Thrones and Jurassic Park slots came out, they gained an immense amount of public traction, as did the Elvis Presley slot machine when it appeared in casinos throughout Las Vegas.

 “Slot-holm Syndrome”

Last year one highly successful business man called Tony Franklin lost thousands of pounds to a slot machine just 2 weeks before Christmas. In just 56 minutes, he had managed to burn through £3,500 – which was supposed to fund Christmas presents for his children and pay off some of his existing debt. But it’s not the first and certainly not the worst time the 43-year old has flushed his wages down the pan. Over 2 decades Franklin reckons he has lost around £2 million; made up of pre-approved loans, overdrafts, bouncing checks, and opening several mobile contracts fraudulently. All the money he made went straight towards feeding his gambling habit.

That’s just one case indicating how easy it is to fall into the addiction trap when it comes to slots and gambling in general. There are countless of other stories out there too, but this one triggered a lot of talk among UK gaming regulators and health authorities when it was publicized. A report was carried out to determine just how serious problem gambling was in the country at the time, and councils in East London have even been calling upon bookmakers to lower their stakes from £100 to £2 in slot machines, in a bid to combat the issue.  

A spokesman for the Campaign for Fairer Gambling, Matt Zarb-Cousin said at the time: “The bookmakers have been trying to convince government that they can deal with problem gambling to stave off further regulation. But it would be frankly delusional to believe the training of staff to interact with customers is enough to address this issue. Limiting harm means limiting losses, so reducing the stakes on addictive products like fixed odds betting terminals is crucial.”

The Association of British Bookmakers, who are responsible for organizing the code of conduct, declined to comment when the case was brought up for investigation.

Manipulation beyond Casino Slots

One of the most interesting cases where slot psychology really makes sense, was when a Harvard University professor called B.F Skinner conducted an experiment using pigeons. The birds were put into a box with a food container which was controlled by a lever. When the pigeons pressed the lever, food was given, however; this didn’t happen every time. Sometimes food would come out and other times it wouldn’t – as such, the birds became more persistent in pressing the lever because they knew there was a possibility they would be fed. So when it comes to slot machines, the idea is to reward the player but not too often – because if they won every time, they could easily become bored and lose the motivation to wager any more money, and on the other end of the scale, if they never receive a reward or the opportunity to win, they will just become frustrated and give up entirely. So hypothetically, it’s all about a balance between the two.

Is it Likely to Improve or Get Worse?

Although slot technology may become more advanced in a few years, that doesn’t necessarily mean how they are regulated will. The fact is, slots are the cash cow of the casino and betting industry, and it’s more than just the operators or developers who get a share of that revenue. So unless officials are prepared to take a cut and overrule the current problems surrounding gambling addiction, as well as the way these machines are operated – it is very unlikely we will see any improvement without enough support or people backing the cause.


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