Rise of the machines (Part 1)
Is there a relationship between playing video games and slot machines?
Posted Feb 18, 2013
Back in 1987, I began my PhD on slot machine addiction, and one thing that I began to notice as I spent the first few hours of doing observational research in amusement arcades that there were many similarities between arcade slot machines and arcade video game machines. It wasn’t until 1991 that I finally did a comparative analysis of slot machine gambling and video game playing and published my observations in the Journal of Adolescence. In the intervening years I have published many papers examining the commonalities and similarities between these two behaviors and it wouldn’t surprise me if I am still writing about these issue in many years to come.
My initial insights into the existence of video game addiction arose out of the research I had been doing on slot machine addiction. Both slot machines and video game machines may be considered under the generic label of “amusement machines”. The main difference between the playing of video games and the playing of slot machines are that arcade video games are typically played to accumulate as many points as possible whereas slot machines are played (i.e., gambled upon) to accumulate money. In my 1991 paper, I (somewhat paradoxically) claimed that playing an arcade video game could be considered as a non-financial form of gambling.
Both types of machine require insertion of a coin to play, although the playing time on a slot machine is usually much less than on a video game machine if starting with the same amount of money. This is because on video games the outcome is almost solely due to skill, whereas on slot machines the outcome is much more likely to be a product of chance. However, the general playing philosophy of both slot machine players and video game players is to stay on the machine for as long as possible using the least amount of money. I have also argued that regular slot machine players play with money rather than for it, and that winning money is a means to an end (i.e., to stay on the machine as long as possible). This is exactly what arcade video game players do too.
Besides the generic labeling, their geographical juxtaposition, and the philosophy for playing, it could be argued that on both a psychological and behavioral level, slot machine gambling and video game playing share many similarities (e.g., similar demographic differences such as age and gender breakdown [in the UK at least], similar reinforcement schedules, similar potential for “near miss” opportunities, similar structural characteristics involving the use of light and sound effects, similarities in skill perception, similarities in the effects of excessive play, etc.). The most probable reason the two forms have rarely been seen as conceptually similar is because video game playing does not involve the winning of money (or something of financial value) and therefore cannot be classed as a form of gambling.
However, the next generation of slot machines is starting to use video game graphics and technology. While many of these relate to traditional gambling games (e.g., roulette, poker, blackjack, etc.) there are plans for developing video gambling games in which people would win money based on their game scores. This obviously gives an idea of the direction that slot machines and the gaming industry are heading.
Furthermore, there are a growing number of researchers who suggest that video games share some common ground with slot machines including the potential for dependency. In 1995, Dr Sue Fisher and myself edited a special issue of the Journal of Gambling Studies and wrote a paper examining trends in slot machine gambling. We pointed out that arcade video games and slot machines shared some important structural characteristics, these being:
• The requirement of response to stimuli that is predictable and governed by the software loop.
• The requirement of total concentration and hand–eye coordination.
• Rapid span of play negotiable to some extent by the skill of the player (more marked in video games).
• The provision of aural and visual rewards for a winning move (e.g., flashing lights, electronic jingles).
• The provision of an incremental reward for a winning move (points or money) that reinforces “correct” behavior.
• Digitally displayed scores of “correct behavior” (in the form of points or money accumulated).
• The opportunity for peer group attention and approval through com- petition.
As with excessive slot machine playing, excessive video game playing partly comes about by the partial reinforcement effect. This is a critical psychological ingredient of video game addiction whereby the reinforcement is intermittent – that is, people keep responding in the absence of reinforcement hoping that another reward is just around the corner. Knowledge about the partial reinforcement effect gives the video game designer an edge in designing appealing games. Magnitude of reinforcement is also important. Large rewards lead to fast responding and greater resistance to extinction – in short to more “addiction.” Instant reinforcement is also satisfying.
Video games rely on multiple reinforcements (i.e., what I call the “kitchen sink” approach) in that different features might be differently rewarding to different people. Success on video games comes from a variety of sources and the reinforcement might be intrinsic (e.g., improving a personal high score, beating a friend’s high score, putting a name on the “hall of fame,” mastering the machine) or extrinsic (e.g., peer admiration). As early as the 1980s, Dr. Thomas Malone reported that video game engagement is positively correlated to (i) a presence or absence of goals, (ii) the availability of automatic computer scores, (iii) the presence of audio effects, (iv) the random quality of the games, and (v) the degree to which rapid reaction times enhance game scores.
Keep an eye out for Part 2 in my next blog.