Psychology of casino games: Dr Mark Griffiths interview part five

Last updated: 30th October 2014 at 4:38pm
Psychology of casino games: Dr Mark Griffiths interview part five

In the fifth part of RightCasino’s interview with Dr Mark Griffiths, we discuss the psychology of particular casino games . What is it about the design of slot machines that keeps us coming back for one more spin? Why do we pick lucky numbers at the roulette wheel? The UK’s pre-eminent expert on gambling psychology explains…

Interview transcript

Right Casino: In the next set of questions we’re going to focus on specific casino games and particular gambling activities. Now you’ve done a lot of research surrounding the psychology of different casino games and one of your first projects involved studying slot games. Could you please summarise your key findings for us?

Dr Griffiths: Well I’ve never stopped researching slot machines. I’ve published papers on slot machines almost every year. My perspective comes from the factors when I first started I was looking at to what extent slot machines were being played by children, to what effect slot machines had on children. Most of my early studies showed that slot machines were the only commercial activity that children could gamble on. A small proportion did seem to have addictive-like patterns that you would find in either more traditional addictions or other types of gambling addictions that you find in adults. I’ve never stopped researching slot machines.

 

Now my research, I look at the individual factors, I look at the situational factors, the structural factors. What interests me most now is I think most people realise that there are always individual risk factors within a person themselves that make them more vulnerable to develop addictions of one sort or another. People talk about things like addictive personality, which I don’t believe at all because I don’t think there is a set of personality traits that predicts addiction and addiction alone.

However there are certainly predisposing factors. We know there are genetic and biological factors, okay? Whether it’s a slot machine player or whether it’s horse race gambler for instance if you have a particular set of genetic markers. There’s a gene called the DRD2 gene, nothing to do with Star Wars but it’s one of these genes that is implicated in a lot of impulsive behaviours.

For instance a really classic study was done back in the 1990s. It showed that basically 50% of pathological gamblers had this particular genetic variant and that 25% of non-pathological gamblers had this particular genetic variant. There are two implications from that. One is that even if you haven’t got the gene, you might still become a problem gambler because 50% of problem gamblers didn’t have this genetic variation. It also shows that even if you’ve got this genetic variant it doesn’t mean that you’re automatically going to become a problem gambler. There are lots of other factors as well and of course I’m very much interested in what are the other psychological, structural, situational factors that develop.

Now when it comes to slot machines you hear this phrase that slot machines, fixed odds betting terminals, video lottery terminals, poker machines in Australia, people use this phrase that they’re the crack cocaine of gambling. What they mean by that is that there’s a high association basically between slot machines and problem gambling.

Now I wrote a paper this year and I wrote that basically the type of game is irrelevant in terms of developing addiction. People thought how could you say that Mark? There’s all this evidence that is quite clearly it has to do with game. I said no it’s not to do with the game. It’s to do with the structural characteristics.

What my research on slot machines has shown is that the single most important factor in terms of whether people develop a problem or not. If you’re that vulnerable or susceptible person. If you’ve got that biological genetic predisposition. If you have a particular set of psychological characteristics, the biggest single factor that will dictate whether you become addicted to a particular game is even frequency of the activity. What I mean by that is that typical slot machine in a pub you can gamble twelve times a minute on a typical pub slot machine.

Take the national lottery. You can only gamble or at least find out the result if you gamble twice a week on the national lottery. I’ve never met anybody addicted to the national lottery. You can’t become addicted to something that you’re only rewarded for twice a week. You can buy lots of tickets, but you can only find out the result of your gamble twice a week. Unless you’re some bizarre person that gets a buzz from actually buying the lottery ticket in and of itself, is you can’t become addicted to a discontinuous gambling activity. That’s why I’ve never come across anybody addicted to football pools. I’ve never come across anybody addicted to a bi-weekly national lottery. But what you tend to find is that activities like horserace gambling or sports betting where you can gamble again and again and again and again. They are the activities that tend to be problematic.

Now the thing is people have looked at the research and said we find – what you find in all the research studies is that slot machines have a high association with problem gambling. People say well it must be the game then. But the thing is I could design you the safest slot machine in the world and I guarantee no one will ever become addicted to it. The only thing I would do is just change the structural characteristics and make sure that people could only press the button twice a week. No one will ever become addicted to the slot machine.

Now you say I might be being facetious. But the thing is I could design you the most addictive lottery game. We can take the lottery game as it is now, the bi-weekly game and instead of having the draw every twice a week we’ll have the draw every two minutes. Now there are games like that. It’s called Kino in the US. They have a fast action lottery draw where the draws are every two minutes. They’re often played in post offices, supermarkets. I can tell you now people that play those types of games do develop problems if you’re vulnerable or susceptible.

So it’s not the game. It’s not to demonise fixed odds betting terminals or to demonise slot machines. It’s about the structural characteristics of how you design. If you design basically a high event frequency game and that can be a lottery, and that can be a slot machine. If you’re vulnerable or susceptible there’s a high risk you would develop a problem with that particular product.

Right Casino: I suppose the popular high variance online slot machines where you can put on also spin and…

Dr Griffiths: Exactly. The event frequency there can be thirty or forty times a minute. I remember – this is a true story actually. In 1996 my work was used in the Dutch Parliament to decide whether slot machines, the spin of the reel should be three point five or three point six seconds because at the time obviously Holland had Guilders then instead of Euro. But of course the machine industry wanted it to be three point five seconds because obviously that tenth of a second in terms of the money they can make, the faster you make the reel spin the more money you make in the end. Because all those tenths of a second add up when you times it by the thousands and thousands of slot machines times the numbers of players playing them every single day across the year. That’s just a tenth of a second.

But like you say, I’ve seen online slot machines can gamble thirty or forty times a minute. Now if you tie up event frequency with high accessibility. So the thing we also know about is that problem gambling is very much related to the opportunities to gamble within a particular area. So if you’ve got a high event frequency activity with a highly accessible product, those two factors alone if you’re vulnerable or susceptible have a major impact in terms of developing a problem.

We know that again, I just gave you the example before. The highest prevalence of problem gambling in the world is Las Vegas because it’s the most saturated environment and it’s got gambling product. Of course now we all have Las Vegas in our front room in terms of the tablets, mobiles, Internet that we gamble on. We’ve got three thousand online gambling sites that we can go to at a push of a button. Effectively we now do have that high accessibility.

Now if you added another structural characteristic, jackpot size, we know that huge jackpots get people to gamble in the first place. That’s a structural characteristic that is usually associated with acquisition. Getting people to gamble. We know on rollover weeks on the lottery far more people gamble when there’s a rollover week. So if I wanted to design you the most addictive activity I’d design you a slot machine that has a chance of winning a million pounds per spin in a highly accessible area.

Of course where do you find those things? You find them in Las Vegas, Atlantic City. We’re talking about situational and structural factors coming together. Then you start to throw in lots of other things.

We recently did a review and we found over seventy different structural characteristics within a slot machine. Another really important one is something that we call psychology of the near miss. In all slot machines, most scratch cards, in fact most games have what we call near miss experiences. Typically on a slot machine the reels are lined up – sorry. The reels are there and if you match three fruit symbols in a line, win a prize. Reel spins lemon. Reel spins lemon. Reel spins lemon just above or just below the pay line and that’s a near miss.

The thing we found in my research for instance, in my own research I used to measure people’s heart rates while they were actually gambling. We used to get them to think aloud while they were gambling. What came through very clearly from that is that people get aroused not only when they won but also when they experienced these near misses. Or we also found gamblers start to create near misses themselves. So if I put a match, if I put a bet on tomorrow that England are going to beat Germany and it ends up being one-nil and it was a penalty that was given to Germany. As a hard-core gambler I might say I would have won my money if that referee hadn’t given that stupid decision in the sixty seventh minute to award a penalty. I turn what was clearly a losing experience, I validate and I turn it into a one where I would have won if nothing happened.

So the question I’m always asked by people why do gamblers consistently gamble if they’re constantly losing? Gamblers don’t constantly lose. Gamblers constantly nearly win and that nearly winning is physiologically reinforcing. That’s why slot machines are the perfect example of giving lots and lots of near miss experiences. They’re preprogramed to do that. Scratch cards in terms of the way they’re designed.

Any time you scratch off a scratch card you might scratch off the £25 quid, £25, you have another four things to scratch off hoping that £25 will come up. It doesn’t come up but you still felt aroused that you nearly won on that. So that’s a classic – when you’ve got high event frequency and you couple it with near miss and then you add in the sounds of the coins dropping into the tray, that acoustic, whether it’s music playing or whatever.

All these things have an impact in terms of changing your psychology. For instance, I did a lot of research in the late 90s early 2000s on the Simpsons slot machines. Here is this – what happened, when I first started researching the slot machines if you looked at the names of slot machines back in 1986 - 1987, they were called things like Cash Point, Cash Line, Action Bank, Piggy Bank, Money Belt. These are all names that suggested this is where you can get money from, not where you can lose it. There were names where I would call acoustically attractive names - Nifty Fifty, Naughty But Nice, Reel Fun spelled R-E-E-L. Basically all the machines obviously I don’t think naming has any impact on addiction but it’s an acquisitional factor that might get you to play.

But of course what we saw over the 2000s is that most slot machines started going over to basically using the psychology of familiarity. So you associate your slot machine with a popular TV program or popular film, popular game like Trivial Pursuit or Monopoly. Popular videogame like Sonic the Hedgehog or whatever. All the machines were linked and what they were basically saying is that you know something about me already before you’ve even played. You’ve played Sonic or you’ve played Monopoly or you’ve watched Coronation Street or East Enders.

You walk into a pub and you hear the [humming Simpsons theme song] – you hear the Simpsons theme tune. You immediately know what it is. Here’s the Simpsons. It appeals right across gender, age, I mean they’re just universally popular.

There were at least five different Simpson’s slot machines. You put your money in a Simpsons slot machine and Crusty the Clown says ‘I knew you’d come crawling back.’ A bit of humour. You’re just at a point where you’ve gambled your money and you lose, Homer shouts out ‘Doh!’ just at the point you lose. Reduces the guilt about the fact that you just lost.

Loads of machines use verbal interaction cues, use humour as a way of minimising the fact that you’re losing. It’s just brilliant psychology that’s used in the design of machines. Now for me it all comes back to the single most important factor is event frequency. It’s how often you can gamble on that product. If you can’t gamble on that product regularly you can’t develop a problem. Again it’s a really important point. It’s not the slot machines or fixed odds betting terminals are more addictive it’s that they are games that are designed with high event frequencies and that’s associated with problem gambling.

Right Casino: In your research you’ve drawn parallels between slot game and videogame addiction. I wondered if maybe you could elaborate on that connection?

Dr Griffiths: Yes, what became very clear when I started my PhD was when I was going into amusement arcades a lot of my original research was just pure observational research. What I started to notice is that there wasn’t a great deal of difference between the typical adolescent slot machine player and the typical adolescent videogame player. The only real difference is that obviously videogames tend to be far more skilful than slot machines. I describe in a 1991 paper - I got lambasted at the time for this - but I described videogames as a non-financial form of gambling, which seems a paradox given that the whole basis of gambling is based on to win more money. But I argued that behaviourally these two activities were almost identical. The only difference was that money was used – you gambled slot machines to win money but you play videogames to gain points.

Now in terms of things like the near miss. A near miss is used all the time in videogames. Designers put near miss, near win elements. The thing is when you just fail to do something the only way that you can get rid of that frustration what we call cognitive regret is to play straight again. And that’s what happens with slot machines as well. When we just lost basically it’s just pressing the button, pressing the button. That’s what happens on videogames as well. In terms of what we call operative conditioning, the idea of having small unpredictable rewards keeps people persisting for longer. We find that in videogames and we find that in slot machines.

What I basically did I wrote paper after paper showing that in terms of event frequency, in terms of the psychology of the near miss, in terms of colours, in terms of sound. I remember doing an experiment where I got people to play Tetris with and without music and measured their heart rates. I found that even though people found the Tetris theme annoying is that they were far more aroused when the music was on playing it than when it was off.

Now things like that the influence of sound, the influence of colour, the even frequency, operative conditioning. What I’m saying is that all these things the only real difference between videogames and slot machines were the skill level and the fact that one is played for points and one is played for money. In fact every hard core slot machine player – remember on a typical slot machine, if you go into a pub the most you can win is maybe £70. It’s just infinitesimally small compared to most of the gambling activities where you can win a lot more. Most hard-core slot machine players do not play to win money. They play with money rather than for it and their whole philosophy is to stay on the machine as long as possible using the least amount of money. That’s identical to what videogame players do. They put their – when I was playing Space Invaders and Galaxy I’d put my 10 pence in and I would see how long I could make that ten pence last. Slot machine players do the same thing. They walk into an arcade with £10. A good day is when they make that £10 pound last five hours. A bad day is when that £10 pound goes in ten minutes. Okay?

Now the thing about slot machine players and videogame players, in slot machines the money is a way of keeping score. When I talked about this idea of videogame playing being a nonfinancial form of gambling, obviously I came from a world where I had spent four years researching gambling and then realised there were commonalities in the psychology of videogame playing. I didn’t come at it from the other way.

Now of course gambling and gaming is starting to converge. All the kind of psychological techniques that are used in terms of repetitive play in videogames are used in slot machines. Right Casino: I suppose that’s X-Box.

Dr Griffiths: Yes exactly. It just operates on operating conditioning. That’s exactly what it is. If I want – the thing is that even with near misses, they have to be at a certain level. Some of my colleagues in Canada they found out the optimum percentage for near misses to work is between about 37% to 42%. Thing is if you get near misses all the time it’s a bit like cry wolf. You know that you never win. But what they do is like an optimum level. Around about a third, just over a third of times you get a near miss is enough to keep you playing again and again.

Now videogames work on the same principle. They give you a lot of near winning experiences. I say the psychological feelings in terms of what people feel while they’re playing slot machines or videogames seem to be very similar. The body’s physiology in terms of arousal while you’re playing or escape and relaxing, de-stressing. These are all commonalities that you find. That’s why I do as much on videogame addiction as I do on slots now. I think in terms of what’s happening with youngsters is they’re probably now playing more games than gambling type games. Whereas ten years ago you would have got a small proportion playing slots and buying scratch cards etc. We’ve got less happening now and they’re probably playing more social games and more videogames because that’s what they can do at home.

Right Casino: Okay. Moving away from slots now. Blackjack and roulette remain the most popular casino games. How do you account for their popularity from a psychological perspective? What gratifications do they offer gamblers?

Dr Griffiths: The first thing I have to say is that people talk about the psychology of gambling and really there isn’t a psychology of gambling because the psychology of playing a slot machine is totally different than the psychology of playing poker, which is a totally different psychology of horseracing, which is totally different than the psychology of playing roulette.

Roulette obviously, I play roulette and I never play roulette to win money. For me it’s about maximising the amount I’m prepared to lose. Typically I mean in the casino here, I go to my Gala Casino. They still have fifty pence chips. Typically what I do, I’ll put £5 worth of fifty pence chips all over the board. I’ve probably got two thirds of the numbers covered, okay? Now that strategy means that basically with just £20 I can usually make that last two or three hours, okay? That’s what I do. I try to maximise play. Occasionally I’ve done that strategy and I’ve lost everything in fifteen minutes. When I’ve lost, I’ve lost and I stop playing.

Now the psychology of playing poker. Obviously poker, blackjack these are games that if you’re good and you know what you’re doing you do actually have a good chance of winning. We wouldn’t have the same people wining the world poker championships again and again and again if it wasn’t a game of skill. Now obviously there are chance elements in terms of the cards that you’re dealt and that’s what you do. The psychology is playing with the hand that you’ve been dealt.

But blackjack, what I find amazing is that when Edward Thorpe wrote his 1962 book on how to win at blackjack and showed basically if you’re a good card counter you had a better odds winning than the casino. Now of course when you get card counters who go into the casino, the casino does lots of things including having at least eight or ten decks, and there your memory’s got to be superb but really they see card counting as cheating. For me that’s skill. But what they do is anyone that’s caught card counting is classed as a cheater, which to me is just despicable beyond anything I can think of. The thing is even with card counting you have to do it for a long time even to get a small profit.

So Dominick O’Brien, the world memory champion, he went out and spent eight weeks in Vegas and he came out after eight weeks. I think he won sort of $8,000 to $10,000 over eight weeks. In terms of making a living you can’t make your living card counting.

Poker of course is a much more skilful game. Obviously it’s as much about the psychology of making your opponents think you’ve got certain cards or not got cards as much as what you’re being dealt. So there’s loads of psychology in poker but of course poker is a zero sum game. There are winners and expensive losers. There are a very small number of consistent winners and there are an incredibly large amount of consistent losers.

But of course anything that’s got skill in people think that, if I practice and I play, I can get better. We have an example here at this university. Somebody left to become a professional poker player. Now my guess is that for every one [person] who leaves and is successful there’s another nine hundred and ninety nine that don’t have any success at all in terms of making a living out of it. So the psychology of poker to me it’s just very easy to understand. Here is something it’s a bit like any other skilled game. If you practice, you persist, put in the hours, you could potentially make money from it. But the bottom line is that even the people who maybe call themselves professional, they might have to play fourteen hours a day just to make a living. Yet if they got out a job that they could work seven hours a day they could probably make just as much by putting in less effort and energy to do that.

But really that’s – I’m a psychologist. I’m very much interested in the psychology of all of this but it’s amazing how many games, even the ones that are truly chance based people develop skill orientations. There’s a whole load of social psychological research that shows even with things like – let’s say you buy a lottery ticket. There’s an experiment showing that if you personally bought a lottery ticket if someone says how much would you sell it for, if you’ve chosen it yourself you ask for more money than if somebody was assigned to you. It shows that somehow you’ve actually actively picked that lottery and had some choice in what happened. It’s a skill orientation where there clearly is no skill orientation at all.

We know even in chance events like scratch cards [and] lotteries that some people develop skill orientation. That might be linked to potential problem gambling in some people. Like slots in this country. [During] a lot of my work I didn’t realise anything about adaptive logic and the fact that we didn’t have a random number generator until the mid-2000s. So all of my work going right back to my first published papers in the late 1980s, effectively I was assuming that the slot machines I was talking about were the same as the ones that were in America. A lot of my conclusions that I made actually were not – all these players were telling me that it was skilful to do this, this, and this and I rubbished them in the papers saying it was a chance event. They actually knew what they were talking about. I had to then go back and basically revalidate everything that I had done in the first fifteen years of my research because I built it on the wrong premise.

The thing is even when I go now and I talk in America or Canada and I talk about people give these myths about slot machine players but I’ll go they’re not myths in the UK. They say no, that’s rubbish. They’re chance. I go no they’re not because we don’t use a random number generator. The idea of watching a machine fill up with lots of other people’s money without them winning anything does mean it’s more likely that when you go on that it doesn’t guarantee but you are more likely to get a pay out if you’ve just seen the machine fill up with hundreds of pounds of somebody else’s money. Of course in America and Canada they’ll say no, that’s not the point. Really there is a different psychology for every different form of gambling.

Say roulette is one of those that people talk about the double up strategy. That double up strategy obviously does work if you have an unlimited amount of money. I remember a true story. I was in my local casino and seven reds had come up on the roulette in a row. Of course then people were putting loads of money on black. They basically were applying the law of averages in the short term to the playing situation. It’s classic gambler’s fallacy. What we’re talking about here is people just expect a black to come up because there’s been seven reds in a row. Can’t be another red. Of course there was another red and there was another red. There were eleven reds in a row. The most that I’ve personally experienced.

Of course if you’ve got an unlimited amount of money just betting on basically double the amount each time you will eventually get your money back and more. But you could be literally into hundreds of thousands of pounds before doing that. If you were gambling eleven or twelve times in a row and it was going against you. It’s amazing if you start at one and double it, double it, double it how quickly the money goes up.

With roulette for me, it isn’t about winning. For me it’s about taking part and maximising my fun while I’m doing it. Again, a really good example [was] in Stockholm where we all got given a hundred Krona. Every conference delegate was given a hundred Krona to play in the Casino Cosmopol where we were staying. At the end of the night I came out and I had something like four hundred and fifty Krona something about £40 plus. That was a complete bonus. I came out a winner, especially because it wasn’t even my money to start with. It was absolutely brilliant. But roulette is a completely different psychology. Some people just play the numbers. Some people just play the colours. Some people are just all about the number, their lucky number or whatever. But that’s completely different psychology than poker because obviously there’s no skill in roulette whatsoever.

Right Casino: You mentioned the gambler’s fallacy. Could you quickly explain what’s meant by this and how it affects players on a psychological level?

Dr Griffiths: Yes, we in psychology we talk about heuristics, okay? Now heuristics are these things, another word for it is rules of thumb and what gamblers love doing is, particularly when it comes to something like simple heads or tails or red or black on a roulette wheel, they look at past behaviour that’s happened on the wheel or whatever and they try to extrapolate what they think will happen. Basically what they’re doing is applying the law of averages - the law of averages are infinite and they’re trying to apply it to a short term situation.

For instance if you’re in a coin tossing game and there have been five heads in a row, people will probably say well the law of averages is that tails have got to come up next. Even though there’s an independent 50/50 chance of another same side of the coin coming down again. Of course that’s all these things are totally independent of each other. You could theoretically get thirty heads in a row. It’s unlikely but you can and of course that’s what people do in gambling situations. There’s two ways that people will go. If you’ve seen red come up seven times on a row on a roulette wheel, some gamblers will say oh that’s a hot streak for reds. I’m going to put all my money on red because reds are having a hot streak. Other people will say the gambler’s fallacy, the law of averages has got to be black next go. The thing is both of those put their money on and if they win they’ll go see, my logic worked out for me. Or if it doesn’t work out.

The thing about heuristics is no predicative validity to them. You can’t work out before whether they’re going to help you or not. You can only use them retrospectively. But really people just don’t realise that most gambling activities are purely chance and that each event is independent of the last one. That’s why as I say you see the gambler’s fallacy particularly now roulette is the classic one where you see where people use it all the time. If three or four colours have come up the same you usually bet against that colour on the next one.

Right Casino: In recent years the online casino industry has witnessed a rise in [the] popularity of live casinos and live games. How do you explain this popularity? Are consumers just more likely to trust a live game over a virtual game?

Dr Griffiths: Yes. I think it’s very simple. I always say that when I play an online slot machine or I play an online roulette wheel I’m basically playing with imaginary dice. It’s just on the pure behest of what that computer program is.

If I gamble on the Internet then I gamble on a football match or a race. Something I know that the event hopefully isn’t rigged. At the end I feel I’ve got an equal chance of winning it. The thing about live dealers is, if that roulette wheel is spinning right in front of you live, okay? I’m more likely to - and I play roulette – I’d be more likely to do it than a pre-programmed…let’s say what I feel is playing with imaginary dice. It really is about enhancing trust between the gambler and the gambling operator.

I think people want to some people want that kind of feeling of a live experience sitting in their front room. If you’ve got a situation where you can still see the sights and the sounds, that’s the thing. I love the actual offline gambling experience. I love walking into a casino, feeling the lights, the noises, the sounds. I’m sorry – with the best wheel in the world you can’t recreate that in an online situation. But for me it isn’t about winning money but I think most online gamblers they are there for playing poker or playing on Betfair or whatever. They’re wanting to win money. I just think playing with live dealers or whatever enhances that experience and makes them think there’s less chance of it being rigged.

Right Casino: And just as a quick one…

Dr Griffiths: Sure.

Right Casino: You were talking about roulette being a chance game. Recently there was a paper published about a pair of mathematicians who claimed to be able to use chaos theory to boost a player’s edge to 20%, which in European games approximately ten times the…

Dr Griffiths: Right.

Right Casino: House edge. Any credence in…?

Dr Griffiths: No idea. Don’t know what – I can’t comment because I don’t know their system. As far as I’m aware, obviously loads of people have come up with systems saying that – there was one a few years ago where people could basically work out, well they claimed they could work out what quadrant a ball would fall in based on how fast the ball was spinning [and] where the ball was put in. Of course what you do is put all your chips on the quadrant you think that it’s going to fall in.

Now obviously at the end of the day a roulette wheel is something that works on physics so that’s not to say that somebody couldn’t come up with a mathematical formula but you’d have to know so many variables. In the time that it takes to do that, I’m not saying that the technology isn’t there to do it, but to me it sounds incredibly sophisticated and my guess is the number of people that are able to do that would be very small. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to increase your winnings but in the end I’m a psychologist and most people don’t have lots of fancy gismos to help you do that.

Right Casino: That’s the difficulty. They said it’s theoretically possible but you have to cart an array of high-speed cameras into the casino to pull that off.

Dr Griffiths: Again, if you’ve got all the bases covered and you know where the ball first went in and whatever I’m sure you could mathematically work – I doubt you could do it to the number but I think the idea of working out the quadrant is probably theoretically possible.