The trend towards ‘gamification’ in the igaming scene is more than a passing fad – many operators have benefited from exploiting the psychological rewards offered by traditional game design. Joe Attard explains how online casinos have borrowed tips from the video gaming sector on how to keep punters hooked.
You might not think that Candy Crush and an online slot machine have all that much in common (except for their shared capacity to make players tear chunks of their own hair out in frustration) but in fact, under the hood, they have a lot of shared DNA. Dr Mark Griffiths (with whom regulars might be familiar) has written extensively on these commonalities.
“In a 1991 paper, I described videogames as a non-financial form of gambling,” says Griffiths in an interview with Right Casino . “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.”
So, what sort of ‘behavioural characteristics’ are common across videogames and certain forms of gambling, particularly slot machines?
Visual and auditory rewards: Dr Griffiths’ research has determined that players of both slot machines and videogames become more intensely ‘aroused’ (not in that way, perv…) when their actions are accompanied by lights and music. The advanced, often very colourful graphics of both modern casual videogames and virtual slot machines are designed to validate a player’s successes (i.e. big wins) with ‘psychological rewards:’ a nice ‘feel-good’ hit straight to the pleasure centre.
The ‘near-miss:’ Our squishy, human brains have an unfortunate tendency to equate outright failure with ‘a near miss’ – this is particularly evident in slot machines, most obviously in the ‘bell, bell, cherry’ paradox, wherein two out of three matching symbols on a line feels like a win, when in actual fact it’s as much a loss as three unmatched symbols. Videogames use this trope all the time, particularly those that incorporate elements of chance/randomness.
The Skinner’s box: Another consequence of our brains falsely attributing patterns and causality to random data. This is the basis of ‘gambler’s fallacy’, and boils down to our capacity to assume a ‘cause and effect’ relationship where there is none: say, a ‘lucky number’ in roulette on which you’ve won cash a couple of times, but which offers the same chance of a win as every other number. The use of the Skinner’s box is considered bad form in game design, but they’re becoming increasingly common in modern games.
Progression systems: What would be called ‘levelling up’ in a videogame. We are seeing this more and more in the igaming industry, as I shall demonstrate, but its earliest presence in gambling would be the ‘cash trails’ in land-based slot games. Entire casino websites are now built around this principle, and it’s a great strategy for customer retention.
Power-ups: The goodies that in videogames might offer extra lives and special abilities have been co-opted in virtual slots in the form of scatters, wilds and multipliers. Some of these collectables trigger mini-games that add an additional level of interactivity to proceedings and offer an illusion of increased skill, although they rarely have any impact on the actual house edge.
Some casinos have taken the ‘gamey’ side of virtual gambling to a whole new level, basing their entire business models on a ‘gamified’ approach to online casino play. Operators like Casino Saga, Casumo and Casino Room combine colourful interfaces, a ‘levelling up system’ and the like in order to court gamblers and retain their custom.
So, why are these features so attractive? Aside from the psychological rewards described above, this gamey veneer implies a higher level of player agency than in typical online casinos. This is because players tend to associate ‘games’ with skill and ‘gambling’ with chance. Furthermore – particularly for casual players with limited experience of the igaming scene – clothing casino games in the guise of videogames contributes to a friendlier, more respectable context for play.
In the eyes of a novice, these websites are also more agreeable for their resemblance to familiar media. The traditional logic of stuffing casino webpages with ‘gambling’ imagery can hurt rather than hinder their chancers with timid sections of the market, meaning these sites benefit from differentiation from their competitors.
Of course, from a business perspective, there are downsides to this approach. The ‘casual appeal’ of gamified websites means a prevalence of ‘casual’ play; meaning fewer big punters wagering big chunks of cash and more guppies hazarding the odd fiver.
On the flipside, you could well argue that the kind of play these sites appear to encourage is a healthier approach to gambling overall, meaning that players are less likely to ‘burn out’ and self-exclude. Consequently, operators enjoy small, consistent profits from a dedicated player base over a longer period of time: nobody gets hurt and everybody wins!
While veterans may sneer at the bright and friendly tone of Casino Room, the meteoric rise of this operator and its ilk should attest to the effectiveness of gamification in accruing a steady stream of low-risk, high-retention punters. I’d hazard a bet that there are plenty of lives left in this burgeoning spin on online gambling.