Why are Slot Machines so Darn Fun?

Why is it that slot machines make up 70% of all gaming revenue?

  • Is it the bright lights and pretty pictures?
  • The fun bonus rounds?
  • The new Bose surround sound systems they use to make you feel like you’re in the game?

Those may be part of the answer, but we can look to Jerry from Tom & Jerry for more of the answers.

Scientists did a test with two mice. The first mouse they put into a cage with a lever. When the mouse pulled the lever, nothing happened. The mouse pulled the lever a few more times and still nothing happened. After that no matter how long the mouse was left in the cage he didn’t pull the lever again.

The second mouse, we’ll call him Jerry, was put into the cage. However, when Jerry pulled the lever he got a treat. Jerry ate his little treat and went back to the lever, but this time he got a treat of a different sort, he got shocked. After the shock wore off, Jerry tried again and this time he got his treat again. The number of times poor Jerry had to get shocked before he got his treat increased for each trial. Sadly, Jerry was willing to get shocked so many times to try to get his treat, that his body couldn’t take it anymore and he died.

What the heck does this have to do with slot machines? This same principle is the reason slots are so popular. It’s called an intermittent reward system.

From the casinos perspective, the best thing that can happen to a player on their first visit to a casino is to hit a jackpot. Once that positive stimulus is in their mind, it is hard to get rid of. As long as the player wins periodically from that point on, they will continue to play. Just like Jerry, they are willing to withstand negative consequences (loss of money) to seek their reward.

If a new player arrives at a casino for the first time and loses, much like the first mouse didn’t get a treat, the person will lose interest and not return. In their mind there is no positive stimulus, so they don’t see the point in trying.

It’s like me trying to beat my 6-year-old daughter in that goat jump game on the iPad. I tried a few times and realized I was nowhere near her score, so I gave up. In my mind there was no hope of winning, so why try?

Much like Jerry shocking himself to death to get his treat, players are willing to lose a lot of money to achieve that “high” of winning a jackpot.

What makes the slot machine even more powerful than Jerry’s lever is the variable response rate. Jerry’s response rate was fixed, meaning it increased by the same amount each time. Variable rates are even more powerful because you don’t know when they’re going to happen.

You may be attracted to a specific game because it looks great and has fun bonus rounds, but the reason you keep coming back and playing slot machines has to do with your mind trying to get that “treat,” just like Jerry. Just be careful not to end up like him.

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