I’m Losing Money. So Why Do I Feel So Good?

NYT columnist Randall Stross, briefly reviews Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas and claims the shift in gambling to screen-based games increases addiction.

The random-number generator at the heart of the electronic slot machines is neither visible nor well understood by many players. Some machines allow players to choose the exact moment when the reels stop spinning, but a sense of control is illusory. The outcome is determined when the reels start spinning and has absolutely nothing to do with what the player does or does not do.

Kevin A. Harrigan, a research associate professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, has examined how electronic machines cause players to think that they’ve almost won — when they haven’t.

Multi-line slot machines, for example, invite players to bet on different pay lines at the same time. These can be more addictive than an older, single-line slot machine, which has just one pay line, because they produce not just clear wins and clear losses but also “false wins,” in which players receive less than they’ve bet.

In a typical multi-line slot setup, a player can bet on up to 20 different pay lines in a single game. If a player wins on 9 of the 20 lines, resulting in a net loss, the machine still celebrates the occasion with sound and video effects.

“It’s brilliant,” Professor Harrigan says. “I’m not a gambler myself, but I was playing ‘Money Storm’ in our lab and ‘won’ — nine lines were flashing — and it was cognitively difficult to appreciate that I had actually lost.”

Addiction specialists are concerned that the near-wins and false wins served up by digital gambling technology set off the same reward mechanism in the brain that is activated by actually winning a game.

Still curious? Check out Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas.