What Slot Machines Can Tell Us About Our Brains


In 2018, the US Federal Trade Commission launched
an investigation into the video game industry.
Why?
Because of microtransactions in games that
look a little too much like gambling.
Players are buying and selling lootboxes that
might be filled with valuable powerups and skins
that can be worth hundreds or even thousands
of dollars — and we mean real dollars.
And while you might hear horror stories thrown
about on social media about what this is doing to young people’s brains,
the phenomenon
is new enough that research is only just starting to come in.
What has been extensively studied, however,
is old-school gambling.
Slot machines and the like.
These games can be fine-tuned to keep you
playing… and take your money.
In fact, we know a great deal about how your
brain reacts to gambling games —
and what that tells us about how game designers can
manipulate your behavior.
One of the first psychological principles
related to these games is something taught in just about every intro psych class:
schedules
of reinforcement.
Basically, they’re an answer to the question:
how much should you reward a behavior to get more of it?
Paradoxically, if you want a behavior to continue
after you stop reinforcing it,
you should be more unpredictable in your rewards.
The version of this used in gambling is called
a variable reinforcement schedule.
When a behavior finally stops, psychologists
call that extinction.
If a behavior has been rewarded on a variable
reinforcement schedule,
it takes longer for that behavior to go extinct after you stop
giving rewards.
It works because if you do a thing and get
rewarded every time and then the rewards stop,
you might get frustrated and think that something
has changed.
But if it happens sometimes, and you don’t
know exactly when,
you learn that persistence is what makes the reward happen.
That you have to keep trying, rather than
only doing the thing once.
This is exactly what goes on with slot machine
games, which we’ve known about since studies dating back to the 1960s.
In one of these early studies, when three
hundred twenty kids were assigned to play a slot machine game,
kids who got a win just
a third of the time would end up playing much
longer after the game stopped paying out than
those who got a win every time.
Researchers also varied how many pulls of
the lever they got before the machine stopped paying out —
and with fewer pulls, it was
much more effective at keeping kids playing.
The kids who wound up playing the longest
were those who only got in a single win before the slot machine stopped paying out.
So when a gambling game gives players some
kind of payout early on, it can keep them hooked for a while.
Another thing that leads people to stick to
these games is the idea of flow —
that’s that in-the-zone feeling people get when they’re
absorbed in a challenging task.
And it looks like people experience flow when
they gamble.
A 2017 study surveyed five hundred volunteers
who participated in online gambling.
They found that among those who reported symptoms
of gambling addiction, there were also signs of flow —
specifically losing track of time,
and an immersive satisfaction with the experience.
Flow is usually associated with skilled tasks.
And though they didn’t ask about it in the
2017 study, other research suggests that people who are gambling can act like they’re using
a skill even when they aren’t.
Like, people will pay more for a lottery ticket
if they can pick the numbers themselves
instead of having the numbers assigned to them, even
though it’s obviously the same odds of winning.
People will also bet less on a dice roll if
it’s one that’s already happened and they just haven’t seen the result yet.
Those are the kind of things you’d expect
people to do if they thought they had some control over the outcome —
which, of course,
they don’t. These things are random.
And though lots of psychologists look at flow
as a positive state, the fact that it might
play a role in addictive behaviors has led
to them coining the term dark flow.
It’s not just a problem with gambling — it’s
also been a part of people’s experience with
social media addiction and internet gaming,
particularly multiplayer online games.
One last thing that keeps people coming back
to games of chance is what researchers call a near miss.
On a typical slot machine, you want to get
three matching symbols to win.
So imagine if the first two line up to give
you a jackpot, but then the third jackpot lands just above the winning row.
That’s a near miss.
And you can get them in other games, too — like
picking up a lootbox with a powerful weapon
that just doesn’t work for your character.
Psychologists think that even though these
things aren’t really a win for the player,
they reinforce our behavior kind of like a
win does.
It’s kind of like an unconscious signal to
“keep going, your strategy is working!”
…even if your “strategy” is pulling a lever.
One 2001 study showed that if you make about
30% of slot machine spins a near miss,
you’ll maximize how long people will keep playing
in the absence of any reinforcement —
better than either fifteen percent or 45%.
What makes this work is that different parts
of your brain react to wins and losses, and a near miss kind of involves both.
And not everyone’s brain responds the same
way.
When non-gamblers play slot machines while
having their brains scanned, getting a near-miss
activates regions of the brain that look like
a regular loss.
But when people with symptoms of pathological
gambling experience a near-miss, their brain looks more like it just got a win.
But that’s not the whole story.
For example, one 2014 study compared twenty-four
people who showed signs of pathological gambling
to twenty-four controls as they played computer
slots while having their brains scanned by functional MRI.
When any of the participants won, a region
of the brain called the ventral striatum was activated.
That’s a region found to be involved with
reward response.
That region was also activated for near misses
— but only in the healthy controls.
The researchers had predicted the opposite

after all, you might expect a pathological gambler to get more reward from this near-win.
So they guessed that maybe the pathological
gamblers had just blunted their response to this non-win over time.
It also might work the other way:
the smaller
reward response means the gambler isn’t experiencing enough reward from their almost-win —
and
so they need to keep going.
Whereas in the healthy controls, the brain
reacts like almost winning is just as good as actually winning.
It’s kind of like this near miss has a specific
effect on people with pathological gambling
symptoms — part of the brain says you’re
not being rewarded enough, but another part
of the brain says you need to keep pushing.
So are microtransactions in online games…
gambling?
Some studies suggest they are, and that people
with gambling problems are more susceptible
to spending money on loot boxes in games.
But that research is pretty new.
For now, what we can say is that old school
gambling, like slot machines, is a perfect
storm of things that keep your brain coming
back or more, and some people develop real, serious addictions.
So we can keep our eyes peeled for similar
phenomena in newer games — and maybe a tighter grip on our wallets when we see them.
And if you’re working for one of these gaming
companies, and you see research being done
internally that you don’t see as particularly
ethical, there are people you can reach out to to tell about that.
Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow
Psych, and thanks especially to our patrons who make what we do possible.
If you want to help us make cool videos and
score yourself some awesome perks, consider
supporting us at patreon.com/scishow.

100 thoughts on “What Slot Machines Can Tell Us About Our Brains

  1. Game companies: There isn't enough research on surprise mechanics yet!

    -literally puts in a slot and pachinko machine so old research can apply now

  2. Ive been gaming for years and the lootboxes are a cancer in our community. We all hate it, and greedy companies know that, so they hide it behind jargon to get away with it.
    If anyone doubts me look up NBA 2k20. It litterally had people playing slot machines to get players they want, ans the game is rated for EVERYONE. So your 8yr old kid can litterally pay money to play slot machines. And its even worse than real life slot machines cause there is absolutly no chance to get that money back.

  3. "Dark Flow"? You mean Autistic Flow, right? My "special interest" is a curse because of it.

  4. Read Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg folks. There is a whole chapter on this topic

  5. If gamers still want loot boxes after watching this. then you are the ones that are addicted to the surprise mechanic and clearly need help.

  6. Hi, Hank. I was wondering if you could put up a late edit with a link to Gambler's Anonymous. Thanks. http://www.gamblersanonymous.org/ga/addresses

  7. It's fascinating that some companies are going for "well, we're completely removing loot boxes then" and others are "you know what we need to change? Let's call it a surprise mechanic and add a virtual slot machine in the game"…

  8. Thanks. I've always wondered why lootboxes or gambling never appealed to me and now I know.

  9. Try playing World of Tanks, its free except you can buy higher performing equipment with real money. It allows you to be "almost great" some portion of the time to frustrate you into buying the bigger bullets.

  10. Damn, ive been trying to get my hands on that legendary oliva stealth skin for months

  11. "Dark Flow"? Isn't…isn't that literally just describing addiction? Maybe I'm not understanding fully, but "dark flow" just sounds like some sort of magical term just for the kicks & giggles.
    Now "dark flow" is gonna be in my mind when I think of flow state & how awesome it is. Dark flow is literally going to ruin my flow because of its magical curse that can only be broken with the potion of "banishing-the-scientists-coming-up-with-ridiculous-unnecessary-terms-for-things-we-already-have-terms-for".

  12. And you lost me at Flow. Similar symptoms don't the same condition make.

  13. "[referencing immoral stuff you might have witnessed…] There are people you can reach out to to tell about that." (Full stop. Thanks sponsors. Buh-bye now) lol I enjoyed the topic, but that was not a well-timed transition… can't just peace-out on the "let's make things better" part!!!

  14. Lotteries are fixed. The lottery company knows how many winners they send to each outlet, they know the odds of a payout happening. The more people having the same winning number, the less the individual winner gets, because the lottery company is not going to pay out the same amount to each winner. And if no one picks the winning number (they can tell the odds by how many play), then the lottery company shrug their shoulders and say, "Sorry about your luck," and keep the money themselves instead of looking for another winner.

    And if a vendor posts that they hard a winner, that's a heads up that the odds of getting a win there has decreased.

    Ultimately the games are meant to separate people from their money.

  15. Great video! This really explains how I feel when playing competitive Rocket League. I feel like the matchmaking is setup to induce flow there.

  16. while this is obviously troubling, I find these studies absolutely fascinating. It shows us just how easy we are to fool. The fact that more people bet on dice rolls if they get to roll (rather than just having them rolled by a machine) is utterly bizarre, because of how obviously wrong that is.

    I always cringe whenever i hear coworkers say things like "you gonna play to win" when it comes to gambling, as if there is any strategy in any of these games. Unless you are gambling against other humans, you are always playing a losing game.

    The best defense against this is education. The more we understand about our own behavior, the easier it is to guard against tricks like these. As a wise man once said "The person who thinks he cannot be fooled, is the easiest person to fool".

  17. Really, this goes for virtual rewards for virtual currency, too.

    One very complex game was "Hogwarts mystery" of the Harry Potter world.
    Introductions were all well and good, but the story didn't happen till "third year." The storyline was so bogged down in the play of the game. (same classes, same actions, same rival harangueing you till it's like you're physically beat up each time you play.) The fun stuff didn't happen very often, though you could make it happen more often if you paid real money for the virtual currency.

    I could probably put the elements of the storyline in a fifty-page book half the dimensions of the average 200-page SF book. The first Harry Potter book is three times the size of an SF book, and the second one is five times. And the rest are bigger.

    And Warner Brothers doesn't need anybody's money; they get enough from their moviegoers.

  18. When I turned 18 I bought a dollar scratch ticket, won a dollar, bought another ticket, lost, and never played again. Oddly I have plenty of other addictions, but I'm way too poor to be enticed to gamble lol

  19. It's always such a shame that research is trailing behind the damage. I'm certain that the company's and "regulators" are fully aware that what they do isn't ethical or healthy. They know the way they treat their staff and customers as well as journalists and governments is beyond contemptuous. They just don't care. The CEO's make millions, or billions, their staff are disposable, they think their customers are idiots (though sometimes we do act like it), games journalists are either corporate mouth pieces or blacklisted and governments are slow to act, easily distracted by baseless moral panick and hung up on technicalities because those "regulators" work for the games industry and make generous campaign donations to further their agendas.

  20. Natasha Dow’s Addiction by Design is a great book if you’re interested! If I remember correctly, it’s more of an ethnography about slots in Vegas than psychology, but still interesting.

  21. Microtransactions and lootboxes are one of the worst things to ever happen to video games. I would rather play ET for the Atari than support a game loaded with these. I just play my retro games and have fun.

    Don't support the Canadian Devil with mobile freemium games.

  22. "Dark Flow" sounds like Flo from the Progressive commercials super villain alter-ego name.

  23. Slot machines make me feel empty and I hate them and any sort of gambling like that with a machine, lottery tickets on the other hand… I almost feel like slot machines feel like a waste of money because it's based on timing and every random # of tries get a win while for lottery tickets it feels more like luck as if somehow you will pick and play the correct numbers like a premonition.

  24. Oh god, dark flow perfectly explains so many of my useless distractions (common with my ADHD). Interestingly, my father is a pathological gambler, and it's his side of the family with all the ADHD (he shows symptoms himself too). This makes me want to look more into ADHD and pathological gambling symptoms. There are higher rates of addiction in those with ADHD than those without, and a big part of ADHD is seeking immediate gratification and differences with dopamine. This video was more interesting than I expected, not that I was thinking it would be boring or anything.

  25. Just one minor complaint. you used micro transaction as interchangeable with lootboxes at one point.
    Which is not the case especially for the topic of this video.
    Lootboxes or "surprise mechanics" are the term for the random stuff.
    Micro transactions on the other hand can be perfectly fine as they just describe "paying a small amount".

    I think we can all agree that buying a pack of gum for 1$ and pulling the lever for 1$ are totally different things in this context.
    Both are microtransactions, but only one is gambling a surprise mechanic.

  26. This only is really effective on me when the near miss turns out to have an alternative purpose or use. For example, in a game where I value playing with others, getting something I can't use that others can is helpful (such as in Borderlands), on the other hand, when I'm playing solo and have no interest in multiplayer play, unless the items my character can't use sell for a sufficient amount of in-game currency it feels meaningless and in all honesty has the reverse effect on me, making me want to play it less. Maybe that's just because I am a game designer so I readily notice these sorts of things and they turn me off, but that's been my experience anyway. I do agree though, that what you're saying is what the research, as far as I can tell, does say, so I'm not saying its wrong, just that it hasn't really been my personal experience so maybe the truth of it is a bit more complex.

  27. thank you for this episode. it really never peaked my interest, but i´m glad i saw this. because, as a child of the 80s, i used to play – and to an extent still do – computer games and i had noticed how much empty time i was investing, that would be more beneficial for studying or working. i still play games recreationally, but i really noticed how many many games over the years adapted their online game offerings to encompass such small items, that get you hooked. at the end of the day, you are investing small in game purchases – it´s really not a lot of money you lose, but that small investment of money, keeps you from quitting the game and do something more productive or entertaining, because you are being conditioned to want to reach that daily goal, that daily perk, this weekly or monthly accomplishment. and all you really do is, spending hours infront of a display, moving shiny objects around, smiling and more often than not cursing at your opponent.

    now isn´t that nice for entertainment!

  28. I dont like microtransactions, but i have to add NOT ALL MICROTRANSACTIONS USE CHANCE MECHANICS, some are just flat out selling pieces of game that used to be progression unlocks mere 10 years ago.

  29. So, what do they say about people who dont play games at all? I dont gamble, play card games .board games or video games. just never got into it, never was interested in sports games either. I only play the game of life, which I guess could be similar, will I get in an accident today or not, will a meteor hit me as I walk down the street. I guess its still playing the odds.

  30. If you can’t stop gambling 🎰 then there is something wrong with you. Honestly, you can feed your family with that kind of money. I’d rather use that money for good other than gambling.

  31. you should go watch the "let's go whaling" lecture, it immediately starts by saying "we will leave the ethics of it on the side for now, let's focus on psycologically manipulating people into spending as much as possible"

  32. I ban myself from making even a single microtransaction on loot box or gacha. I'm extremely vulnerable to them and know I wouldn't stop….

  33. In the same realm of timing payouts, the tones that slot machines emit are specifically chosen to trigger sensations of happiness and excitement in the players. It draws players in and to those most susceptible, keeps them playing.

  34. Whenever I play slots, I'm really playing with the algorithm. I spend $20 and a couple hours with free drinks watching for patterns and trying to think "if I was a regular person, what would the algorithm expect me to do? What could I do to convince the algorithm to let me win this round?" Sometimes I cash out and switch machines to see if my outcomes change whether I use the slip they print out or cash

    I could go to the bar and drink there, or I could spend that money on slots and have entertainment AND the drinks

  35. That schedule of reinforcement thing sounds a lot like positive reinforcement in dog training.

  36. Also, I used to work for a company that printed lottery tickets. The near miss effect is something the scratch off lottery industry takes full advantage of even though if you think about it there is no such thing as an actual near miss where little pieces of preprinted cardboard with special ink over a scratch area is concerned. But its easy enough to print lottery tickets where you have to match 3 in a row to simulate the idea of a near miss by printing tickets that have 2 out of 3 of the symbols you need nearly exclusively.

  37. There probably is dome nuance there, buying in game currency? Not gambling, loot boxess? Gambling

  38. I don't know if loot boxes are the same as gambling, but the video games industry is counting on it being just like gambling.. Addiction is a great business asset, and a wonderful tool to rob people while pretending not to.

  39. Quite definitely. The problem with addiction is not the body's natural reward system itself, but when it is put into an environment governed by artificial rules controlled by man-made algorithms where "chance" doesn't really exist. Take sports for instance, you could say the same natural reward system is activated, but the rules are different; chance isn't controlled by men, but nature. That's why I gave up on videogames!

  40. I'm addicted to slot machines and they have destroyed my life. I go in and think I'll only spend X amount and leave broke. Unable to pay bills or buy food. I just lost all my money yesterday on slot machines and the depression , frustration and anger I feel at myself is so intense I can't function at any normal level at all. I have noticed a major correlation between taking Xanax and playing till I have nothing left so from now on if I'm taking Xanax, zimmos or Valium I am making sure I've no access to money. I have a very difficult week ahead again now cause I took extra meds and thought I could control myself.

  41. Well mostly it's publishers forcing developers to implement these mechanics. 🙁

  42. While I agree that loot boxes are gambling I will say at least most companies only lock cosmetic items behind them.

  43. If they weren't gambling, the video games industry wouldn't be skirting the legal definitions so much.

  44. I'm so sorry, Hank. This is a really interesting video, but I kept getting distracted by how the color of your t-shirt messed with the green screen effect, and made it look like the editors had pasted your head onto someone else's body.

  45. "dark flow" sounds alot more like something youd hear in theoretical physics. around the topics of dark matter and whatnot.
    i am right.

  46. As someone who asked to be barred from casinos, thanks for this video, i learned a lot and will definitely keep staying away from it.

  47. STEALTH OLIVIA?! SUMMER FUN STEFAN?!
    Arrest communication and acquire my monetary exchange symbolic paper and cloth rectangles!

  48. I hate that loot boxes are only being compared to gambling games. They're really more like buying packs of trading cards, which apparently have been okay to sell to children since the 90's.

  49. Man am I glad that early on, I was a cheapskate that vowed to never spend any real money on in-game currency.

  50. Loot boxes are credited as the biggest gambling mechanism in online gaming, meanwhile, GTA V has a casino.

  51. I really liked that little poke at developers to call out predatory mechanics. Hold people accountable and don't let them slip something in at the eleventh hour.

  52. Regardless if loot boxes are considered gambling or not… I really, really, really do not like them. I already paid money for the game. So why should I spend more in an attempt to enjoy it more?

  53. there is only 2 type of gamer that fall prey to lootboxes.. children and gambling addict…

  54. Gambling does not fool anyobe who isn't already a fool. Mostly because there's no possibility of winning over the house edge so why the hell keep gambling after you won or lost a decent amount? To me gambling "right" is gambling once big and never playing again win or lose. It's not foolish to gamble once – you haven't lost any yet and you can win but past one is senseless.

  55. You can tune (and slot companies do) the reels to have more 'near misses' to take advantage of people's idea that a near miss is better than any other miss. There are also partial wins (where you get less than the bet back) that work on the same sort of principal.

  56. I watched this video in the morning and when I went out to get coffee my mom told me I have a nice alarm (the sound at the beginning). This coupled with the subject of the video gave me the idea to make an alarm out of sounds from a video game I like to make me more excited to wake up. Has anyone else tried this?

  57. no one is buying loot boxes, they buy keys to open them… giving you the box you can't open is part of the bait.

    and if you bet on a result that's already determined it's more likely that someone else is cheating you.

  58. I just can't get whats so Addictive about slot machines…. You put in a coin…. turn the switch….. and if You get matching 3's, You win….. its about as bland as a simple concept of a type of game gets…….. if You ask me, it just seems like gamblers are into it because they haven't found video games yet, or just haven't ever been wanting to try it for whatever reason. . . . . .

  59. i know aa guy who lives in his mom's basement and spends 100$ on GTA 5 online regularly. He has spent thousands on it.. he has a problem

  60. There has never been an end of humans trying to live off other humans and gambling is the most mental addiction.

  61. Hey, I'm a game developer, background in video gamedev, but I now work in the casino gaming industry:
    Casinos actually hate being compared to video game loot boxes, because loot boxes are much much worse and more manipulative than casino gambling.
    All gambling games (table or video) are made and heavily-regulated so that the odds never change. You have the exact same chances of winning any game you would ever play; same odds of a jackpot, same odds of a near miss, same odds of a royal flush or a two pair or whatever it may be. It's literally illegal to do otherwise. A slot machine or casino card game has no memory, it doesn't know or care when you last won or lost, or who is even playing.
    Whereas loot boxes in AAA games or mobile games are NOT random, they do NOT have the same odds of winning each time. A casino game is a fair roll of the dice, but a loot box is not a roll of the dice despite the game publishers want you to think they are. Loot boxes are an algorithm, specifically tailored to each player to maximize their revenue generation. A loot box knows when you last won or lost, it will intentionally do near misses to trigger your brain, it will change the "odds" unfairly to maximize its manipulation of the user. Microtransaction sales are the worst of this, as these games will individually create sales per user according to their adaptive algorithm, specifically offering sales on the digital items it knows you want at the price it believes you're most likely to make a purchase at when it thinks you're most vulnerable to this kind of sale offer. Digital goods don't actually cost anything for the publisher to sell, all price is artificial, and will be tailored for maximum manipulation.

    So yeah. If you tell a casino game designer or casino manager that AAA game loot boxes are gambling, those casino people will be very offended, as casino stuff (while designed to take money of course) are far less slimey 😅

  62. But according to the esa who are run by CEOs of the companies that stand to benefit from keeping current transactions legal have deemed games like 2K 20 as e for everyone. The ESRB which is run by the esa just so we're clear

  63. Huh inconsistent reward reinforces behaviour. I guess that's why I'm pursuing a career in music.

  64. I can see how "flow" fits within flight simulators, like I can relate to! : p 🇨🇦

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