About Slot Machines
Slot machine play is one of the most popular forms of gambling in the world and also potentially one of the most harmful. There are approximately 22,000 slot machines in Ontario presently and Ontario Lottery and Gaming has announced expansion plans that could increase that number significantly.
While much of the focus around gambling problems is aimed at the individual gambler, it is also important to look at ways that the games themselves contribute to gambling problems. High speed of play and features that promote false beliefs comprise some of the more problematic elements associated with slot machines. Slot machine players may find it helpful to be aware of those features that may make slot machine play more risky.
- Odds of Winning
- Speed of Play
- Weighted Reels
- Unbalanced Reels
- False Wins
- Near Misses
- Stop Button
- Credits vs. Currency
- Small Wins
- Encouraging Maximum Wager
Problematic Features of Slot Machines
1. Odds of Winning
The odds of winning on slot machines are usually not very good. Casinos make money because they hold on to a percentage of the money wagered by players. The percentage of the money that is not held is eventually paid out to the players over the long term. Slot machine payout rates are based upon hundreds of thousands or even millions of spins, so they don’t reflect what will happen on a particular day at the casino.
Slot machines are profitable because they are programmed to pay out only a percentage of the money that is wagered. As well, the machines are designed and tested to make sure they don’t lose money over time. Slot machines in Ontario are set to pay back at 85 per cent or higher, so the casino can hold onto as much as 15 per cent of the money wagered on a slot machine. Not all machines are set at this rate, however, and different versions of the same game may have payback percentages ranging from 85 per cent to 98 per cent. But because these different versions look the same, players have no way of knowing the payout percentage of any individual machine they are playing. So while it is possible to calculate the odds of winning and losing with other forms of gambling, only slot machines withhold the information needed to figure out those odds.
2. Speed of Play
Slot machines are usually played at a much faster rate than other games, so players can lose money much more quickly. Slot play offers a continuous form of gambling, with players able to complete as many as 600 to 1,200 spins per hour.
3. Weighted Reels
Most players don’t realize that the reels on slot machines are weighted so that low-paying symbols come up much more often than jackpot symbols. A casino cannot use a weighted dice or a stacked deck of cards, but weighted reels are common in slot machines, and most players are not aware of this. To learn more, click on the video below:
4. Unbalanced Reels
Unbalanced reels are created when one reel contains fewer jackpot symbols than the other reels. This makes it more likely that players will see two jackpot symbols but less likely they will see three. This creates a type of near miss.
When players watch the reels spinning, it looks as if all symbols have an equal chance of coming up, but this is not the case. Players would have no way of knowing that one of the reels is lacking in jackpot symbols and could believe they have a better chance of winning than they really do.
5. False Wins
A false win occurs when the amount the player wins on a spin is less than the amount wagered. The slot machine celebrates this as a win even though the player lost money on the spin. Players may feel as if they are winning when they are not. To learn more, click on the video below:
6. Near Misses
A near miss occurs when a jackpot symbol appears directly above or below the payline, making it appear that it was one spot away from a win. Players may believe that they almost won, but the truth is that a loss is a loss. The symbols displayed above or below the payline have nothing to do with how close the player was to winning the jackpot.
Research has shown that near misses motivate players to continue playing, because they feel they are “close” to winning. In Ontario, it is legal to program near misses above and below the payline to occur up to 12 times more often than they would occur naturally as a result of chance.
The stop button may give players the illusion of control but has no impact on the outcome of the game. In fact, by the time the reels are spinning, the outcome has already been determined; the game is over. The outcome was decided the instant the player pressed the spin button, but the reels spin for five to six seconds before displaying that outcome to the player. To learn more, click on the video below:
8. Credits vs. Currency
When someone puts money into a slot machine, it is automatically converted into credits. The focus on credits means that players are less aware of the amount of money they are spending. This may lead players to overspend. Players have to multiply the number of credits by the cost per credit to determine how much they have actually spent. In Ontario, many machines will also display the dollar amount, but in a position and size that makes it harder to notice.
9. Small Wins
When playing a slot machine, a player may experience frequent small wins. These small wins are not enough to compensate for the amount of money lost, and the money from the wins is usually rolled back into the game. As a result, a player may begin playing with $100 but may bet much more than that over the period of play because the small wins are added to the original investment of $100. Like false wins, small wins give players the feeling that they are doing better than they really are. This may create the illusion that continuing to play will lead to a large win, when in fact extended play typically leads to more losses. Players are more likely to stop playing when they have a large win and more likely to continue gambling when they have a smaller win.
10. Encouraging Maximum Wager
Did you know that you can wager $3.00 per spin on a “one cent” machine? That is because with multi-line games, players can choose to play many credits over many lines. Often, the machines themselves will encourage players to play the maximum number of lines, as shown in the picture below.
Slot machines are huge revenue generators, and many of their features are designed to keep players in their seats in order to maximize revenue for the operator. Some of the machines’ features, however, may lead people to believe they have a better chance of winning than they actually do. Players need to be aware of these game features, as some of the same elements that make slot machine play exciting for some people can be misleading and cause problems for others.
This content is based on the work of Kevin Harrigan, PhD, from the University of Waterloo. Kevin is a professor who teaches computer-game design and conducts research on slot machines. His team also produced the videos used in this section.