Last week, Canadian researchers published a study showing that some modern slot machines ‘trick’ players – by way of their physiology – into feeling like they are winning when in fact they are losing. The researchers describe the phenomenon of ‘losses disguised as wins’, in which net losses involving some winning lines are experienced in the same way as net wins due to physiological responses to the accompanying sounds and lights. The obvious worry is that players who are tricked into thinking they’re winning will keep playing longer and motivate them to come back to try again.
The game set up is as follows: players bet on 15 lines simultaneously, any of which they might win or lose. A player will accrue a net profit if the total amount collected from all winning lines is greater than the total amount wagered on all 15 lines. Such an outcome is accompanied by lights and sounds announcing the wins. However, lights and sounds will also be played if any of the lines win, even if the net amount collected is less than the total amount wagered on all 15 lines. If a player bets 5 credits per line (5 x 15 = 75) and wins 10 back from 3 (= 30), then the player has actually lost money, even though the lights and sounds indicate winning. The loss, the researchers claim, is thus disguised as a win.
The researchers found that players’ skin conductance responses were similar for wins and losses disguised as wins, both of which were significantly larger than responses for outright losses. Due to the reinforcing sights and sounds that accompanied both the wins and the losses disguised as wins, arousal was triggered by either event, even when the amount ‘won’ was less than the spin wager. In terms of players’ physiological responses, losses disguised as wins were treated as a wins rather than losses. Since arousal is rewarding, gambling behaviour is likely to be reinforced by losses disguised as wins.
But is this an instance of deception to which we can reasonably object? Whether we want to say that the game – or, more likely the game’s designer – deceives the players so that they keep playing will depend on our definition of deception. But we don’t need to worry too much about precise definitions to see at least two objections to the suggestion that players are deceived. The first is that the lights and sounds are never programmed to accompany net wins per se; they are only intended to accompany any combinations of single line wins. The researchers describe how the lights and sounds do get louder and go on for longer when more credits are won, but there is no specific sound that accompanies a net win, meaning that it cannot be deceptively played to indicate a net win when a net win does not in fact occur.
The ambiguity comes from the fact that playing multiple lines essentially amalgamates multiple bets into a single event: if the player misattributes the sounds attached to any of the component events to the unified event then this is his mistake (albeit a mistake the game’s designer intend the player to make). If we imagine that someone plays the lottery every week for a year, spending a pound a ticket and wins ten pounds once, the message that he has won is associated with that one ticket, not to the running profit or loss over the year. Instead of saying that the game designers deceive, it might be more correct to say that they attempt to mislead.
Further, it is important to distinguish between experiencing a physiological response akin to that triggered by a win, and believing the proposition ‘I am winning’. As well as a box indicating the credits won per spin (which may be fewer than the credits wagered), there is also a box showing the running total. If the player incurs a net loss on a spin, the number in the running total box will decrease. So the players are always able to clearly and easily see whether they actually lost on any particular spin. They can believe that they lost whist simultaneously ‘feeling’ like they won. However, the researchers point out that even when a player recognises that losses disguised as wins are really just losses in disguise, if arousal itself is what is positively reinforcing, the player may still find slot games with losses disguised as wins more enjoyable, or potentially more addictive (if the player is a problem gambler).
This reinforcing effect of arousal could be seen as worrying. If gambling is rewarding even when you lose, there is the possibility that you will be more likely to return to it. However, we must remember that most gamblers do not visit a casino because they believe it to be a sure-fire means to paying the rent. They visit the casino because it is exciting. The excitement is derived from the possibility that they might win some money, and from the arousal that the activity of gambling elicits. Whilst gamblers are likely to be particularly pleased if they go home with more money than they went out with, to a large extent they are buying excitement. If machines are designed to more often trigger arousal (which is experienced as rewarding), then this might even enhance the experience for some gamblers. Many people who buy a lottery ticket each week are in part buying themselves the excitement of the possibility of winning (even though actually winning would of course be preferred).
Further, liberal societies let people take all sorts of risks with their health, with their money and with their wider circumstances. People can choose what to value and what they are willing to risk when pursuing the things they value. If we are to permit gambling at all, then as long as gamblers have easy access to clear information about their actual winning or losing, the confusion of bells and whistles can be seen as part of the game they choose to play. Ignoring misleading physiology might even add a dimension of skill to those games predominantly dependent on luck. If we are concerned about game designers attempting to mislead gamblers through noisy and colourful distractions because it makes it more difficult for gamblers to engage in a rational cost benefit analysis of their betting behaviour, it is not clear why we should not extend this concern to the practice of gambling as a whole: If it is the thrill of the game that causes further betting, then why should the thrill of a trivial actual win leading a player to irrationally gamble more be significantly worse than the similar thrill of a disguised win having the same effect?