Here’s Why You Can’t Stop Scrolling Or Playing Online Casino Apps

Written By Chris Gerlacher on December 26, 2023
Slot Machine Spins Creating Player Anticipation

Since sports betting became legal, some states have legalized online casinos. This not only reverses decades of gambling policy but also brings slot machines full circle into a mature digital age. 

Smartphone applications use the same mechanics as slot machines. Slot machines inspired how email inboxes and social media feeds operate. The slot machine mechanic is effective because even offline, it is habit-forming.  

In his 2014 book, Hooked, Nir Eyal describes the mechanics that app developers can use to build habit-forming products. The slot machine mechanic is a core mechanic for developers who want to build apps that users scroll through absent-mindedly. 

As legal online casinos continue to spread across the continent — albeit slowly — the slot mechanic that makes apps so engrossing will become available on smartphones in its most naked form.      

The slot mechanic hacks the brain with anticipation

Our nervous systems aren’t wired to get maximum enjoyment from things that feel good. They’re wired to get the most enjoyment out of the anticipation of something that feels good, whether a great meal, a fun night out, or sex. 

When a slot machine lines up two symbols and almost lines up the third required for a large prize, the “almost” feeling keeps players pulling the slot repeatedly. 

Eyal recommended that developers build that same “almost” feeling into their apps by taking advantage of uncertainty. He recommends that app developers look for ways to offer variable rewards, to “create a focused state, which suppresses the areas of the brain associated with judgment and reason while activating the parts associated with wanting and desire.” 

Eyal goes on to describe how Pinterest’s feed of images related and unrelated to a user’s interest hacks the part of the brain that craves reward: 

“The exciting juxtaposition of relevant and irrelevant, tantalizing and plain, beautiful and common, sets her brain’s dopamine system aflutter with the promise of reward. Now she’s spending more time on Pinterest, hunting for the next wonderful thing to find. Before she knows it, she’s spent 45 minutes scrolling.”  

Apps like TikTok have fine-tuned algorithms to expand or contract the content relevant to users. But the fundamentals have not changed.

Making users look for the content they want to see most and creating uncertainty about when that next hit will come is identical to the two symbols lining up and the hope that the third will fall in line on the next pull.      

Online casinos spreading slowly and not everywhere

The brain hacks that slot mechanics take advantage of make slot machines and other casino games unattractive to legislators already weary of gambling expansion.

Sports betting has benefited from being attached to sports fandom. Online casinos are only about riding risk for the thrill of the risk. Further, casino gambling has a long history of criticism from both religious and secular traditions. They often criticize the laziness that casino gambling rewards. 

So, while sports betting has been legalized in nearly three-quarters of the United States in about five years, online casinos have only launched in five new states since 2018. Delaware and New Jersey legalized iGaming in the early 2010s.

Gambling addiction isn’t inevitable. But players must understand the risks of chasing losses and betting small amounts of money in the hopes of scoring a big payout. That’s why public and youth education campaigns are pillars of responsible gambling infrastructures.  

Licensed online casinos offer self-limiting controls that users can implement before they lose control. Bettors can go into their accounts and set time or wager limits.

They can even self-exclude from legal gambling apps, but offshore and unregulated gambling sites don’t mind accepting those customers’ wagers. 

Online slots come full circle on smartphones

Online slots are the purest form of habit-forming app design. Slot mechanics inspired features like scrolling down to refresh an email inbox and doom-scrolling social media to find the latest outrage. 

Responsible gambling investments that scale with a gambling industry’s size can address the negative consequences of widespread gambling availability. Those investments can make resources available to direct problem gamblers into treatment. And also educate customers about the budgeting tools that legal apps offer to protect a customer’s time and money.  

After a decade of popular smartphone apps using slot machines to build habit-forming apps, it’s interesting to see online casinos receive blowback that social media apps could partially share.  

Photo by PlayUSA
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Chris Gerlacher

For PlayUSA, he focuses on new ideas gaining traction within the gambling industry, whether from startups or innovative state regulators. He has also reported on political prediction markets to gauge which issues affect voters’ perceptions of likely midterm and presidential winners. Christopher has also been published in The Daily Camera and Free Inquiry. His first op-ed in the Daily Camera criticized CU Boulder for the high rates of sexual violence on campus reported in its 2015 sexual misconduct survey. Shortly before graduation, he wrote a follow-up op-ed criticizing the lack of action on the survey’s findings. His work in Free Inquiry focuses on criticism of religious dogma.

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