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How Online Casino Games Use Psychology To Keep You Playing

Written By Derek Helling on November 3, 2023
Psychology And Responsible Gambling

Playing online casino games for real money can be an enjoyable way to pass some time or even an exciting diversion from the daily grind. While the fun that the games can deliver is a good thing in and of itself, too much of a good thing can take the same activity and make it harmful.

Games like slots are designed to deliver some entertainment to players for the cost of a play. As you watch the symbols fly by, the anticipation of the result of your play delivers an emotional experience. If you don’t understand what’s going on in the game and in your brain, though, that experience can become problematic.

This is why it’s imperative for players to understand the mechanics and rules of online casino games before they begin to play. Comprehending the effects that the games can have on players will help them avoid developing irresponsible gambling habits.

The psychology of online slots for players

Online slots can be thought of as a way to gamble with minimal effort. There are relatively fewer rules to remember. You don’t need to read an opponent or try to remember what cards have already been played as in some table games. Just choose your wager amount, press the button, and wait for the game to play out.

However, it’s that sort of mindless approach to playing slots that can get players into trouble. This especially applies to players who are chasing a certain outcome in playing the game. For example, a player who is chasing a progressive jackpot win can risk blowing their budget in doing so.

Furthermore, there are psychological elements endemic in games like online slots that can produce a strong enough emotional response to override your logic. These elements are quite simple in their design.

Delivery of rewards is part of the game

When you play a slot game, the motivation is clear and simple; you’re risking some of your money in the hopes that you will win even more. The excitement is in the play, waiting to see whether you will win.

The vast majority of plays do not result in wins, at least in terms of profit over the original stake. They all deliver a non-monetary reward, though. They provide players with that excitement of possibility. Thus, even when you lose, you still get an emotional return on your investment.

Some plays deliver that reward better than others. In gambling terms, such results are called “near misses.” For example, if you need five of a certain symbol in a row to win a significant prize and your play results in four of such symbols in a row, that could be considered a near miss.

It’s crucial to comprehend what kind of impact near-misses and other plays can have on a player’s psyche. At the same time, the science on the matter is still evolving.

Can near-misses motivate you to keep playing?

In his essay, “The Psychology of the Near Miss,” R. L. Reid breaks down what kind of psychological effects near-misses in gambling can have.

“For example, a slot machine reinforces the player when certain arrangements of three symbols appear in the window. By paying off very generously–with the jackpot–for three bars the device eventually makes two bars plus any other figure strongly reinforcing. … The effect of a near miss can also be considered in terms of frustration theory.”

At the same time, Reid addresses a weakness of the scholarship available on the phenomenon.

“The weakness of all the interpretations that have been considered is that they indicate only the possible short-term effects of an occasional near miss. They do not enable clear predictions to be made about what could be expected in the long run.”

Research done on that subject, the long-term effects of near-misses in gambling, overall shows that many factors play into gamblers’ decisions. For example, a 2023 Cambridge University study of roulette players found “no evidence to support that near misses lead players to gamble longer.”

Also, a 2019 analysis in the Journal of Gambling Studies concluded that “if near misses do lead to prolonged gambling, the effect appears to be limited or idiosyncratic.” It’s the complexity of human emotion and thought that throws a wrench in the theory that “near misses alone hook you on playing the games.”

It’s also that complexity that can help players enjoy their favorite games without developing problematic gambling habits.

How to beat the games at their games

You’ve probably seen admonitions from gambling companies and problem gambling treatment organizations to play with your head. It’s great advice and a simple message. Turning that advice into actual action on your part is what matters.

In essence, it’s all about being informed and your approach to playing. The first part of that is what makes choosing legal real-money online casinos so paramount. Regulatory bodies require licensees to make easily available the rules of each game and the odds of each potential outcome.

Avail yourself of these before you start playing. That way, you will have it fresh in your mind exactly what needs to happen for you to win and the likelihood of winning. The next important thing is to have the right approach to your play.

While it might be tempting to chase prizes, the best way to play is to actually go along with what the game recommends. Consider the game itself the return on your investment. That way, it’s truly impossible for you to not enjoy some return. If you do happen to win some money, that’s just an added bonus.

Another trap that chasing certain outcomes can put players in is easily avoided with the right mindset.

Each play is its own game

A mistake some players make when playing slots is seeing their entire time playing a game as one continuous play. That’s completely erroneous. When you’re playing an online slot game, each individual play is its own game.

The random number generator deciding the outcome of each play runs anew each time. Previous plays have no bearing whatsoever on what result you end up with subsequently. You can win big on your first play and you can also spend your entire bankroll with little to show for it. It’s all pure chance, every time.

Misunderstanding this can be especially problematic when near misses occur. Players can wrongly believe that because they got a near miss, a big win must be coming up soon. There is absolutely zero truth in that belief, however.

The odds of winning completely reset according to the game’s rules with each play regardless of what the outcome of the previous play was. You are no more likely to win a prize after a near miss than following any other outcome in the game.

Keeping these things in mind doesn’t mean your enjoyment of gambling has to diminish. In fact, it’s easier to have fun while gambling when you play responsibly. In summation, key points to remember are:

  • Know the odds and the rules before you start playing.
  • Look at risking money gambling like buying a ticket to a show. The entertainment is what you get for your money.
  • Remember that each play is individual and unique unto itself.
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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is the assistant managing editor of PlayUSA. Helling focuses on breaking news, including finance, regulation, and technology in the gaming industry. Helling completed his journalism degree at the University of Iowa and resides in Chicago

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