WVU Researcher Seeks to ‘Reverse Engineer’ Slots, Understand Addiction Mechanisms

A West Virginia University (WVU) researcher will put slot machines under the microscope in a bid to better understand their addictive features. Mariya Cherkasova of WVU’s Eberly College of Arts and Sciences will spend two years reverse-engineering slot mechanics to demystify the machines’ appeal.

“From a public health perspective, there’s a continuum of gambling,” Cherkasova, an assistant psychology professor in the Department of Psychology, said in a WVU release.

Some products are associated with very few harms. Few people develop problematic gambling patterns buying lottery tickets. Slot machines are still ‘king’ in terms of how many people play them. And they still account for the lion’s portion of gambling revenue and are on the other end of the harm continuum.

Supported by the International Center for Responsible Gaming (ICRG), Cherkasova’s research will examine the interactions between players and the machines’ structural mechanics. It’s hoped the results will shed light on the machines’ addictive potential.

And, with the recent passing of a bill mandating data sharing between state gambling operators and WVU, more innovative research is likely on the horizon.

Study Aims to Demystify ‘The Zone’

As the WVU release notes, some gamblers become “highly immersed and absorbed when playing slots,” entering an immersive state often called the “zone.” Binge-watching a show or playing a video game may generate a similar flow state.

However, Cherkasova said slot machine play might be especially harmful, as players can quickly lose significant sums of money.

The person loses track of time. They forget everything around them and just keep playing and playing the slot machine. This is something that’s associated with compulsive gameplay and very significant losses.

In past research, Cherkasova and others found higher instances of depression and lower levels of mindfulness “strongly correlate” with immersion.

However, she said that just as biology may predispose one to gambling problems, gambling products and environments could also prompt those same tendencies.

Cherkasova added:

For that reason, it’s as important to study the characteristics of gambling products as it is to study individual characteristics of the players that may be liabilities.

Monitoring Eye-Tracking to Measure ‘Flow State’

As part of Cherkasova’s study, participants will play “several” browser versions of a “realistic” slot simulator. Previous studies have associated slot machines with more harm than other gambling types, including the lottery, the researcher said.

Some game versions will include the “typical bells and whistles” accompanying wins. Others, Cherkasova said, will not.

This exemplifies the reverse engineering of the sensory feedback — one version has bells and whistles while the other lacks them.

The games will also have “specific reinforcement ratios and intervals,” allowing researchers to manipulate the frequency and amount of the players’ wins.

At the same time, Cherkasova will track her subjects’ eye movements as they play, which, she said, is “pretty innovative.”

When you’re measuring immersion, it’s mostly been based on self-report, and there’s a bit of a paradox in there — how can you measure immersion without disrupting those states? You either have to measure it retrospectively, or you have to disrupt the state to measure it.

Some of our past work suggests that you can study immersion using eye tracking. We hope to validate those indices as tacit measures of immersion that do not involve explicit self-report or interrupting the immersive state.

Gambling Brain Still a Mystery

Cherkasova believes her work will help researchers understand why slot machines are so harmful and how their design interacts with players’ individual vulnerabilities to cause harm.

She cautioned:

Diagnosable gambling disorders are rare. But just like drinking alcohol, there’s really no completely safe level of gambling.

While researchers have previously focused on players’ flow states during video gameplay in a few studies, none have considered gambling or slot machine use. In future efforts, Cherkasova added she’d like to determine what happens in players’ brains while immersed in slot play.

Frankly, we really don’t know what goes on in the brain.

About the Author

Robyn McNeil

Robyn McNeil

Robyn McNeil (she/they) is a Nova Scotia-based writer and editor, and a lead writer at Bonus. Here she focuses on news relevant to online casinos, while specializing in responsible gambling coverage, legislative developments, gambling regulations, and industry-related legal fights.
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