Trivial pursuits: Can playing pub quiz machines be addictive?

This morning I appeared on BBC radio talking about excessive playing of trivia (quiz) machines because there is a story in today’s Daily Mail about a man (Christian Drummond) who claims he makes £60,000 a year from playing pub quiz machines. In the UK, trivia machines are a type of ‘Skill With Prize’ (SWP) machine where cash payouts (the prize) depends (at least in part) on the player’s skill. I certainly spent far too much of my student grant playing the snooker general knowledge SWP game Give Us A Break in the university bar. Quiz machines are the most common form of SWP machine and are known to be very profitable for operators. A Wikipedia entry on SWP machines notes that the SWP game Barber Cut was advertised as “more addicting than any other prize redemption game, and those repeat-plays will land right in your cash box!”.

Here’s a little background for those who are still not sure what I am talking about. SWP trivia machines usually have a pre-programmed set of ‘general knowledge’ questions. The machine game is activated after the insertion of money (now typically 50p or £1, although it used to be 10p-20p when I was a regular player). On answering a pre-determined number of multiple-choice questions correctly, successful players can win money (the most I ever remember winning was £5). In some cases, successful players may also be rewarded with free plays on the machine and/or with the added bonus on some games of being able to record names and high scores electronically on the game’s ‘hall of fame’ (something that I never achieved in all the times I ever played). I still occasionally play (my most recent session losing about £10 playing a Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? trivia game).

On a purely personal level, I love trivia, and it appears that I am not the only one. I came across an online article outlining the top ten “modern human addictions” and was surprised that ‘trivia’ was at No.7. As the article noted:

“Most of us love to learn and understand things, but how often do we absorb tiny little bits of inconsequential trivia? More often than you may think! TV advertisements and billboards coax us with facts and figures, magazines deliver tantalizing tit-bits of scandal and gossip, and the internet fills our minds with thousands of facts…The world is full of trivia. A trivia addict is often someone who’s main pleasure in life is to memorize random facts and spout them off to onlookers in an attempt to make themselves look good, and who often dreams of winning the pub quiz or a game show for a huge cash prize. Trivia buffs often wallow in small-talk, gossip, and rumor and sometimes aggrandize subjects the rest of us care little about”.

On a more academic footing, I wrote briefly about SWPs in both of my first two books (Adolescent Gambling, 1995; Gambling and Gaming Addiction in Adolescence, 2002) and noted that there was some anecdotal evidence of problematic and potentially addictive play. In my first book I also introduced the concept of ‘technological addictions’. I wrote that:

“My own operational definition is that [technological addictions] are non-chemical (behavioural) addictions which involve human-machine interaction. They can either be passive (e.g. television) or active (e.g. computer games) and usually contain inducing and reinforcing features which may contribute to the promotion of addictive tendencies. The category of technological addictions is not mutually exclusive and contains addictive activities that could be located under other kinds of addiction…There is little in the way of academic literature on technological addictions but possible activities that could be included under this category are television addiction, computer addiction (e.g. hacking, programming), video and computer game addiction, fruit machine addiction, pinball addiction, trivia machine addiction, telephone sex addiction and in the (near?) future, virtual reality addiction”.

Basically, I said that it was theoretically possible to become addicted to playing SWP machines, but had yet to come across any empirical evidence that such an addiction genuinely existed. And that’s still the case as far as I am concerned. I am still unaware of any empirical research study examining SWP addiction and problematic play (excluding video game addiction and a case study I published on pinball addiction back in a 1993 issue of Psychological Reports). Having said that, it’s not hard to see the psychological attraction of playing and how excessive playing develops. Like playing slot machines and video games, SWP machines utilize operant conditioning techniques, provide ‘near miss’ experiences, are deceptively inexpensive, simple to play, challenging, competitive, and excellent at modifying mood states. The rewards can be social, financial, psychological, and physiological. All in all, they contain many of the psychological ingredients that can be utilized in the addiction process.

I’ve searched online for any self-confessed accounts of SWP addiction but have found little. Here are a few quotes suggesting that for a tiny minority, SWP playing might be potentially problematic:

  • Extract 1: “I think I might be slightly addicted to these quiz machines. At risk of sounding melodramatic, and to paraphrase the film ‘Fight Club’, after playing a quiz machine, the volume of the rest of life is turned down. Once you’ve played a few times, you no longer feel alive unless you’re playing a quiz machine. All you can see in front of you is victory; the massive debts that are mounting up are hidden behind a veil of aspiration and false hope. I seem to pour in pound after pound in the vague hope of one-upping a computer-controlled device with a fixed payout rate that will control the difficulty accordingly. My struggle transcends any monetary gain from playing these stupid quiz games and it becomes about winning
  • Extract 2: “I’m from England, and a massive fad of us legal to drink teenagers is to waste our money on these ‘Pub Quiz’ machines, to a stupid point of having no money at all left. The only problem is that the pub always closes at some point, and I need to feed my addiction for the games on them”
  • Extract 3: It’s official. I have a new addiction. It has descended upon me in the form of a game. A quiz machine game. And it goes by the name ELIMINATOR! It’s not just any game though. It is the most compulsively obsessive thing I have ever seen in my entire life”

Since November 1st 2010, all SWP machines in the UK must conform to strict guidelines by both the Gambling Commission and BACTA (British Amusement and Catering Trade Association). As the Wikipedia entry in SWP machines notes:

“These guidelines say that there must be NO element of chance within the game that can affect the outcome. There are also limits set on the level of skill needed to play, for example there must be a minimum amount of time for a player to react to the game. This is so that manufacturers and operators can’t be accused of setting ridiculous skill levels that aren’t physically possible…While SWP machines are generally not intended to be winnable by skilled players – otherwise such a player could continue to play and win and causes losses to the operator – it is sometimes possible that player skill, or using the machine in a way not anticipated by the manufacturer, can result in the game becoming winnable. This may result in service updates by the manufacturer to close the exploit”.

As I have noted in many of my academic writings, one of the key trends in the gaming world is convergence. The convergence between gambling and SWP machines means that the British Gambling Commission are frequently asked whether particular skill with prize machines are gambling machines. Their response is always to say that: “the answer to that question depends upon whether any of the games offered on the machine amount to ‘gaming’ as defined in…the Gambling Act” (which is a whole new blog in itself).

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Gambling Act (2010). Is a prize machine a gambling machine? Birmingham: Gambling Commission.

Griffiths, M.D. (1991). Amusement machine playing in childhood and adolescence: A comparative analysis of video games and fruit machines. Journal of Adolescence, 14, 53-73.

Griffiths, M.D. (1992). Pinball wizard: A case study of a pinball addict. Psychological Reports, 71, 160-162.

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Technological addictions. Clinical Psychology Forum, 76, 14-19.

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Adolescent Gambling. London: Routledge.

Griffiths, M.D. (2002). Gambling and Gaming Addictions in Adolescence. Leicester: British Psychological Society/Blackwells.

Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Digital impact, crossover technologies and gambling practices. Casino and Gaming International, 4(3), 37-42.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Gaming convergence: Further legal issues and psychosocial impact. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 14, 461-464.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The convergence of gambling and digital media: Implications for gambling in young people. Journal of Gambling Studies, 26, 175-187.

Lifeschool (2009). Top 10 modern addictions. Listverse, October 15. Located at:

Wikipedia (2012). Skill with prize. Located at:

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on November 13, 2012, in Addiction, Case Studies, Competitions, Gambling, Gambling addiction, Games, Popular Culture, Psychology, Technological addiction, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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