Unfruitful approaches: Why are slot machine players so hard to study?

Anyone that researches in the area of slot machine gambling will know how difficult to can be to collect data from this group of gamblers. Over a decade ago, Dr. Jonathan Parke and I published a paper in the Journal of Gambling Issues on why slot machine players are so hard to study. Almost all of the things we wrote in that paper are still highly relevant today, so this blog briefly examines some of the issues we raised. The following explanations represented our experiences of several research efforts in attempting to examine the psychology of slot machine gamblers in the UK, Canada and the United States. Our explanations are roughly divided into three categories. More specifically, these relate to what we called (i) player-specific factors, (ii) researcher-specific factors, and (iii) miscellaneous external factors.

Player-specific factors: There are a number of player-specific factors that can impede the collection of reliable and valid data. These include factors such as activity engrossment, dishonesty/social desirability, motivational distortion, fear of ignorance, guilt/embarrassment, infringement of player anonymity, unconscious motivation/lack of self-understanding, chasing, and lack of incentive. These are explained in more detail below:

  • Activity engrossment – Slot machine gamblers can become fixated on their playing almost to the point where they ‘tune out’ to everything else around them. We have observed that many gamblers will often miss meals and/or utilise devices (such as catheters) so that they do not have to take toilet breaks. Given these observations, there is sometimes little chance that we as researchers can persuade them to participate in research studies – especially when they are gambling on the machine when approached.
  • Dishonesty/Social desirability – It is well known that some gamblers will lie and be dishonest about their gambling behaviour. Social and problem gamblers alike are subject to social desirability factors and will be dishonest about the extent of their gambling activities to researchers (in addition to those close to them). This obviously has implications for the reliability and validity of any data collected.
  • Motivational distortion – Many slot machine gamblers experience low self-esteem and when participating in research may provide ego-boosting responses that lead to motivational distortion. For this reason, many report that they win more (or lose less) than they actually do. Again, this self-report data has implications for reliability and validity of the data.
  • Fear of ignorance – We have observed that many slot machine gamblers report to understand how the slot machine works when in fact they know very little. This appears to be a ‘face-saving’ mechanism so that they do not appear to be stupid and/or ignorant to the researchers.
  • Guilt/embarrassment – Slot machine gamblers can often be guilty and/or embarrassed to be in the gambling environment in the first place. They like to convince themselves that they are not ‘gamblers’ but simply ‘social players’ who visit gambling environments infrequently. We have found that gamblers will often cite their infrequency of gambling as a reason or excuse not participate in an interview or fill out a questionnaire. Connected with this, some gamblers just simply do not want to face up to the fact that they gamble.
  • Infringement of player anonymity – Some slot machine gamblers clearly play on machines as a means of escape. Many gamblers will perceive the gaming establishment in which they are gambling as a ‘private’ (rather than public) arena. As such, researchers who approach them may be viewed as people who are infringing on their anonymity.
  • Unconscious motivation and lack of self-understanding – Unfortunately, many slot machine gamblers do not understand why they gamble themselves. Therefore, articulating this accurately to researchers can be very difficult. Furthermore, many gamblers experience the ‘pull’ of the slot machine where they feel compelled to play despite their better judgment but cannot articulate why.
  • Chasing – When trying to carry out research in the playing environments (e.g., arcades, casinos, bingo halls, etc.), many regular gamblers do not want to leave ‘their’ slot machine in case someone “snipes” their machine while they are elsewhere. Understandably, gamblers are more concerned with chasing losses than participating in an interview or filling out a questionnaire for a researcher.
  • Lack of incentive – Some slot machine gamblers simply refuse to take part in research because they feel that there is “nothing in it for them” (i.e., a lack of incentive). Furthermore, very few gamblers take the view that their gambling habits and experiences can be helpful to others.

Researcher-specific factors: In addition to player-specific factors, there are also some researcher-specific factors that can impede the collection of data from slot machine gamblers. Most of these factors concern research issues relating to participant and non-participant observational techniques (i.e., blending in, subjective sampling and interpretation, and lack of gambling knowledge). These are expanded on further below:

  • Blending in – The most important aspect of non-participant observation work while monitoring fruit machine players is the art of being inconspicuous. If the researcher fails to ‘blend in’, slot machine gamblers soon realise they are being watched. As a result, they are increasingly likely to change their behaviour in some way. For instance, some players will get nervous and/or agitated and stop playing immediately whereas others will do the exact opposite and try to show off by exaggerating their playing ritual. Furthermore, these gamblers will discourage spectators as they are often considered to be “skimmers” (individuals trying to make profits by playing “other peoples machines”). Blending into the setting depends upon a number of factors. If the gambling establishment is crowded, it is very easy to just wander around without looking too suspicious. The researcher’s experience, age and sex can also affect the situation. In the UK, amusement arcades are generally frequented by young men and elderly women. The general rule is that the older the researcher gets, the harder it will be for them to mingle in successfully. If the arcade is not too crowded then there is little choice but to be one of the ‘punters’. The researcher will probably need to stay in the arcade for lengthy periods of time, therefore spending money is unavoidable unless the researcher has a job there – an approach that Dr. Parke took to collect data.
  • Subjective sampling and interpretation – When the researcher is in the gambling environment, they cannot possibly study everyone at all times, in all places. Therefore it is a matter of personal choice as to what data are recorded, collected and observed. This obviously impacts on the reliability and validity of the findings. Furthermore, many of the data collected during observation will be qualitative in nature and therefore will not lend themselves to quantitative data analysis.
  • Lack of gambling knowledge – Lack of ‘street knowledge’ about slot machine gamblers and the environments they frequent (e.g., terminology that players use, knowledge of the machine features, gambling etiquette, etc.) can lead to misguided assumptions. For instance, non-participant observation may lead to the recording of irrelevant data and/or an idiosyncratic interpretation of something that is widely known amongst gamblers. As above, this can lead to subjective interpretation issues.

External factors: In addition to player-specific and researcher-specific factors, there are also some external factors that can impede the collection of data from slot machine gamblers. Most of these factors concern the gaming industry’s reactions to researchers being in their establishments although there are other factors too. These are briefly outlined below:

  • Gaming establishment design It is clear from many of the arcades and casinos that we have done research in over the years that many are not ideally designed for doing covert research in. Non-participant observation is often very difficult in small establishments or in places where the clientele numbers are low.
  • “Gatekeeper” issues and beaurocratic obstacles – The questions of ‘how?’ and ‘where?’ to access to the research situation can be gained raise ethical questions. Access is often determined by “informants” (quite often an acquaintance of the researcher) or “gatekeepers” (usually the manager of the organisation etc.). Getting permission to carry out research in a gambling establishment can be very difficult and is often the hardest obstacle that a researcher has to overcome to collect the data required. Many establishments do not have the power to make devolved decisions and have to seek the permission of their head office. The prevention of access by the industry can be for many reasons but the main ones are highlighted next.
  • Management concerns – From the perspective of arcade or casino managers, the last thing they want are researchers that disturb their clientele (i.e., their players), by taking them away from their gambling and/or out of the establishment. Furthermore, they do not want us to give their customers any chance to make gamblers feel guilty about their gambling. In our experience, this is something that researchers are perceived by management to do. This obviously impacts on whether permission to carry out research is given in the first place.
  • Industry perceptions – From the many years we have spent researching (and gambling on) slot machines, it has become evident that there are some people in the gaming industry that view researchers such as ourselves as ‘anti-gambling’ and/or that any research will report negatively about their clientele or establishment/organization. As with management concerns, this again impacts on whether permission to carry out research is given in the first place.

Dr. Parke and I envisaged that our explanations might enhance future research in this area by providing researchers with an understanding of some of the difficulties with data collection. Unfortunately, identification of slot machine gamblers is often limited to a “search and seek” method of trawling local gambling establishments (e.g., amusement arcades, casinos etc.). Therefore, researchers are often limited to collecting data during play rather than outside of it. Obviously data facilitation would be better if gamblers were not occupied by their machine gambling.

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

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (1991). The observational study of adolescent gambling in UK amusement arcades. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 1, 309-320.

Griffiths, M.D. (1994). The observational analysis of marketing methods in UK amusement arcades. Society for the Study of Gambling Newsletter, 24, 17-24.

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

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Observing the social world of fruit-machine playing. Sociology Review, 6(1), 17-18.

Parke, A., & Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Aggressive behavior in slot machine gamblers: A preliminary observational study. Psychological Reports, 95, 109-114.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Aggressive behaviour in adult slot machine gamblers: A qualitative observational study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 2, 50-58.

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2002). Slot machine gamblers – Why are they so hard to study? Journal of Gambling Issues, 6. Located at: http://jgi.camh.net/doi/full/10.4309/jgi.2002.6.7

Parke, J. & Griffiths. M.D. (2008). Participant and non-participant observation in gambling environments. ENQUIRE, 1, 1-18.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). A typology of UK slot machine gamblers: A longitudinal observational and interview study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 9, 606-626.

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 May 7, 2015, in Addiction, Adolescence, Compulsion, Gambling, Gambling addiction, Obsession, Problem gamblng, Psychology, Work and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: