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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.

No lady luck: A case study of adolescent female slot machine addiction

Based on research into adolescent slot machine playing, all British research has found that most adolescent slot machine players are male and that very few female adolescent slot machine addicts have ever been identified in the literature. The main findings relating to adolescent female slot machine players were published in papers by Dr. Sue Fisher and myself (mostly in the 1990s). In 1993, Dr. Fisher reported the existence of teenage females with no playing skills and little interest in acquiring them, and who gamble on slot machines primarily to gain access to the arcade venue where they can socialize with their friends (calling them ‘Rent-a-Spacers’). Their preferred role is one of ‘spectator’. In an earlier published (1991) study in the Journal of Applied and Community Psychology, I observed that arcades were a meeting place for adolescent social groups in which playing activity was predominantly male-oriented with girls looking on in ‘cheerleader’ roles. In 2003, I published a rare case study of an adolescent female slot machine addict (who I called ‘Jo’) and thought I would share some of the things I found from that study in today’s blog

During a nine-month period, I interviewed Jo three times formally and also maintained regular contact with her on an informal basis. She was confirmed as a probable pathological gambler using the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-IV criteria for pathological gambling.

Jo was brought up as an only child in a seaside town in the South West of England. She described her parents as “comfortable, middle class and loving”. However, she also made reference to the fact that there were reasonably strict rules in the house. Her father was an insurance salesman and her mother was a schoolteacher. She went to a mixed school, and up to the age of 13 years she had good school reports and was in the top 10% of her class academically. She was also very good at sports (and was an active member of the school athletics club) and described herself as “physically stronger” than most of her peers. Jo claims she did not really relate to the other girls in her school and often got into playground fights with them. During her early adolescence she made a few good friends although these were mostly boys of her own age or a little older. She herself described her adolescent years as a “tomboy”. Educationally, she left school when she was 16 years old and got an office job working as an administrative assistant.

Jo started playing slot machines at a young age because they were so abundant in the town where she lived. She described them as “being part of the wallpaper”. To some extent, her parents encouraged her gambling. Like a lot of “seaside parents”, they often took Jo to the amusement arcades as a child for “a weekend treat”. Like many families, they did not see anything wrong with going to the seaside arcade because they felt it was “harmless fun and didn’t cost much.” However, these early experiences coupled with exposure to slot machines in her peer group were instrumental factors in Jo’s acquisition of slot machine playing. Living in a seaside town, access to the machines was widespread, and the main place for “hanging out” was at the local arcades. There were four or five of them because the town was a popular tourist attraction. Arcades provided a meeting point for her friends. She was part of a gang in which hanging around the arcades was one of the few activities that the group could engage in.

At 13 years old, she mainly used to just watch her male friends play on the slot machines and video games. However, within a year, she was playing on slot machines as much as her peers. The arcade was where Jo “felt safe and protected”. She liked it that everyone who worked there knew who she was. In the arcade she was a ‘somebody’ rather than a ‘nobody’. In essence, the arcade provided a medium where Jo’s self-esteem was raised.

Jo gave a number of insights into her motivations for slot machine playing. Skill did not appear to be a motivating factor for continued play. She played to win money (to further her playing rather than fuel any winning fantasies) and did not see the machines as particularly skilful. Although most of Jo’s (male) friends claimed that slot machine playing was very skillful if you were good at it, Jo always believed that slot machines were not like video games and that “winning big” had a lot of luck to it. Knowing her way round a slot machine while helpful, didn’t make her feel as though she was especially skilful except when complete novices would play. Also, being female, the older age women who played on the simple machines would talk to her (unlike the adolescent males who would be shunned by this clientele). This made her feel wanted and needed. However, between the ages of 14 and 15 years, Jo’s slot machine playing became all encompassing. As she explains:

“There was a period in my life between the ages of 15 and 17 where the machines became the most important thing in my life. I didn’t worry about money. I just believed I would win it back or that money would come from somewhere because it always had. I was forever chasing my losses. I would always tell myself that after a bad loss, the arcade was only ‘borrowing’ my money and that they would have to ‘pay it back’ next time I was in there. Of course, that rarely happened but once I was playing again, money worries and losses went out of the window. Gambling became my primary means of escape. On the positive side, at least it helped me to give up smoking and drinking. I simply couldn’t afford to buy nicotine or alcohol – or anything else for that matter. I never believed that gambling would make me rich – I just thought it would help me clear my debts.”

Jo didn’t acknowledge that she had a problem – even when she started to go down to the arcade on her own and using all her disposable income to fund her slot machine playing. However, in retrospect, she realized a problem was developing.

“I used to spend every penny I had on the (slot) machines. It was a good job I wasn’t into clothes like the other girls at school. I couldn’t have afforded to buy anything as I lost everything I had in the long run. I used to wear the same pair of jeans for months. I don’t even think I washed them”.

When Jo was 15 years old, a telephone call from the school headmaster alerted Jo’s mother that her daughter might be having some problems in her life. The headmaster phoned to say that Jo’s attendance had been very poor during the previous three months and that she had stopped attending athletics practice. When confronted, Jo admitted that she had not been attending school but said that all the girls in her class hated her. To some extent this was true (she didn’t get on with any of the girls at her school) but was not the reason she was truanting. Instead of going to school she had been spending her time in the local arcades. For a few weeks she tried to stop her gambling. Now that her parents knew there were problems, she thought this would be the ideal time to give up. However, after 17 days without gambling, her boyfriend split up with her and she relapsed by gambling again. This then carried on for almost two years.

Jo’s parents were very understanding and looked for alternatives to help their daughter. They considered moving classes within the school and moving schools completely. Jo simply said she would try to integrate more. At no stage did Jo’s parents ever suspect that her erratic behaviour was linked to anything other than the problems of adolescent mixing. Jo managed to successfully hide her problem for a further two years before everything came out into the open.

As an only child it was difficult for Jo’s parents to know whether their experience was normal. They hardly saw Jo. At the age of 16 years, Jo upset her parents not only by leaving school but also by leaving home. They knew there was little that they could do. When Jo left home, she assumed that all her problems would disappear. However, she got into more and more trouble and was unable to make ends meet. She lived from hand to mouth. She began to steal from friends, from work and from anyone she met. On two occasions she met males she had never met before that moment, went back to their houses, and then stole their money and/or valuables.

Over this period of nearly two years Jo became more and more withdrawn, lost her friends and ended up resorting to stealing from her place of work. Eventually she was sacked (for taking the petty cash) although her employers were unaware that her problem was gambling (or that she even had a problem). They assumed she wanted more money to supplement her very modest wages. Although she lost her job, the company did not instigate criminal charges.

The first major turning point was being sacked from her first job for theft of the petty cash. She had nowhere else to go but back home. Her parents were a tremendous support although were surprised that slot machines were the heart of the problem. Jo claimed her mother didn’t believe her at first. They wondered how someone could get addicted to a machine. Jo claimed it would have been easier for her mother to accept if she had a drug or alcohol problem rather than a gambling problem.

The cessation of her gambling began when Jo (with her parents’ help) got another job in a remote village in Cornwall (in South West England). There was no arcade, no slot machines in the local pub, and no slot machine within a four-mile radius. She did not drive a car and it was too far to walk to the nearest town. In essence, the lack of access to a slot machine forced her to stop playing. She still got the cravings but there was nothing she could do. She also claimed to have a number of serious self-reported withdrawal symptoms. At work she was short-tempered, irritable with colleagues, and constantly moody. Physically, she had trouble sleeping, and occasionally had stomach cramps, and felt nauseous through lack of play.

Jo eventually joined a local Gamblers Anonymous (GA) that her parents drove her to every week. She only attended a handful of times and stopped attending because she was the only female in the group, the only slot machine player, and also the youngest. Despite the opportunity to share her experiences with eleven or twelve people in a similar position to herself, she felt psychologically isolated. Being able to talk about the problem with people she could trust (i.e., her parents) was a great help. In addition, with her desire to stop and with no access to slot machines, Jo managed to curtail her gambling. She claims she “wasted four years of her adolescence” due to slot machine playing – and she doesn’t want to waste any more of her life. However, there is no certainty that Jo is ‘cured’ – Jo feels a number of triggers could set her off again (like rejection of someone close to her). Talking to people has been Jo’s “salvation” as she calls it. She had always thought that slot machine playing couldn’t be a problem and therefore found it hard that people would accept the “addiction” she had. Other people’s acceptance that she suffered something akin to alcoholism or drug addiction has helped her recovery.

From my own personal research experience, Jo’ account is fairly typical of slot machine addicts. This is an individual who began playing slot machines socially, steadily gambled more and more over time, spent every last penny on gambling and resorted to the cycle of using their own money, borrowing money, and then finally stealing money, just to fund their gambling habit. Criminal proceedings could have occurred but fortunately (for Jo), she was punished by losing her job. The one major difference between this and all other accounts is that Jo happens to be female.

The major limitation of a study such as this is that it relied totally on retrospective self-report. Not only do I have to take Jo’s account as true but it is also subject to the fallibility of human memory. There is also the major limitation that the findings here are based on one person only and there is little that can be said about generalizability.

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

Further reading

Fisher, S. E. (1992). Measuring pathological gambling in children: The case of fruit machines in the U.K. Journal of Gambling Studies, 8, 263-285.

Fisher, S. (1993). The pull of the fruit machine: A sociological typology of young players. Sociological Review, 41, 446-474.

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

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. (2003). Fruit machine addiction in females: A case study. Journal of Gambling Issues, 8. Located at: http://jgi.camh.net/doi/full/10.4309/jgi.2003.8.6

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Adolescent gambling. In B. Bradford Brown & Mitch Prinstein(Eds.), Encyclopedia of Adolescence (Volume 3) (pp.11-20). San Diego: Academic Press.

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.