Gambling psychology – Familiar faces

Back in the late eighties I did some research on the names that manufacturers gave their fruit machines. One of the more interesting findings was that over 50% of all machine names had some reference to money (such as ‘Cashline’, ‘Cashpoint’, ‘Action Bank’, Piggy Bank’, ‘Money Belt’). Psychologically, all of these machine names gave the impression that this was where a gambler could get money from – not where they would lose it. Other categories of machine names included those with reference to skill (‘Fruitskill’, ‘Skillchance’), suggesting that machine playing was a skilful activity and that gamblers could perhaps beat the machine. Other machines had what I called ‘acoustically attractive’ names (Nifty Fifty, Naughty But Nice) or puns (Reel Fun, Reel Money).

Since making these observations, I have continued to follow with interest the subtle techniques that the gaming industry uses in getting the punter to notice their machines. And the psychology of gambling – or rather the psychology of gambling marketing – has come a long way in the last decade.

One of the ploys the fruit machine industry uses (whether it is aware of it or not) is the psychology of familiarity. Machine manufacturers have realised that one weapon in their marketing armoury is to design products which appear familiar before a gambler has ever even played on them – something which can partly be achieved through the name or theme of the fruit machine. The examples I gave above showed that the names of fruit machines may be important in impression formation. It is highly unlikely that the names of fruit machines have any influence on gambling behaviour per se.

However, when tied in with recent research on the psychology of familiarity, the names of machines do seem to be critically important – particularly in terms of gambling acquisition (that is, getting people to gamble in the first place).

Nowadays, fruit machines are often named after a person, place, event, videogame, board game, television show or film. Not only is this something that is familiar to the gambler, but it may also be something that the potential gamblers might like or affiliate themselves with (such as James Bond). This is different from a simple naming effect in that the machine’s theme may encompass the whole play of the machine, including features, sound and light effects. By using well-known and common themes, gamblers may be more likely to spend time and money playing them.

One of the most popular UK fruit machines are those that feature The Simpsons. There are many possible reasons why a gambler might be more likely to play on a Simpsons machine. The Simpsons has mass appeal and popularity across all ages and across gender. The machines are celebrity-endorsed and players may place trust in a ‘quality’ brand like The Simpsons. Gamblers may also hope that knowledge of the characters will help in the playing of the game. On a basic level, it might simply be that the gameplay of The Simpsons is more exciting, and that the sound effects and features are novel, cute and/or more humorous than other machines. There are many cases similar to this one where it could be speculated that the fruit machine becomes so much more inducing because it represents something that is special to the gambler.

Familiarity is a very important psychological aspect of why themed fruit machines have been more prominent over the last decade. Familiar themes have the capacity to induce a ‘psychostructural interaction’ between the gambler and the gambling activity. This is where the gambler’s own psychology interacts with the machine’s structural characteristics and produces different consequences for each person depending upon what the feature means to them personally.

If the themes are increasingly familiar, a gambler might be more likely to persevere with the complexities of a machine. Gamblers may find it more enjoyable because they can easily interact with recognisable images they experience. Therefore, the use of familiar themes may have a very persuasive effect, leading to an increase in the number of people using them, and the money they spend.

Whilst there are many other aspects which influence an individual’s decision to gamble, the possible persuasive nature of the themes should not be underestimated.

As you may have already gathered, there is a strong overlap between the psychology of familiarity and the psychology of persuasion. In very simple terms, a gambler must be exposed to the product and be aware of its presence before they can even make the decision to gamble. This is relatively easy to achieve given the ubiquity of fruit machines in the UK and the fact that current machines will use any number of techniques to grab an individual’s attention. These include television or film theme tunes, bright flashing lights and/or pictures or voices of celebrities. Once a gambler’s attention has been gained, the product must be likeable and familiar enough for them to think about gambling and wanting to interact with the machine further. Immediately familiar images and sounds are likely to lead to a much quicker decision to gamble.

All which goes to show that the industry certainly knows what it’s doing!