What app developers learn from casinos

Tech Talk Tuesday #68: What app developers learn from casinos  

I just returned from Hong Kong, where I presented Screenagers at schools, churches, and associations. One of the most interesting screenings was at a conference for addiction professionals. Did you know that about 1% of the U.S. population has a gambling disorder? It is almost double that in Hong Kong.

For this TTT I talk about how app and game developers design their products using tricks that the gambling industry has been using for years to hook players in and keep them playing.

Near misses and short-term rewards that lead to promises of a bigger win are some of the tricks app and game developers have taken from electronic slot machine designers to keep players playing. In an article in The Economist writer Ian Leslie explains:

“The machines are programmed to create near misses: winning symbols appear just above or below the ‘payline’ far more often than chance alone would dictate. The player’s losses are thus reframed as potential wins, motivating her to try again. Mathematicians design payout schedules to ensure that people keep playing while they steadily lose money.”

Leslie goes on to talk about another trick designers use:

“A player who is feeling frustrated and considering quitting for the day might receive a tap on the shoulder from a 'luck ambassador,' dispensing tickets to shows or gambling coupons. What the player doesn’t know is that data from his game-playing has been fed into an algorithm that calculates how much that player can lose and still feel satisfied, and how close he is to the 'pain point.' The offer of a free meal at the steakhouse converts his pain into pleasure, refreshing his motivation to carry on.”

Apps and games also use the “pain point.” But instead of free dinners, players are offered incentives like a sale on coins or an in-game reward to keep the player playing. In reality, it only appears random. The game developers have analyzed data on the player so they know when they are about to quit (i.e. their pain point), which is when they step in with a pick me up (free dinner or in-game rewards) and sure enough, gamblers will stay longer.

MIT professor and cultural anthropologist, Natasha Schüll, explains these manipulations in her book Addiction by Design. She explores how the casino industry went from a social activity around a craps table or roulette wheel to a solitary experience of individuals zoned out in front of machines. Soon after her book was released in 2013, Schüll said, she began receiving invitations to speak at tech companies and conferences attended by marketers, developers, and entrepreneurs.

So for TTT let’s talk to our kids about some of the casino tricks and how they relate to the games and social media we all use on our devices.

  1. What app or game do you find hooks you in the most?

  2. Are you aware of how the game or app hooks you in, with rewards like streaks on Snapchat?

  3. Do you think companies have a responsibility to monitor and limit their habit-forming games and apps or do you think it is okay that they hook us in?