Feeling lucky: why we play games of chance

Gambling as a form of gameplay has deep routes in gaming history; in recent decades casinos have sprung up across the country serving as grand game of chance collections, with no greater representation of this type of gaming than Las Vegas.

Paying to play

Games as products and games as a service are standard models, where the player must put down money to play the game. However, when a game creates a progression system within which some players have a chance to gain their money back, a game’s design must take into account for the loss in revenue by relying on systems that drain cash from other players.

In essence, games of chance operate like claw machines, they are there, primarily to serve the game’s owner, designed to create a profit by taking money away from the majority of players as the players engage in a system with low success rates hoping to be the few that succeed.

While this type of game design can create games that exist to prey upon the compulsive spending habits of players, we must ask ourselves why players want to play games which are based on risk and reward in the first place.

A kid trying his luck at the notoriously difficult carnival game the claw machine.
Feeling lucky

While a game based on gambling may be fun, the reality is that the mechanics in a game of chance are almost irrelevant; as in the case of slot machines which feature no meaningful choice for the player save for how much money they want to gamble.

Slot machines, which reward the player based on the outcome of spinning dials
At the end of the day games of chance are not played in the interest of making money for the player, they instead produce a feeling, the feeling of being lucky.  Seeking the feeling of being lucky is the secret to games of chance, and why they are so successful.  We have often mistaken the pull of games of chance as an interest in gaining money, when instead it is about engaging the risk versus reward center of the player’s brain. The euphoria of winning a game of chance does not come from the material gain, but from the sensation that we beat the system, not through skill but through chance; that we took a chance and that luck was on our side.

Designing for luck

Understanding that players may be seeking moments within which the odds were stacked against them and they prevailed, we may be able to take a cue from games of chance and incorporate lucky moments into other game designs.  Ones which focus on encouraging the player to take leaps of faith and reward the player for taking a chance.

Do you enjoy games of chance?  Do you believe that gambling can serve as a rewarding form of gameplay? How do you feel that gambling impacts game design? I welcome discussion on this topic and if you have experiences of your own you wish to share please do so in the comments below, or write in to playprofessor@gmail.com.

Andrew Mantilla is a ludologist and video game journalist for Play Professor.  You can check out more of his content on FacebookTwitterInstagramand Youtube.

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