The Skeuomorphic Origins of Slot Machines Icons

By Wesley Fenlon

The visual design of slot machines hasn't changed much in the past...well, century. Today, they make billions of dollars. Why mess with a good thing?

Have you ever thought about how odd it is that stacks of money, or diamonds, or dollar signs, or gold bars, aren't the icons we associate with slot machines? These machines are designed to do one thing, and one thing only: keep us playing. To catch us in a loop, to make us want to win, to make us keep playing and playing hoping to see those symbols line up and spill out a jackpot. We know slot machines are about money, but the iconography we associate with these machines is not dollar signs or gold coins. It's fruit.

99% Invisible recently devoted a 20 minute episode to the ingenious (and insidious) design of slot machines and how they've evolved. And those fruit icons have a long, long history.

Photo credit: Flickr user andresrueda via Creative Commons.

"To circumvent anti-gambling laws in the US, early slot machines masqueraded as vending machines," says 99% Invisible. "They gave out chewing gum as prizes, and those prizes could be redeemed for cash. That’s where the fruit logos come from. In fact, in the UK, slot machines are called 'fruit machines.' Despite outward appearances, slot machines have evolved dramatically since they first appeared in 1895."

That evolution is fascinating, since modern slot machines actually look fairly similar to models from half a century ago. They now have bright LCD screens and buttons to more rapidly start new games, but the visual language of slot machines is more or less unchanged. They still use fruit as icons. They still have levers on the side, which are totally optional--in a computerized system, the lever is simply a novelty. They're now called "legacy levers."

If you've ever wondered what the classic "BAR" symbol represents, it has a similar story. "The near-universal BAR symbol, which I always thought represented stacks of bars of gold, is actually based on the logo of the Bell Fruit Gum Company," says 99% Invisible's Roman Mars.

The three-reel slot machine design has been around for more than 100 years, and it's still what we think of first when we imagine slot machines. But many of today's machines are far more complex, even though they retain the same visual sensibilities. They'll feature multiple rows and columns of matchable objects (including fruit, of course) that produce hundreds--if not thousands--of possible combinations.

The genius behind this design is that it makes the slot machines tremendously profitable and even more addictive--players put in multiple coins for a single play, but are practically guaranteed a small win as a result, which keeps them playing longer. It's not about making money--it's about winning, and being sucked into the feedback loop of playing to win to play.

Most of the 99% Invisible episode deals with the psychology behind why slot machines are so effectively addictive, and why they make more money every year than the movies business, baseball, and theme parks combined. Slot machines may be laughed off as frivolous time-wasters compared to the real gambling going on at the Blackjack and craps tables, but those fruit-matching games rake in billions of dollars per year.