The Psychology of Casino and Mobile Game Design

By Norman Chan

How Las Vegas casino floors are meticulously designed to keep you happy while losing money.

At the end of Martin Scorsese's movie Casino, Robert De Niro's character laments the modern commercialization of Las Vegas--the transition from a romanticized notion of smokey Old Vegas to the glamorous family-friendly resorts which he disdainfully compares with Disneyland. But while De Niro's Ace Rothstein scoffed at casinos turning into tourist attractions, it's actually very good business. As Jonah Lehrer writes in a profile for The New Yorker (and excerpted in Wired), modern casino design is a very calculated business, crafted by interior designers that not only understand aesthetic appeal, but the psychology of the players gambling there.

Photo Source: Flickr user Tukatuka via creative commons

The subject of Lehrer's profile, Roger Thomas, is the brains behind the Bellagio and Wynn resorts, lavishly designed casinos which violated all previous rules in casino design--and making more money as a result. It's not just about keeping patrons clueless about what time is it (casinos never have clocks) or designing labyrinth-like floorplans so players are constantly being funneled back to the casino floor, it's also about subtly creating a pleasant atmosphere to reduce stress and convey a "playground" environment. University of Guelph professor Karen Finlay conducted a study testing various casino designs:

“The data is clear. Gamblers in a playground casino will stay longer, feel better, and bet more. Although they come away with bigger losses, they’re eager to return.”

Finlay notes that the effectiveness of such designs comes at the expense of the guests, who have been persuaded by flowers and nice furniture to squander money on games that are rigged in favor of the house. According to her findings, Thomas’s designs have a particularly marked efect on those guests who normally don’t gamble. The seduction of his décor, perhaps, is that it doesn’t feel like a gambling environment. The beauty is a kind of anesthesia, distracting people from the pain of their inevitable losses.

[Interesting aside: Finlay conducted her experiments using a Panoscope--360-degree environmental simulator not unlike a personal holodeck.]

This got me thinking about how the psychology of design applies to the digital equivalent of slot machines--micro-transaction-based mobile games. And make no mistake, Angry Birds and Tiny Tower are very much analogues to casino games. They all exploit the same behavioral traits and tendencies that we're all susceptible to. David Caolo's piece on the behavioral exploitation in Angry Birds explains clearly how the game is a very traditional Skinner Machine, offering just enough positive reinforcement to keep players hooked. And often, players can't control themselves, which has led to lawsuits over the issue of who's to blame when people's habits are exploited.

Image Credit: NimbleBit

The advantage of mobile games is that the designers don't have to spend hundreds of billions creating a comfortable and welcoming environment for you to play--you're already playing in the places that are comfortable and convenient for you, like at home or during a commute. Instead of spending design efforts on set dressing, they can focus on making their money machines look and play as much like a game as possible. The cute 8-bit graphics of Tiny Tower is the mobile gaming equivalent of the Bellagio's granite floors and marble statues--expertly designed distractions. Like casino designers, game designers never want you to think about the way your wallet is being drained. You're not losing money, you're spending it. And just as Las Vegas has slowly become more like Disneyland, our mobile games are becoming more like blackjack and slot machines.

The good news is that you can beat the system. The casinos don't always win. That's perhaps best exemplified by Don Johnson, the man who took Atlantic City for over $15 million, not by card counting, but by evening the odds and exploiting the casinos' accommodations though negotiation. Johnson knew that the only way to win was by understanding the system and playing the math. But with mobile games, the math isn't so easy. $10 spent in Tiny Tower may equate to a hundred hours otherwise spent grinding through game. The only winning move may be to take a cue from another movie, and not play at all.