Beyond Gambling Temptations: An Experimental Design Project to Detoxify Players from Irresistible Illusions of Gambling

  • Annamaria Andrea Vitali
  • Margherita Pillan
  • Pietro Righi Riva
Conference paper

DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-12157-4_23

Part of the Lecture Notes in Computer Science book series (LNCS, volume 8605)
Cite this paper as:
Vitali A.A., Pillan M., Righi Riva P. (2014) Beyond Gambling Temptations: An Experimental Design Project to Detoxify Players from Irresistible Illusions of Gambling. In: De Gloria A. (eds) Games and Learning Alliance. GALA 2013. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 8605. Springer, Cham


Last years have seen an increase diffusion of gambling in Italy: Italian population in 2011 spent around 80 million of euros playing games of chance [1], in spite of economic crisis. The increasing offer of gambling is partly tied to the increasing number of pathological gamblers. This paper aims to apply a design perspective - usually common in game design researches - on gambling interactive experience, understanding how games of chance are structured and how they are related to cognitive errors and superstitions that occur both in frequent or infrequent gamblers. As a first theoretical result we outlined an initial rhetoric framework of gambling, connecting cognitive errors and superstitions to the design and interactive attributes of games of chance, and supported by former researches in the field. Secondly, we suggested an experimental application of our approach suitable for further researches: a set of digital interactive artifacts, as serious games, providing meaningful gambling experiences and intended to lead players towards a new consciousness about their approach to games of chance.


Gambling Pathological gambling Meaningful play Play rhetoric Interaction design Games of chance 

1 Introduction: Research Process and Objectives

The word gambling defines all that games in which players bet money on uncertain event they can’t control, as for example roulette, dice, slot machine, et cetera. Games of chance fall under Caillois’ category of alea. With this term Caillois designated “all games that are based on a decision independent of the player, an outcome over which he has no control, and in which winning is the result of fate rather that triumphing over an adversary” [2]. In gambling players are all at the same levels: none can prevail over other players for his skills or abilities, as instead it happens for skill games.

Despite this clear definition, according to existing literature in the field [3], gamblers believe it is possible to find strategies, rules and indicators to foresee the result of a draw even if it relies on chance: gamblers play as they are playing a skill game. This inappropriate approach to gambling is due to the fact that games of chance are designed to hide chance and the independence of bets, as stated by Ladouceur [4]: players are induced by games features to believe they can increase their skills continuing gambling. When this perception prevails over any other emotions, pathological behavior may arise in vulnerable player, the pathological gambling, defined in DSM-IV [5] as a persistent and recurrent maladaptive gambling behavior, characterized by several symptoms: gamblers are preoccupied with gambling and think a way to find money to gamble, desire to plan future venture, need to gamble with increasing amounts of money in order to achieve the desired excitement and escape from real problems.

For this reasons, cognitive therapies aim to understand and fix how the pathological players perceive events that occur during a gamble session that means to understand and fix players’ perceptions and interpretation of chance.

The objective of this paper is to address the existent psychological researches on gambling by a design approach inherited from game design field. Firstly, the research provides a new gambling definition explaining how gambling can be interpreted from a design point of view and how it affects gamblers’ psychology and cognitions. Then we propose a categorization of play and game attributes of games of chance – the gambling rhetoric model – connecting gamblers’ cognitive errors to specific design attributes of games (with the support of former gambling researches in psychology field [6, 7, 8, 9]). This first theoretical outcome supports the idea that gamblers’ approach to gambling results from an interactive learning process while playing: it means that interactive playful and gambling experiences may be used as serious games suitably designed according to the gambling rhetoric model to fix player’s approach to gambling. As a result, we propose an experimental application of theoretical outcomes, a set of digital prototypes for meaningful interactive experiences supposing that it might be possible to prevent the beginning of pathological gambling increasing players’ awareness of their inappropriate approach to games of chance.

2 Reframing Gambling Experience: A Design Approach

Players’ perception and cognition about gambling reveals wrong approaches to games of chance. Players are immerse in intense perceptive experiences that depend on game features and play contexts: rules and mechanics, graphic features, sounds and rhythms of actions contribute to cognitive errors and illusions that could end up in pathological behaviors. This approach is widely supported in several research papers by Griffiths and Parke: they stated that there are structural characteristics in gambling, “that facilitate the acquisition, development, and/or maintenance of gambling behavior irrespective of the individual’s psychological, physiological, or socioeconomic status” [9] (p. 212). For this reason “by identifying and understanding how games are structured (i.e. game design and associated feature) we are really try to unravel what makes some games problematic for vulnerable players, what makes them playable or fun for social players and therefore, what makes it engaging and commercially successful” (ibd., p. 213).

Referring to these psychological researches, we propose a design-driven gambling definition based on a specific interpretation of play experience (Sect. 2.1): the aim is to provide a design approach to gambling explaining how it is suitably designed to affect gamblers’ perceptions and emotions during a gambling session.

2.1 Related Theories: Play as Interaction, Sense Making and Persuasion

Game design literature provides a number of definitions of play and game, and it’s interesting to notice how we can define gambling through some key points derived from those definitions [e.g. 10, 11, 12].

First of all gambling is a system of rules, designed to seem tougher than it actually is. It is an engaging activity against chance, as gamblers believe to have control over outcomes they can’t foresee. And last, gamblers are emotionally involved with the experience and the result of a gambling session, as they strongly believe to have the power to influence the outcomes.

For our purpose, it is interesting to stress the engaging and immersive characteristics of gambling experience, which we can explain starting from Pichlmair’s [13] definition of playing games. If playing games means experiencing an interactive process between players, setting, rules and game representations [13], by interacting with game representation, players are immerse in interactive and emotional experiences: as consequence they create meaning, because the interactive process between games and the players can be interpreted as a sense making process. Referring to Dewey’s Theory of Inquiry [14], in fact, interaction is an essential part of human cognitive processes because every action, decision, and behavior is resulted from iterative interactions with world representations: interactions are a “making-sense process” that generates meanings. Consequently, games as interactive and inquiry process on game representation, as any other cognitive process, enable meaningful play experiences [10]. Moreover the meaningful play resulting from interaction within game representations, rules and players, helps establishing players’ ideas, thoughts, and emotions. These perspectives, according to the definition of game design as design of choice [10], fit designers with an important role: they can influence player choices, expectations and emotions, by defining interactions and feedback between the player and the system. By this way we can explain the connection between playing game as interaction, learning process and the rhetoric power of design and interactive features in games, and then in games of chance too.

2.2 A New Definition of Gambling

Assuming last definitions of play as interaction, we reframed gambling experience from a design driven perspective: gambling is an interactive and emotional experience, an inquiry process between gamblers, rules and representation of chance in real world. The player through his choices – placing bets - has an active role and expresses his illusory beliefs to control the outcomes of the game. While playing gambling, the feedback and the difference between the actual results of a draw and player’s desired outcomes contribute to the onset of emotions, illusions and cognitive errors affecting players’ next choices. Gambling is interaction, because player’s choices depend on previous outcomes received from game system; and it is also sense making process, because gambler believes to have an active role on casual events due to expertise acquired continuing gambling and mental models derived from past experiences (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1.

A new definition of gambling: interactive experience representations

3 Mapping Gambling Experience: The Gambling Rhetoric Model

Defining gambling as a sense making process resulting from interpretation of signs of games confirms that games of chance are artifacts suitably designed to induce a specific cognitive interpretation of gambling phenomena, inducing behaviors through interactions. Consequently it’s possible to define a framework - we called gambling rhetoric1model – mapping signs and design attributes of gambling, according to three main categories: 1) mechanics [15], the rules of a game and all actions allowed to the players; 2) playworld elements [12], all the narrative elements of games, as visual and sound features; 3) context factors, rhetoric components of play environment.

Every component of these categories is put in relationship with the three main gamblers’ cognitive errors we took into consideration - near miss [16], suspension of judgment [6] and illusion of control [17] - that we defined gamblers’ dynamics [15] – players’ “run-time behavior” while playing according to mechanics and input/feedback game system. In the next paragraphs we are going to explain how different rhetoric attributes are related to each one of gamblers’ dynamics, supported by former gambling studies (Table 1).
Table 1.

Gambling Rhetoric Model, mapping gamblers’ dynamics and game features.

Dynamics/Cognitive errors




Illusion of control

Idiot skills [6, 9]

Complexity of rules

Reference system

Misleading information

Familiarity [9]

Misleading information in gambling environment

Near Miss

To find symbols or numbers similar to winning symbols or numbers

Waiting for draw results

Winnings and losses representation


Suspension of judgment

Money representation

Credit balance display

Speed [9]

Misleading light and sound effects

Verbal interactions [9]

Play Proximity and intrinsic association [8]

3.1 Illusion of Control

Langer defined illusion of control as “an expectancy of a personal success probability inappropriately higher than the objective probability would warrant” [17] (p. 311). Moreover, a number of play and game definitions [10, 12] defines play as an engaging activity in which the players believe to effect – and then control - the outcomes of the game. This is not what really happens in games of chance, for their intrinsic nature, but it is what it seems to gamblers – that is the illusion of control -, and this is enough to ensure gamblers’ emotional involvement: they strongly believe that their reasoned choice will increase win probability. In fact, as stated by Griffiths “in some chance settings, those conditions which involved factors of choice (e.g. being able to choose your own lottery ticket), familiarity (e.g. having a favorite fruit machine), involvement (e.g. being able to throw your own dice in a game of craps) and/or competition, stimulate the illusion of control to produce skill orientations” [7] (p. 352). From this point of view, most of the players experience illusion of control every time they decide to place a bet.

According to some observation made in gambling environment and former researches, from a design perspective in games of chance illusion of control is affected by those mechanics and interactions that Griffiths defined as idiot or pseudo skills [6, 9], all those useless interactions between gamblers and games interfaces: press the hold button in slot machine to stop a reel, press the start button, choosing a number at the lottery, choosing the bet size, choosing different bet strategy at roulette game. Gamblers do all these actions after a deep reasoning process ignoring that however they can’t affect the randomness of a draw. Idiot skills may be considered a consequence of an apparent complexity of rules: specific rules, supposed magical strategies (for example the wide number of bet types or mathematical strategies at roulette game) induce the player to think that a deep knowledge and expertise are required to achieve the best results.

Also playworld attributes, contribute to illusion of control hiding randomness and the independence of bet. In many games of chance the game reference system, for example the games based on numbers draws, has a strong influence on players’ choices, because they will choose their bets according to favorite numbers, birthday dates, or previous draws results. Some games, moreover, are suited with a report of last sessions results (misleading information): this makes the players think that there is a relationship between future draws session and paste one, but it is not true. Another example is games naming, as it happens for scratch cards: even if the mechanics of scratch cards are always the same, there are a lot of different types of this fortune tickets named and designed in different way, according to the different themes they want to recall. More the playworld recalled is known by players, more they will believe to have control on game results thanks to their previous familiarity [9] with game reference system.

In the end, there are some aspects in contexts of play influencing gamblers’ perception of control. We are referring for example to the presence of recent winnings announcements, or bet suggestions in lottery offices. They are misleading information as players believe that choosing a place is better than another one to increase win probability.

3.2 Near Miss

Near miss phenomena was described by Reid as “a special kind of failure to reach a goal, one that comes close to being successful. […] In such cases, the occurrence of a near miss may be taken as an encouraging sign, confirming the player’s strategy and raising hopes for future success” [16] (p. 32), and more “At a more behavioristic level it is conceivable that a near miss may to some extent have the same kind of conditioning effect on behavior as a success” (ibd., p. 34). For this reason, even if they are in losing conditions, players will continue to play. The near miss is strictly connected to the games objective and mechanics and players’ expectations: players have to guess a number or the right symbols match on slot machine reels, or find winning numbers on scratch card. The mechanics are always the same: players’ emotions grow while waiting for the draw results, while the ball jumps from one slot of the wheel to another, the reels of slot machine stop one after other, or numbers on scratch card are uncovered by players’ hands. In most cases, the player has the perception to be closest to the win, but in the end it doesn’t happen. However gamblers’ perception of a closest huge win is so strong that they will continue to bet. Near miss dynamic is supported also by playworld attributes (winning and losses representation): in slot machine for example win and defeat are not strongly differentiated by each other, as similar sounds and lights effects are employed in both the situations. This is why near wins could be perceived as real wins instead.

3.3 Suspension of Judgment

The last cognitive error is suspension of judgment about money expenditure. Gamblers often continue to play even if they are in financial losing conditions, because they do not really realize how much money they have spent before to reach a winning. According to Griffiths, suspension of judgments is due to all those “structural characteristics, which temporarily disrupt the gambler’s financial value system e.g. betting with chips instead of money at the roulette table where money’s true value can be disguised or seen as fun money” [6] (p. 115). We call the mechanic affecting this dynamic money representation and it is employed to shift gamblers’ attention on entertainment experience instead of money expenditure, for example when fiches or casino smart cards are used instead of money, gamblers play online gambling trough virtual account, winnings are paid as paper tickets that player can re-bet instantly. Another mechanic connected to suspension of judgment is the credit balance display in slot machine or online gambling. Although real time credit counter is usually employed, a more detailed total bet counter separated from a total win counter could be more useful to improve gamblers’ responsibility. All these features then, must be related to speed of play [9]: fast plays decrease gamblers’ attention to money expenditure, due to the lack of time for reasoning.

Playworld attributes like misleading sounds, lights and visual effects, cooperate in setting up the immersive and interactive experience of gambling. Games theme and style are often apparently simple and uninteresting, as simple and trivial as to seem the money bet by players. Colorful and funny written words and dialogues (verbal interaction [9]), invite players to play again and again like if money lost were not a real/serious issue. The same effect is achievable through some context attributes, as the proximity play or intrinsic association [8]: gambling offer outside casino is often associated to other daily activities, for example the presence of lottery pools office in shopping center, the possibility to buy scratch card at supermarket, slot machine located in bar and pub. These strategies offer people more opportunity to play gambling, as it is placed at the same level of other stuff such as drink a coffee with colleagues or buy food at supermarket, et cetera. By this way, the players undervalue the importance of money spent playing gambling.

4 Experimental Applications: The Design of Meaningful Gambling Experiences

The gambling rhetoric model and the new gambling definition provided, confirmed from a design perspective that gamblers’ perceptions and cognitive errors while playing, are affected by games of chance design: in vulnerable players this may set the beginning of pathological gambling. What type of solution can we provide as designer? The questions are: is it possible to change gamblers experience of gambling? Is it possible, through game play, improve users’ awareness about their cognitive errors to prevent the beginning of pathological behaviors? In this part of the paper, we propose an initial application of the theoretical approach toward the design of interactive and digital gambling experiences, as serious games, suitably designed according to the gambling rhetoric model to fix player’s approach to gambling [18]. These meaningful games are intended to lead players towards a new consciousness about gambling illusions, deconstructing games of chance. The aim of the projects is to use these artifacts like a playful prevention: if games of chance affect gamblers’ cognitive approach, then by the same way, we can change that approach through interaction and meaningful play experiences. This idea is supported firstly by the fact that as we have seen in previous paragraphs interaction is a sense making process, secondly because we decided to use gambling “language” to design products for gamblers: by this way the prototypes should be more attractive for our target users, the gamblers. For each prototype realized with Unity [19] and available to play here [20], we choose an existing game of chance (roulette and slot machine) and one of the main cognitive dynamic related to the game. Then we defined the message we want to communicate and the appropriate interactive grammars and interfaces suitably designed to convey the desired interactive experience. The concepts of the prototypes were previously presented as a poster during the Praxis and Poetics - Research Through Design Conference (3rd – 5th September 2013, Newcastle). In the next paragraphs each prototypes will be explained through the gambling rhetoric model.

4.1 Fast Roulette

Fast Roulette prototype intends to explain one of the most important fundamentals of gambling: house always wins in the end. The interactive grammar we designed is based on a fast simulation of one thousand draws that shows aspects of roulette game that usually are not undoing the emotions that occur every time players are waiting for the results. Players are invited to place their bets, and then to see draw by draw what would happen to their money through a line graph that displays real time credit balance and a set of counters. At the end of the fast simulation apart from the fact that player won or lost, the line graph displays all the losing events that preceded the end of simulation: probably in real world player would have stopped play before for lack of money. According to our rhetoric framework, this artifact deals with the cognitive error of suspension of judgment, here interpreted as lack of player’s awareness about money expenditure. If usually, as in many other games of chance, there are no possibilities to keep track of money bet or won, in fast roulette winnings and losses are clearly showed to the player revisiting the rhetoric power of money visualization and credit balance display: during the fast simulation, three counters and a line graph show actual player’s credit, the total amount of money bet and money won (Table 2, Figs. 2 and 3).
Table 2.

Fast Roulette: dynamics and rhetoric features explained.

Dynamic/Cognitive errors

Rhetoric features


Suspension of judgment

Mechanics: Money visualization

Credit balance display

House always wins

Fig. 2.

Fast Roulette, starting interface.

Fig. 3.

Fast Roulette, end of simulation: line graph display player’s credit balance.

4.2 Invisible Roulette

Favorite numbers, birthday dates, and statistical study of past drawn usually affect gamblers’ choices [21]: gamblers believe that a deep knowledge of rules and playworld elements of a game, will lead them to a certain win. These beliefs are tied to the apparent complexity of games of change rules hiding the randomness of gambling. For example, the first time you play at a roulette table you have the impression that a deep knowledge of all the different types of bets (inside bets, outside bets, straight, split, corner, column bets, dozen bets, black or red, odd or even et cetera) is required to have more chance to win. Invisible roulette explains illusion of control resulting from the rhetoric power of complexity of rules and game reference system (playworld rhetoric), by the gradual elimination of signs from game interfaces, questioning the player how he will decide his next bet: starting from a classic roulette game interface, at the end of our interactive experience the player will face a blank roulette, without colors or numbers on the table and on the wheel. The players will be forced to place random bet, because there will be no more signs and reference components affecting their reasoning: the ball will drop in one slot instead of another, apart from the number or the color over it. The wheel and table interfaces change draw after draw and players are asked to reason on their next choice: What if each slot is numbered? What if there are no numbers and colors? We provide the players four levels to play with four different interfaces (Table 3, Figs. 4, 5, 6 and 7).
Table 3.

Invisible Roulette: dynamics and rhetoric features explained.

Dynamics/Cognitive errors

Rhetoric features


Illusion of control

Mechanics: Complexity of rules

Playworld: Reference system

Numbers have not memory

Fig. 4.

Invisible Roulette, level 1: classic roulette table.

Fig. 5.

Invisible Roulette, level 2: roulette without colors.

Fig. 6.

Invisible Roulette, level 3: roulette with unconventional colors and without number

Fig. 7.

Invisible Roulette, level 4: the blank roulette

4.3 Slot Machine: What if?

The last prototype, Slot Machine: What if? aims to explain how the interestingness of a slot machine - a random event enriched with emotional and entertainment appeal - is partly tied to lights and sounds effects [6] (Table 4).
Table 4.

Slot Machine: What if?: dynamics and rhetoric features explained

Dynamics/Cognitive errors

Rhetoric features


Illusion of control

Playworld: Reference system


Near Miss

Playworld: Winnings and losses representation


Suspension of Judgment

Playworld: Misleading lights and sounds effects


From a design perspective, we can affirm, according to the gambling rhetoric model, that playworld characteristics have a great influence on slot machine gambling experience and the relative dynamics. Therefore the gradual elimination of playworld elements in this prototype reduces slot machine at its essential: an instant lottery.

The interactive experience is divided into five levels: lights and sound effects are turned on or off one after the other to provide the players different play experiences. The aim is to underline how the game would be boring without unusable and misleading special effects and when sounds and lights are employed only in win conditions: as a result the rhetorical framework of this prototype may be employed to effect all the three cognitive dynamics described in this paper. If we use light and sound effects only in win conditions, we could help the player to pay more attention to money expenditure, instead that use them to reinforce suspension of judgment. Moreover, also near miss is affected: lights and sounds in slot machine are employed to represent wins and losses, but the playworld of slot machine gambling is so rich and chaotic that it is quite difficult to recognize a successful bet, from an unsuccessful one, especially in case of near miss. If we do not use lights and sounds except in real win conditions, instead, we would help the players to understand that losing is more common than winning. In the end, illusion of control is enlightened in the last level of our prototype, where symbols on reels - as part of slot machine “misleading playworld” - are deleted: the players usually believe that symbols appear on reels according to a precise sequence that if learned, could allow them to foresee if the next symbols match, is a winning one or not. But, as slot machine is an instant lottery, it is not possible, so, to make players aware of it, a play experience without symbols and reference system was supposed (Figs. 8 and 9).
Fig. 8.

Slot Machine, level 1: lights and sound are turned on.

Fig. 9.

Slot Machine, level 3: lights and sound are turned of.

5 Conclusion

The experimental part of this research, proposed a solution to the beginning of pathological gambling, in a playful way: serious digital and interactive gambling experiences to explain how games of chance are structured, and how every players could be affected by intense emotions, perception and cognitive errors or illusions. The project is based on previous psychological researches and adopted the cognitive therapies approach, revisited through game design. Cognitive therapies in fact explain gamblers’ approach to gambling, but they also aim to help pathological gamblers in setting up new interpretations of gambling and chance: we supposed that it is achievable with the support of interactive meaningful games that involve directly the players inviting them to doubt of their beliefs about the possibility to foresee and control outcomes of a gambling session. Future researches could firstly evaluate the use of prototypes, testing and verifying their effectiveness in creating new meaning and awareness in gamblers.

Other researches must expand and refine the gambling rhetoric model connecting psychological researches and finding to design field. Moreover other experiments may apply the experimental approach we used for roulette and slot machine to every other game of chance, supposing the design of other interactive grammars based on the gambling rhetoric model.


In this research the term rhetoric refers to play rhetoric - the use of play activities and playful interactions to communicate meaning forming emotions and behaviors [12].


Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Annamaria Andrea Vitali
    • 1
  • Margherita Pillan
    • 1
  • Pietro Righi Riva
    • 1
  1. 1.Politecnico di MilanoMilanItaly

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