The short answer is that it doesn’t matter. Beer bottles, glasses, shots (bullets or one-ounce glasses full of rotgut whiskey), buzzers, dancing icons, Betty Boop dolls, Wheels of Fortune, Dick Tracy, Monopoly boards, I Love Lucy, or The Munsters—none of this matters at all. It makes no difference whether the machines use real wheels that spin, or a computer screen where icons scroll by. None of these gizmos make any difference at all. Once you’ve got the computer chip in place, there is no limit on what kind of bells and whistles can be created to enhance your playing experience. There’s even a series of slots based on Saturday Night Live including the Church Lady, the Coneheads, and Hans und Franz!
All this cutesy-pie stuff is utterly and totally irrelevant. Many of you are going to find this hard to believe, but trust us, please. We’re right. And to prove our case, we’ll examine the various kinds of machines that dot the casino floors and provide you with some of the “reel truth” about the questions that Lenny in Virginia raised.
Many of the slots you find on the casino floor are entirely passive. You just make your bet, press the spin button, and wait to see what happens. Your only real choice is to decide how many coins to play on each spin. In spite of the growing popularity of newer machines with bells and whistles, passive slots have been, and still are the core of the industry and dominate casino floors across the land. While they still represent the industry standard, our guess is that they will slowly diminish in popularity because newer machines have some very cool features that make them more attractive, especially to newer and younger players.
Some of these newer varieties can be called “semi-active.” They are semi-active because every so often the wheels wind up in a position that gives the player an opportunity for some additional action. The most common of these are the wildly popular Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy machines. On both machines a bonus play is activated when the initial spin results in the key symbol landing on the payline. On the Jeopardy machine the player hits a button that activates a bonus board that clicks down to the winning amount—accompanied by the Jeopardy theme music. On the Wheel of Fortune machine a separate wheel is activated that spins until it stops on the player’s bonus win. Both machines share this classic feature: As the payout looms ever closer, the bonus frequently comes down to a choice between a relatively small win such as 25 coins, and a large payout of 100, 500, or even 1,000 coins. And while hope springs eternal, the choice is not yours but has already been made.
These machines are an engaging variation on an earlier innovation that first appeared quite a few years ago, the “nudge” machine. On these machines, when special symbols land immediately above or below the payout line, that symbol gets “nudged” up or down to give the player an “unexpected” win. On the nudge machines, however, the player doesn’t do anything to activate the movement. On these newer machines the bonus action is initiated by the player.
But neither of these machines include the newer ones that Lenny was asking about. The newest machines—and they keep coming out with new innovations in slot technology with increasing regularity—contain a host of innovative features that give the player, in Lenny’s words, “the impression that you are controlling your own destiny.” These “active slots” are almost certain to become enormously popular in the future for several reasons. They add gimmicks, and gimmicks are something most slot players love. They also have a kind of video-game quality to them that is attractive to the newer generation of players, many of whom were raised on video games and other electronic devices. And as Lenny suspects, the newest machines have a seductive element that lets players convince themselves that they actually have some control over the outcome. On top of all this, they will be loved by casino operators because the payouts are exactly the same as any other machine, regardless of whether it is a traditional passive slot or one with semi-active elements.
All the bells and whistles are really window dressing and in the final analysis, they just don’t matter. They are as irrelevant as the wheels themselves. In fact, the very symbols on the screen are irrelevant. We often talk about slots as though the random number generator, or RNG, that picks the outcome on each play is picking a particular outcome. But this is actually just a convenient metaphor for describing the underlying workings of the machine. In reality, what the RNG does is choose a payout. The particular set of symbols that ultimately appear on the payline is simply the computer’s way of telling you what that payout was. Think of it as a coded message. Most of the time it’s telling you that you’ve won nada, but sometimes it tells you that you’ve made a real killing.
Yes, the wheels are irrelevant. The screen is a sham. They really aren’t telling you anything except how you won or lost on that particular spin. Behind the screen—buried under the wheels, symbols, icons, cartoon characters, beer halls, weight lifters, and Coneheads; behind Alex Trebek, Austin Powers’ Time Portal, the Game of Life, or even Betty Boop on a motorcycle—reside modern, computer-controlled slot machines that are really nothing more than a list of numbers, and each of those numbers is associated with a particular payout. You put your money in and press a button or pull a handle. The computer then picks an outcome, and you are told what it is.
But if the computer that runs the slot machine just printed your payout or flashed some numbers representing your win, no one would play it. It would be a total, crashing bore. So the folks who build these babies keep working to develop more and more interesting gimmicks. While you watch that wheel spin slowly and agonizingly as it painfully passes over the $1,000 spot and settles (groan) on one worth a paltry $25, your heart pumps, your heads spins, you can almost feel the soft fabric of the new suit you’re going to buy with that grand. While Lenny watches the “mystery glass” shatter on the third try and a pathetic $10 bonus is added to his coin hopper, you can feel his pain as he wonders what would have happened if he could have cracked it on the second try.
The people who design these machines are devilishly clever. They get your attention with familiar characters, popular games, and famous celebrities. They feed the illusion that whatever a player does is meaningful, and that adds interest to the playing process. These machines are fun. And that’s why so many of us love slots. But the truth, Lenny and spouse, is that nothing you do makes any difference at all to the payout you receive. It was all determined the instant you hit that button. The rest is just a grand illusion, a sleight of hand, no more real than a magician sawing a lady in half.
So don’t sweat the small stuff. Pick a machine that looks like it’s going to be fun to play and have as much fun as you can with it. If breaking beer bottles does it for you, go bust a couple. If agonizing over where Vanna’s wheel is going to stop gives your life a bit of a buzz, well then go for it. But don’t for a second think that anything you do makes a difference. We hope you don’t look at us as though we’re a couple of guys who are spilling the beans about a magician’s illusions. But that’s just the way it works.