The Neuroscience of the Near Miss: Slot Machines and Videogames

i-39c2b65ea4237d84c49ae8bde4337550-Slot_machine.jpgKenny Rogers may have outlined a comprehensive life philosophy in terms of poker strategy, but in his pantheon of axioms, more important than knowing when to hold and/or fold 'em is knowing when to walk away. Unfortunately, life is more often like a slot machine than a game of poker. According to new neuroscience research, those one-armed bandits dig their claws in deep using be tricks based on our brains' reward systems. Though there's no skill involved in determining a slot machine's outcome, by giving the appearance of a near-win, the machine provides a jolt of pleasure even with a loss, inspiring another attempt.

Check out posts from Mo Costandi and Jonah Lehrer analyzing the new paper--and don't forget The Gambler's advice.

I've always been interested in the intersection between games and science. They're increasingly interesting things to do science with (and within), but from a purely artistic/cultural perspective, I think they're the medium that most lends itself to talking about science. And I think the psychology and neuroscience behind the near miss phenomenon has a lot to do with it.

I was very tempted to get into this during the most recent round of the "games as art" debate. I think PZ's horde more-or-less took care of it in his comment thread, but the on thing I would stress is that games are a medium that are uniquely suited to conveying messages about processes and systems: how and why things work the way they do. I don't think it's a stretch to say that readers here are predisposed to appreciate the kind of motivations, emotions, attitudes, and perspectives that come along with doing just that.

I'm not just talking about videogames, though they are great for building all sorts of really complex and intricate processes and adding a narrative layer on top. The research in Mo and Jonah's post involves an extremely simple game that could be replicated with loaded dice, but the important commonality is that the player is getting enjoyment out of figuring out the rules, specifically, how to bend them to his or her favor.

When videogames were technologically limited from matching the narrative depths found in movies and books, they heavily relied on the "near miss" phenomenon to keep people pumping quarters into them. This wasn't an outright trick, since unlike the slot machines here, some skill was involved and you could use the information gleaned from a near miss to hit your target next time.

Modern videogames have largely eschewed this pleasurable frustration to focus on more cinematic storytelling, but the ones that are truly pushing the medium forward synthesize the process (gameplay) and the product (narrative) into something greater than the sum of its parts. And I think that's one of the reason that this is, for a lack of a better term, a scientific medium.

There is some level of iteration present in all forms of gameplay. Whether it's strict trial and error or more complex hypothesis testing, mastering a game requires systems thinking. Like any good scientist, we take pleasure in mentally taking apart and recombining the systems presented to us until we find a solution. The nasty beauty of the near miss effect in the case of slot machines is that it subverts this most basic instinct: there's only the illusion of a solution.

Game designers who have motivations other than bilking people out of money can use aspects of this phenomenon to tell stories about science, or to actually teach it and do it. Check out this Big Think interview with Katie Salen, a game designer who's founded a school based on these concepts:

With the unexpected success of videogames like Portal (which is free right now, by the way), or experimental art game designers like Jason Rohrer, I'd wager we're going to be seeing a lot more of this kind of stuff leave the indie and educational spheres and into the mainstream.

Of course, this is all coming from the perspective of a lifelong gamer. What's your experience of the science of games (or games of science)?

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