How electronic gambling machines work: Structural characteristics

How electronic gambling machines work: Structural characteristics

Charles Livingstone

AGRC Discussion Paper No. 8 — July 2017
close up of mathcing slot machine tokens

The purpose of this paper is to provide policy makers, regulators and others with information about key design characteristics of electronic gambling machines (EGMs). These characteristics include auditory and visual cues, “game maths”, and price and prize structure. They also include elements in the games that render them attractive to EGM users, and which appear to be associated with the establishment of persistent game utilisation or addiction. It is hoped that a better understanding of these characteristics will help policy makers and regulators to frame policies and interventions that will reduce harm to gamblers from EGM use.

Key messages

Electronic gambling machines (EGMs) are computers utilising sophisticated techniques, designed to maximise spending and “time on device” per user.

EGM designs very successfully employ psychological principals to maximise users’ bet sizes and machine usage. These characteristics have the effect of increasing the addictive potential of EGMs.

Users of EGMs, and policy makers as well, are mostly not well informed about the way the machines work, or the complex “game maths” behind them.

Internationally, Australian EGMs are known for their ability to maximise users’ spending and “time on device”, yet Australia has been slow to develop adequate policy responses to reduce harms.

Authors and Acknowledgements

Dr Charles Livingstone is a gambling researcher. His interest is in the relationship between poker machine gambling and socio-economic disadvantage and health inequity, and in the development and implementation of relevant harm minimisation policies and strategies. He has also researched the structural characteristics of poker machines and the relationship of these, and the structure of gambling systems, to the development of gambling problems. His current research is focused on mechanisms of gambling industry influence in relation to public policy, and on regulatory issues around development of best practice gambling policy.

Charles was a member (2010–11) of the Australian Government’s Ministerial Expert Advisory Group on Gambling. His research has been funded by the Victorian Gambling Research Panel, the Independent Gambling Authority of South Australia, the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, the Australian Research Council, local governments and primary care partnerships, the Victorian Department of Human Services, VicHealth, the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the Australian and New Zealand School of Government, UnitingCare Australia, and the Alliance for Gambling Reform Inc.

Charles is a member of the Public Health Association of Australia and provided submissions to the Productivity Commission’s two inquiries into gambling (1999 and 2010), as well as to numerous state and federal government Parliamentary inquiries and to members of parliament. He is a regular contributor to public debate on the issues of gambling reform.

Publication details

AGRC Discussion Paper
No. 8
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, July 2017.
20 pp.
Suggested citation:

Livingstone, C. (2017). How electronic gambling machines work. (AGRC Discussion Paper 8). Melbourne: Australian Gambling Research Centre, Australian Institute of Family Studies.


Gambling support

Are you experiencing issues with gambling?

Find the help which is right for you by visiting our Gambling help page.