Online gambling pulled in some US$50B worldwide in 2017. Kiwis betting in overseas casinos are thought to account for a couple billion of that. That’s a nice chunk of change. Growing each year. No surprise, then, that other online social services ape its methods. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, pokie makers should be flushing beet red at the way dating sites and apps are copying their psychological methods.
Consider the pokie experience. Press a button to spin the reels. They spin round and eventually rest on a result. Most of the time you get nothing. Often you get a little something. But sometimes, once in a blue moon, you get a big win. More rarely a life-changing jackpot. It’s no surprise that the click-to-refresh and infinite scrolling of our social newsfeeds and dating decks resemble the mechanics of a slot machine, said Tristan Harris, formerly “design ethicist” for Google. “You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward … or nothing,” Harris writes. We don’t know when we’ll be rewarded, and most of the time we’ll find nothing interesting or gratifying. But that’s what keeps us returning for more. You only need a big win or a jackpot occasionally to know the thrill of winning big and to want, even need, to repeat that rush. Natasha Schüll, author of Addiction by Design, says that online slots and social media are designed to immerse users in an endless habituation to the game. “In the online economy, revenue is a function of continuous consumer attention – which is measured in clicks and time spent.” She explains that “ludic loops” — repeating cycles of uncertainty, anticipation and feedback — deliver rewards and reinforcement that are just enough to keep you going. “If you disengage, you get peppered with little messages or bonus offers to get your attention and pull you back in,” Schüll notes. Dating sites love notifications. “S/he is looking at you.” “S/he’s matched you.” “You’re his/her favorite.” “S/he wants to flirt with you.” The notifications keep rolling in, remind you that you’re in play. That same randomness, expectation, and occasional gratification is the formula for engagement, and also for addiction. It’s just a matter of degree. ‘They are trying to grab users’ attentions,’ says Dr. Mark Griffiths of the International Gaming Research Unit, to “create a routine and habitually check their screens.’ Think now about the techniques dating sites employ to get you to use their services, and spend more of your hard-earned dollars. Consider Tinder, perhaps the seminal dating app. The basic app is free, like a free pokie. You have a deck of potential matches, stacked (we use the word advisedly) according to your preferences of age and proximity. The order appears random: you swipe right to show approval, left to show disapproval. Then, if your match swipes right on you, you are notified of a match and can engage in conversation. For sure, the rewards of a successful match are not nearly as pronounced as winning a million dollars from a spin on MegaMoolah or King Cashalot. The chance to engage your match in conversation is a shot at winning something more than a visual buzz or ego massage. If you play your proverbial cards right and apply your legendary gift of gab, you and your match could find yourself canoodling before the end of the night. Unlike a pokie, however, a big win may be just a good poke. But, no joke: that instant hook-up potential packs a powerful punch. If you’ve waded through a deck of ugly ducklings but one in a while end with a willing long-necked swan, that’s going to keep you coming back for another swim in the lake, day after day. What may be surprising is that of the 26 million Tinder matches each day, fewer than 10% of matches yield even a half-hearted “Hi.” It seems that many players are in it for the quick-fix of a match – what some have called “ego boosting gratification” — rather than engaging with another person let alone meeting them “in real”. Players end up habituated to the game even more than the outcome. It’s well known by know that this is habit forming is physiological. Games and dating both trigger the release of a chemical called Dopamine in the brain. What is less known is that this “dope” is associated with the want rather than the reward. You get the buzz just from wanting success, not by winning. On the other hand, many dating app players – like a blackjack card counter – are playing a numbers game. There are few penalties for swiping right, quickly and mechanically, to maximise the number of matches. By casting one’s proverbial net wide, one can generate a higher number of matches and then sift through those. From the fishing angle, you may cast your line a hundred times and end up with old boots, water bottles, seaweed and underage minnows. But land a shiny marlin or a hefty sea bass just once, and you’ll keep casting your reels for the big one that won’t get away. There are plenty of fish in the sea, just as there are endless pokie games to play. Each spin could be a winner: your bed partner for the night or a long-term engagement. Even if you rarely win, that rare jackpot is thrilling enough to keep you hooked. Just like that fish. Most dating sites and apps are based on monthly subscriptions, not success. But some apps go beyond the Tinder model with gamification techniques similar to the free spins, credits and points with which casinos and game studios trigger and enhance engagement potential. Badoo, another swipe-right app, will let you pay more to see who has viewed your profile or swiped you right. For paid credits you can converse with a someone who hasn’t right-swiped you. Popular prom queen profiles cost more than pock-marked nerds. Essentially, pay to win. So what’s the dating app equivalent of hitting the jackpot in a pokie? You want a life-changing experience? How about finding a life-partner, just by swiping right? Dating sites sprinkle their promo pages and PR with pics and stories of happy couples who matched on line and, lo and behold, lived happily ever after. Or at least a few months or more. That fact that only 5% of couples, according to Pew research, met online is not a deterrent. You and your future beloved could be the one in twenty. For sure, there are differences between the genders, in dating as in gaming. Males tend to return over and over to dating sites to add to their little black contact list and add another notch in their Apple Watch. Females may be more inclined to hope to right-swipe a Prince Charming closet millionaire who will take them away from it all. In either case, it is the very rarity of the reward, like the elusive pokie jackpot, that keeps them coming back. And back