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The psychology of online casinos


The online gambling market is arguably one of the biggest success stories of the internet age and with revenues set to top $100bn by 2024, it is a sector that isn’t going away any time soon.

So how do online casino operators manage to captivate such a large percentage of the population?

The answer is psychology and specifically the blend of internet marketing and gambler/risk taker psychology.

So what techniques do online casinos use and are they necessarily all bad?

Online casinos aren’t about risk

Whilst the users of casinos ( and indeed those who write about them) may focus on the risk/reward aspect, for operators risk is the furthest thing from their minds.

Casino designers are students of human psychology and examine in minute detail how people think, feel, and behave.  Every year operators spend millions of dollars trying to understand the psychology of a gambler.

The aim is to take a scientific approach towards the art of gambling and to develop casino offerings that will get people to open accounts and return over and over.

So what methods are employed to get people to hand over their cash and keep doing so?

The thematic casino

The first interaction with a potential customer is incredibly important and online casino operators understood a long time ago that they needed to make their users comfortable with their environment.

One of the key benefits of an online casino is that it doesn’t suffer from the ‘boys club’ stigma of brick and mortar establishments, this means that it can be relevant for a much wider demographic.

The housewife who wouldn’t dream of visiting her nearest casino or the housebound person who couldn’t physically go to their local Gentian are both good examples of new markets that both have significant online potential.

One of the ways to make an online offering attractive is to use thematic branding using sports, TV shows, movies or celebrities as themes for a casino site making the user feel less like they are in a casino than a place they enjoy.

A constant reward system

When a player wins in a casino they gain gratification which makes a player’s brain release dopamine, the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter.

When a player wins they get a hit of dopamine and if they get regular small hits then they are more likely to continue with the behavior.

In other words, it is a  cycle of motivation, reward, and reinforcement.

The best way to keep people online is to give them regular treats and the casino does this by handing out:

  • Instant win games
  • Loyalty points
  • Leaderboards
  • VIP ladders
  • Free spins, multipliers, wildcard wins
  • Bonuses for sharing on social media
  • Deposit multipliers
  • Bonuses for playing on mobile devices
  • App download bonuses

Allowing anonymity

According to Dr. Mark Griffiths, Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at Nottingham Trent University, “In online live casino gaming, the anonymity of the internet allows players to privately engage in gambling without the fear of stigma,”.

This is important as users want to be able to play without feeling guilty or ashamed and online casino owners do everything they can to ensure that anonymity is retained.

Developing social interactions

If users are going to stick around then they need to feel comfortable and that they are among friends.

Many casinos encourage this by developing in and out of game messaging to allow people to form relationships with other players.

In practice, this means that people are more likely to stay online longer and will feel more comfortable trying different games as their friends share their experiences.

For people who have little in the way of meaningful interactions offline, the development of these cyber-relationships can be a significant benefit and often they are available whether the user gambles or not.

Understanding their users

In the world of marketing, a deep understanding of the target market is like gold and online casinos are no different.

A good example of this is the rise of the Bitcoin Casino where users wager cryptocurrency rather than real-world or ‘fiat’ currency. These sites offer a wide range of games from blackjack to slots to poker but the one thing that they have in common is that the wagers are made in crypto.

Online casino owners realised that people who own bitcoin spend a high proportion of their time online, are risk-takers and often have a surfeit of bitcoin that can only be used in a limited number of places.

Consequently, they invested in developing payment systems that could take bitcoin and crypto themed casino sites that would attract this very specific audience.

Again this is founded on the thematic principle and the social interaction aspect as bitcoin users feel more positive about using a casino also used by their peers.

Losses disguised as wins

If dopamine is released by a win, then the anticipation of a dopamine hit and the subsequent denial can cause people to become down and feel negatively about the casino environment.

To counter this casinos develop the loss disguised as a win phenomenon.

Typically users will bet say $2 and win $1 but this will be accompanied by flashing lights and winning type symbols making it ‘feel’ like a win.

Research has shown that a series of small wins that total less than the amount staked is seen more positively than one or two large wins that total more than the amount won.

This means that it isn’t the amount won per se, but the number of times that the user wins. In other words the more dopamine hits they get.

Developing trust

The casino sector, whether that is brick and mortar or online has something of a ‘shady reputation.

But advances in cybersecurity means that online gaming is safer than ever before however, many gamblers simply don’t trust online casinos.

Consequently, online owners have had to make great efforts to promote the security users data and the payment process to reassure new gamblers.

Tackling problem gambling

Often casinos, and in particular, online casinos are seen as a wholly negative thing with great swathes of problem gamblers addicted to playing any game they can however the research tells a different story.

In fact, in a recent University of Nottingham study published in the British Journal of Psychology, Richard J. E. James, Claire O’Malley, and Richard J. Tunney suggest that problem gamblers account for only between 0.4% and 0.9% of all online account holders.

This means that the vast majority of account holders are able to manage their online gambling experience and, given that they return consistently, enjoy the experience.

The problem is though that the more issues there are, the more likely that regulators will step in and place more restrictions upon online casinos and so they have understood that they need to clean up their act.

The ability for users to set limits to their deposits and daily wagers, enforcing limits on how much can be wagered or how long sessions can last, and ensuring that users are sufficiently educated in how the games work are all methods that casinos have used to head off criticism.

Online casinos – practical psychology at work

If you want to see psychology at work in everyday life then you could do much worse than visit an online casino.

Every aspect is designed to get you to open an account, play games and importantly, return and the sector is developing every day.

This means that new techniques are constantly being developed allowing the casino to increase its user base.

Why not take a look and see how many different ways online casinos use psychology as part of their business model?