The modern-day slot machine and its reel strips were invented by Charles Fey in 1898 with the Liberty Bell three-reel slot machine. Ever since the Liberty Bell was introduced to saloons, reel strips have been the dominant method of displaying winning combinations for self-operated games of chance.
Slot machines have long been an integral part of the gambling industry. Over the decades, slots have become a larger and larger share of casino revenues, particularly in the case of regional casinos. Traditionally, slot machines create a predictable pattern for players to engage with by relying on physical or virtual reel strips to display outcomes.
But why has the reel strip, as a form to display outcomes, endured for so long as the dominant gambling visualization? In a world of ever-expanding entertainment options, is it time to break the reel strip paradigm?
Reel strips are essentially the visual representations of symbols on the slot machine’s spinning reels. They are carefully designed to create specific patterns that determine the outcome of each spin. Slot machine reel strips can show the winning pattern in an almost infinite number of ways. They can show a winning combination on one center pay line, or they can show winning outcomes across 3,125-plus “Ways,” with symbols just needing to show up on adjacent reels.
These patterns provide a sense of familiarity to players. No doubt, slot machines and their reel strips have become more complicated over the last 125 years, but at the end of the day, they are all just pattern recognition devices.
To understand the dominance of reel strips, you must start by understanding “flow” as coined by distinguished professor of psychology Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is a state of intense focus and enjoyment when individuals are fully immersed in an activity.
Couple the concept of flow with the idea that the human mind is hard-wired to look for patterns, and one begins to understand the allure of slot machines. In this context, the patterns presented by reel strips can facilitate this state of flow as the player is absorbed by the spinning reels and looking for winning combinations.
Said another way, the player is in a state of flow looking for winning patterns. As described by Csikszentmihalyi, when a person enters a state of flow, their “sense of time disappears. You forget yourself.” In other words, you escape. Escape is one of the key reasons people play slot machines, if not the key reason.
While reel strips have been successful in capturing the attention of players, they have also limited the potential for innovation and diversification. There have been some examples of slot machines that have already broken the reel strip paradigm, the biggest being video poker machines. Beyond video poker, bonus games without reel strips, within traditional reel-strip games, have also become very prevalent; for example, pick ’em bonuses. So too are electronic table games, which saw accelerated adoption throughout Covid and beyond.
Beyond those examples, we find few instances of creative game designers developing a base slot game that does not use reel strips. Examples such as Deal or No Deal, Lighting Zap and Crush are few and far between.
All that said, we need to be mindful of the “increasingly popular and absorbing form of play that blurs the line between human and machine, compulsion and control, risk and reward,” as described by Natasha Dow Schüll, in her book Addiction by Design.
Roughly 5 percent of gamblers do have an unhealthy relationship with gambling. Game designers would be wise to keep this in mind when creating new game mechanics. Ideally, they will create games that bring enjoyment to those who can partake in gaming responsibly, without furthering the small minority’s unhealthy relationship with gaming.
The healthy gaming population is certainly large enough for a robust industry without having to take advantage of problem gamblers. Any new game dynamic should be designed with an effort to encourage a healthy relationship with the player and our form of entertainment. To be blunt, it is the industry’s responsibility to implement protections and provide resources for the 5 percent.
The casino floor as a whole does have a fair amount of diversification. A player can go from a wheel-based game to a card-based game to a video-based game all within a couple of feet, and often does. There are even casinos that still have old-school coin pushers, and the fan-favorite Sigma Derby Horse racing game.
Each of these different types of gaming has seen innovation over the years, but for slot machines, most of the innovation has come from making the machines physically bigger, brighter and louder, or by making their screens curved or even adding a sound or motion chair (that last example was sadly short-lived).
This is all well and good, and those physical attributes certainly attract people to sit down to a machine, but it is the game math and the way it displays winning outcomes that get players into the state of flow—to escape and really enjoy the experience. It is time for more innovation around the game dynamic and the way “winning” is displayed on the screen.
The industry has an opportunity to find a new game dynamic that does not use reel strips, but still affords the player the enjoyment of flow. Who will be the first to create a game that successfully disrupts the reel-strip paradigm? I have no doubt that person or company will be handsomely rewarded for their efforts.