BEND, Ore. - A new study looking at why people play slot machines at casinos debunks the stereotype of poor, uneducated senior citizens gambling their Social Security pensions in hopes of a big payday.
In fact, co-author Sandy Chen, of Oregon State University-Cascades, and her colleagues found that the most common profile of a slot machine enthusiast was a female homeowner, between the ages of 55 and 60, with at least some college education and an annual household income of more than $55,000.
Results of the research have been published online in the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, and will be published in a print edition of the journal in 2013.
The study is important, the authors say, because there is little in the professional literature about the motivation for why people like slot machines despite casinos' acknowledged odds of taking gamblers' money over the long haul.
"Most of the studies on gambling look at problem gambling, casino atmospheres or general personality and motivational traits," said Chen, an assistant professor of Hospitality Management at OSU-Cascades. "There's just not a lot out there about why people are attracted to slot machines.
"And that is surprising," she added, "since the bulk of a casino's revenue comes from slot machines."
Chen said previous research has shown that some 70 percent of casino revenues come from slot machines, up drastically from the 1970s when that figure was closer to 40 percent. Not surprisingly, a 2006 survey showed that 71 percent of casino gamblers prefer slot machines and/or video poker over other games.
Just as popularity of slot machines has increased, however, so has the diversity of machines. Gone are the old-fashioned one-armed bandits that would offer rows of cherries, oranges, and plums. In their place is a dizzying array of machines featuring wizards, horse races, loud music, game show characters and other traits to lure potential customers.
Do they work? That is what Chen set out to discover. In her study, she surveyed more than 1,000 slot machine players to find out why they like slot machines and what characteristics they share. The gamblers were subscribers to Strictly Slots magazine and frequented casinos throughout the country.
What she found was that slot machine players fell naturally into four groups, which she calls utilitarian, excitement, multipurpose and relaxation gambling seekers.
"There are very different motivations for playing slot machines," Chen said, "so casinos may be making a mistake when they take a one-size-fits-all approach to marketing, or creating an atmosphere within their facility. They may be better off with a segmentation approach."
Utilitarian gamblers, in essence, are looking for something to do. Many are seniors, who are looking to kill time, reduce boredom, or simply get out of the house - and they are less motivated by financial rewards or excitement. Some, Chen said, enjoy people-watching as much as the actual slot play.
Excitement gamblers are looking for a buzz - the thrill of winning a jackpot, relaxing and having a good time. This group doesn't like progressive machines with bigger payouts, Chen said, because they don't pay off frequently enough to provide the excitement.
Multipurpose gamblers tend to be younger, less educated, have lower household income, and are less likely to be married and own a home. Their motivation is to have fun and win money, and they are attracted to themed games and other machines they consider "lucky" or fun to play.
Relaxation gamblers were the most educated and well-to-do, and played slot machines for the socialization and fun. However, they also like to stay within their denomination - usually 25-cent machines or $1 machines, and often look at slot play as a way to relieve day-to-day stress.
"Casinos can cater to these different types of gamblers," Chen pointed out. "Instead of having a long line of slot machines, for example, they can be arranged in a circle to maximize socialization for those that are motivated by that aspect. Socialization may be a major reason for people to continue going to casinos instead of choosing online gambling options.
"The study also suggests some differences, in general, between male and female slot players," Chen said. "Women are more into functional motives - the social experience, the excitement and the fun - whereas men tend to look more at the financial rewards. They want to make money."
Among other findings of the study:
Other authors on the study include Stowe Shoemaker, from the University of Houston, and Dina M. Zemke, Johnson & Wales University.
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Sandy Chen, 541-322-3164