Nothing is more pleasant than victory. Except maybe a little bit of a loss. With pomp.
In his 2017 book Irresistible: The rise of addictive technology and the business that keeps us hooked Author Adam Alter describes a tactic that slot machine manufacturers have used to make people feel like they’ve won something even if they’ve lost. Imagine the playing field in a slot machine. In the classic version of the game, you see three rows of three columns of symbols, but only the center row matters. If you bet $1 per spin and get three of the same symbol on that row, you win! Otherwise, you will lose. Even if there are three “Jackpot!” icons in the top or bottom row.
Now imagine a machine that allows you to double your bet to $2, so that it pays out if you land a winning hand at or top row or average. Or let’s say the machine lets you bet $3 so you win if Any out of three rows is the winner. Some machines take this idea even further, allowing you to create winning combinations from any continuous line of symbols. For example, a cherry in the first column of the top row, a wildcard in the middle column of the middle row, and a cherry in the third column of the bottom row. But the catch is that you have to pay for every “line” you want to play.
And this cost of all these bets on all these rows can add up to the fact that it will wash away any individual winnings. Sometimes you get three cherries in a row and that brings in $2 with a lot of fanfare. But if you spent $3 to win those $2, you still lost $1.
But still it can Feel very much like a big win when you get more than you put in. Although it is not. I think this also happens with the “story cubes” that some game systems use, such as the Star Wars RPG.
Psychologist Mike Dixon and his colleagues call it “losing disguised as winning,” and they did a little experiment to show how it can be just as exciting. They hooked up test subjects to machines to monitor their heart rate and skin electrical conductivity, both indicators of how excited someone is. They then asked the subjects to complete a possibly envious task: play Lucky Larry’s Lobstermania, a virtual slot machine in which players can bet on multiple “play lines” much like the one I just described. Also, as I have already described, it often happened that a bet on several lines on one spin could result in a small win, but the calculation was such that it resulted in a loss – a loss disguised as a win, given that the game would still be celebrating. a match of three clams or starfish on a payline. As an added incentive, the experimenters told the subjects that they would receive real cash payouts if they were lucky with their virtual gambling.
Of course, they found that the subjects freaked out when their loss was masquerading as a win. Not as much as when they were winning big enough to get a real win after the cost of the bet, but consistently more than other losses.
Like I said, I see this effect can come through in tabletop RPGs as well. One of the things I love about the Star Wars RPG is its bone system. It’s a system that allows the cubes to focus on storytelling rather than the simple binary success/failure outcomes of a task.
Using this system, players roll up to six types of dice when they want to do things like pilot an X through a debris field or blow up a stormtrooper. The three dice are “positive” and refer to how well the character is performing at the task at hand and how favorable the circumstances are for him. The rest of the dice are “negative” and refer to how difficult the task is in a given situation and what forces are at work against the character. Some results of “positive” dice can be nullified by “negative” dice and vice versa.
Below is a quick guide to the system if you want to understand it fully, but the idea is that in addition to unambiguous success or failure in action, players can “succeed with threats” or “fail with advantages”. So, just like the players, they can disguise losses as wins.
A quick example: Let’s say the player fires at a group of stormtroopers racing through a blast door. The story dice fail – the shot misses – but they result in an “advantage” result, so the missed shot hits the blast door controls, causing them to half-close and inconveniencing the last few stormtroopers still behind the doorway. Not as big a win as eliminating an enemy, but still a bit satisfying and exciting in balance.
The system disguised defeat as gain. And the same principles come into play as in the case of the player, but in such a way that it does not cost anyone anything. Maybe that’s why it’s so much more fun than rolling a 20-sided die and reading a simple pass/fail result.