The psychology of slot symbols: how iconography influences player behaviour

By | December 21, 2023



Imagery has always been a central part of the slot gaming experience. Even manufacturers of the most primitive one-armed bandits knew the power that could potentially be harnessed by employing psychology to attract players and keep them playing. 

It remains no less true today that, through imagery, operators and developers know exactly how to push our buttons.

Nostalgia and imagery

Amongst the most potent of human emotions is nostalgia, a wistful yearning for a previous time, whether we lived through it or not. 

Classic slot symbols, such as 7s, bars, bells and fruit, are all used to elicit a feeling of nostalgia for the time of traditional, physical machines in brick-and-mortar casinos. This has the effect of making us feel like we’re engaging with something wholesome and familiar, and this familiarity in turn serves to reassure us that whatever we’re doing is okay.

By evoking memories of a simpler time, whether on a conscious or subconscious level, and whether the player actually experienced those times or not, a zone of psychological comfort and safety can be created for the player.


Slot players are often dreaming of those big, life-changing wins, and the iconography of slot machines feeds on this, providing reassurance that one’s big win is always just around the corner.

By employing images which suggest wealth, such as coins, dollar symbols and stacks of cash, slot machines continuously remind us that there’s real money on the table, and that this particular game offers a potential path to riches.

The power of colour

Colour psychology is a scientific field in its own right, and slot machines have been utilising the wealth of research on this topic since their conception. 

The overall brightness of slot machines stimulates the player’s brain, keeping them engaged, whilst specific colours are used to create a unique ambience, giving each game an identity related to its colour palette. 

Certain colours can evoke certain emotions, and there are many colour-related patterns which can be seen across modern slot machines. For instance, greens are often used in the design of slot machines, to elicit a sense of nature and freshness. Similarly, golds are used to suggest wealth and prosperity.

Familiar themes

The iconography of recurring themes is another way that designers can create specific associations with their games in the minds of their players.

Popular themes include ancient Egypt (Cleopatra, Magic of the Nile), the luck of the Irish (Rainbow Riches, Pot o’ Gold), and many more. Recently, there’s been an upsurge in the number of games based on fishing themes (Big Bass Bonanza, Golden Catch).

Familiar symbolism also comes in the form of existing intellectual properties, such as TV shows (Deal or No Deal, Game of Thrones), musical groups (Guns N’ Roses, Kiss), and popular movies (Rocky, Beetlejuice, The Godfather). 

These slot games may be licensed, or they may simply refer to these IPs in an unofficial capacity. Either way, players enjoy the familiarity they offer, as well as the chance to engage with references to their favourite media.

Some games even allow operators to become the theme, customising the game as they see fit. For example, Fluffy Favourites can be adapted to reflect the theme of an operator’s website, reinforcing brand loyalty within the game. 

The psychology of winning

It’s the idea of a win that keeps players playing, and slot machine designers use this fact, along with established psychological theories and phenomena, to make their games gripping.

For instance, cognitive biases are thought processes which are often observed, according to which the human brain tends to follow certain heuristic paths, simplifying information and passing it through a system of mental filters. 

In terms of slot machine design, this means that, for example, a player who comes close to hitting a high-value combination of symbols is likely to interpret this as almost winning, which has the effect of making them more likely to spin again.

The psychological concept of conditioning can also be applied to slot machine design. Winning combos are often accompanied by celebratory sound effects and animations, including raining coins and victorious trumpets, creating positive associations in the minds of players, and encouraging them to seek this reward out again.

Psychology and ethics in gambling

There are, of course, moral and ethical implications of applying psychology to gambling. At what point does it become coercive? When is suggestion actually manipulation? The burden of answering these questions and monitoring appropriate slot machine design falls on the Gambling Commission. 

The Commission have already implemented several rules which seek to minimise problem gambling and the development of bad habits, such as banning auto-play functions, limiting the time between spins, and ensuring that players have access to safer gambling tools

However, it may be the case that more could be done to educate players on the psychological effects of symbolism in their favourite games.

Beating the system

Being aware of the psychological methods used by operators to keep a person playing is the first step in ensuring that one isn’t being manipulated. 

Making good use of bonuses and promotions is a good way to enjoy better value gaming, and setting strict limits will help to ensure that players only spend what they can afford to lose.

Online casino free spins are a great way to try out slot games without risking real money. Customers can get free spin offers from no-deposit sign-up bonuses, or use the available demo versions to try games out for free.

Because many psychological methods operate on an unconscious level, and therefore cannot necessarily be noticed, good responsible gambling practices are a must if we are to ensure that gambling takes place in a healthy environment, and that players are not being taken advantage of.

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