Randomness is part of the chaos of the universe, impacting everything from the smallest particles to the decisions we make every day.
What makes this concept even more interesting is that it has useful applications in a range of contexts, and humans have learned to harness randomness for their own benefit.
One excellent example of this comes in the form of slot machines, modern iterations of which use random number generators (RNGs) in order to function, creating an entertaining experience for players while making sure that they are profitable for operators.
So what role do RNGs play in a slot machine context, and how should this influence the way people approach the technology?
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All about the odds
To unpick the importance of random number generation in slots, it is first necessary to understand how these historically significant machines function on a basic level.
Both physical and digital slots are made up of a set number of reels, each of which has a set number of symbols. When the reels are spun, they eventually come to rest, and if the symbols that are displayed to the player match, then a prize will be awarded.
You might be wondering what are the odds of winning on a slot machine, and does an RNG have anything to do with this? The answer is yes, but it is more complex than you might think, and the important thing to remember throughout all of this is that legitimate slots are heavily regulated and thus required by law to be as fair as possible to the players, while still giving operators an opportunity to make a profit.
Basically, RNGs are used to randomly select the positions at which each reel will finish, and the randomness is central to the fairness in this case, because it means that the companies that own the machine cannot prevent a player from winning on any given spin; it is just that the chances of achieving a matching set of symbols is very small.
The odds are tipped in favor of the operator because of the way that reels and symbols are set up. So if you have a five reel machine with 10 different symbols, and each reel is spun randomly and independently with every spin initiated by the player, the likelihood of a given outcome occurring can be calculated fairly accurately. Jackpot wins may only have a chance of occurring once in every 100,000 spins, for example, but crucially it should also be possible for a big win to occur whenever a spin is initiated.
The importance of independence
As hinted at earlier, RNGs are needed in slots not only to emulate the randomness which is innate to this type of gambling device and has been since the mechanized days of the industry, but also to prevent players from being entirely blocked out of a chance of winning through individual spin independence.
This might sound confusing, but it is relatively straightforward in practice, and simple means that all slot machines have no persistent memory of the outcomes of previous spins, and so have no means of manipulating the outcomes of subsequent spins based on this information.
This dispels the myth that slots are somehow a scam. That is not to say that every player is going to win big; operators need to make money from the games they offer and so of course the odds are tilted in their direction. But being aware of this relationship between randomness and the fairness of slots should give you confidence in the overall integrity of the industry as it stands today.
Payback percentages explored
The final piece of the puzzle to understanding slot machines and randomness comes in the form of payback percentages, otherwise known as return to player or RTP.
While the RNG may be hard at work randomizing the outcome of each spin, the actual proportion of the money that a game accumulates which is then paid back to players as prizes is always fixed, and furthermore must be clearly advertised by the operator, rather than hidden away.
The RTP percentage has to be lower than 100, or else the operator will not make any money. Meanwhile if it is too low, players will feel hard done by, so most games settle in between the 90 and 95 percent marks.
In short, randomness in general and RNGs in particular are part and parcel of the slots experience, benefitting players while still giving operators a way to make running these machines worthwhile, both online and off.