What Is Dark Flow in Slot Machines?

Slot Machine Reel
Slot machines are fun games that entertain countless people on a daily basis. But certain players can become addicted to slots and blow too much money on them.

Several aspects can lead to slots addiction. One of these is a newly-coined term known as “dark flow.” Judging by the name alone, dark flow certainly doesn’t sound like a good thing. But what exactly does this term mean?

Keep reading as I explain more about dark flow and how you can combat it. I’ll also discuss other factors that can lead to slot machine addiction.

What Is Dark Flow?

Mike J. Dixon, a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo, conducted a 2019 study on slot machines. Dixon discovered that some players fall into a state where they’re totally engrossed in slot machines and ignore their surroundings.

He describes this mindset as “dark flow.” The term refers to falling into a trance and making “dark” decisions, like wasting too much time or money in the casino.

Dixon’s study focused on 129 slots players. He discovered that non-gambling mindfulness problems led to slots fixation and dark flow.

Mindfulness refers to being fully aware of the present moment. Becoming engrossed in slot machines and forgetting everything else is the opposite of mindfulness.

Study participants who experienced depression earlier in life were the most susceptible to this problem. Dark flow actually enhanced their gambling experience, thus leading to addiction.

Therefore, problem gambling isn’t just the result of dark flow or depression, but rather a combination of the two. Depressed players use slot machines as a means of escape, thus leading to dark flow.

This scenario creates a vicious cycle, where players lose money and spend more time away from family and friends. They may be even more depressed after a session is over, especially if they’ve lost too much money.

Other Addictive Qualities of Slot Machines

Dark flow is definitely a serious problem for gamblers. However, it’s not the only factor that causes problem gambling. Here are a few other addictive qualities associated with slot machines.

Losses Disguised as Wins

Nearly all slot machine games today feature multiple paylines. You can expect between 20 and 50 lines on the average slot.

All of these lines make for more excitement, because they give you additional chances to win. The problem, though, is that they also lead to a phenomenon known as losses disguised as wins (LDWs).

An LDW is when a win pays less than the cost of a spin. Therefore, you’re fooled into thinking that you’ve won, when you’ve really lost.

Here’s an example:

  • You bet $1 on a spin.
  • You win $0.25.
  • The game plays a triumphant sound effect to sell the win.

You lost $0.75 overall in this example. But the fact that you won something creates the illusion of a winning round.

Natasha Dow Schulls Addiction by Design BookAs explained in Natasha Dow Schüll’s Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, “people experience this (LDW) in their brains in an identical way as a win.”

You might be perfectly adept at basic math and able to tell the difference between a win and loss. However, the speed at which slots move makes it harder to differentiate between the two events.

The best thing to do in this situation is stay mindful of wins and losses on each spin. In contrast, you want to avoid rapidly spinning the reels and failing to account for the results.

Lights and Sound Effects

Slot machines are programmed to emit powerful sound effects and flashing lights after wins. On the surface, these features merely serve to entertain players.

However, they have a deeper purpose than most gamblers realize. These lights and sound effects are used to enhance the effects of LDWs and make you feel like a winner.

As noted by research, flashing lights and sounds motivate players to spin the reels faster. This hastened play rate can eventually lead to dark flow.

Findings from the University of British Columbia (UBC) back up the idea that sound effects and lights lead to dark flow. As UBC’s Luke Clark noted, some players simply lose track of time when playing slots as a result.

“When the experienced slot machine gamblers played, we found they not only felt that they lost track of time and their surroundings,” said Clark.

Skill Based Slots

Skill-based slot machines are beginning to hit casino floors with greater frequency. These games offer some degree of control over bonus round results.

For example, you may have to shoot outlaws in a Wild West slot. Your accuracy will determine how many credits you earn.

On the surface, skill-based slots are a harmless and welcome addition to the gaming world. But they’re not entirely innocent either.

These slot machines give off the impression that they can be beaten with enough skill. The reality, however, is that skill-based bonuses only account for a small amount of payback.

Such a game may offer 94% base RTP, for instance, with up to an additional 3% possible through the bonus. But even if you’re really good at the bonus, you’ll only earn 97% RTP on average.

Near Wins

A near win can refer to missing a big payout by a narrow margin. For example, you may only miss the jackpot by two symbols.

Here’s an example:

  • A slot offers a $100,000 jackpot for five fighter jets.
  • You’re betting $1 per spin, with $0.02 on each line.
  • You land four fighter jets in a line.
  • This payout offers 1,000x your line bet.
  • 02 x 1,000 = $20 payout
  • You continue playing for hours under the guise that you’re close to hitting the jackpot.

The problem with this logic is that every spin is independent of the last. The next round doesn’t account for how many jackpot symbols you landed in the previous round.

Casino Slot Machine Reels

A $100k jackpot may only be hit on 1 out of every 10 million spins. Meanwhile, your chances of getting four symbols could be 1 in 200,000 (or 50x less).

Slots developers realize that near wins are a powerful motivator. They’re more than happy to program such occurrences into games and keep you glued to the reels.

Research shows that near wins are similar to LDWs in how they make you feel like a winner. They can even create the same feeling as winning a jackpot.

The best way to fight this phenomenon is by realizing the long odds of winning big payouts. Getting multiple jackpot symbols in one round has no bearing on what happens on the following spin.


In essence, casino comps are a good thing. They serve as rewards for playing slot machines and other casino games.

The problem comes in, though, when gamblers overvalue comps. This mindset leads to playing longer just to accumulate better rewards.

The best way to think of comps is as a small repayment on theoretical losses. They’re actually not that valuable relative to total bets.

Here’s an example to explain:

  • You bet $1,000 on a slot machine.
  • The game has a 7% house edge.
  • 1,000 x 0.07 = 70
  • You’ll theoretically lose $70 on this slot.
  • The comp rate is 0.1%.
  • 1,000 x 0.001 = 1
  • You earn $1 in comps.

Low comp rates are a norm throughout the industry. The only way that you’ll earn lots of rewards through these programs is by betting lots of money.

Given that slots are negative-expectation games, you stand a bigger chance of losing money in these cases.

What Can You Do to Play Slots Responsibly?

You don’t have to stop playing slots entirely just because they have addictive qualities. Instead, you can still enjoy them without experiencing dark flow and other problems.

The following techniques will help keep you mindful while avoiding the ugly side of slot machines.

Use Your Phone Alarm

A great way to combat dark flow is by breaking your concentration. You can easily accomplish this goal by using your smartphone.

Cell Phone Displaying Timer

All you need to do is set your alarm for predetermined points. For example, you may want to be reminded how long you’ve been playing every 15 minutes.

In this case, set your alarm to ring at 15-minute intervals. The ringing alarm will pull you out of any potential slots trance.

Put Your Phone on the Slot Machine Betting Panel

You’ve likely noticed that casinos don’t have clocks. This trick is used to prevent you from keeping track of time.

But you can easily get past this ruse by using a watch or even your phone. The watch works best, because you can simply look at your wrist to see the time.

However, your phone does the job, too. Just put your smartphone on the betting panel and look at the time every now and then.

Play Slot Machines near the Entrances and Bathrooms

A good way to avoid dark flow is by choosing slots that are located near a casino’s entrance or bathrooms.

These spots see a lot of foot traffic. You may occasionally be interrupted by the many people walking by.

This scenario seems like a bad thing because you’re being distracted. However, this is entirely the point, you don’t want to be totally lost in a slots game.

Only Bring What You Can Afford to Lose

You can’t play slots if you’re out of money. Therefore, limiting your funds is an easy way to keep you from playing slots for too long.

Here’s an example:

  • You go through your finances before a casino daytrip.
  • You calculate that you have $500 to spend.
  • You bring $500 cash—$400 for slots and another $100 for miscellaneous expenses.
  • You also bring a debit card for emergency purposes, but leave it in the car.

Nothing prevents you from visiting the car and grabbing the card when your $400 is gone. However, this long walk serves as a deterrent from playing too long and over-betting.

You can really go hardcore by only bringing cash on the trip and leaving the cards at home. The drawback, though, is that you may need some emergency funds.

Avoid Drinking (Too Much)

Everybody knows that casinos serve drinks to remove your inhibitions. Many players lose track of their bankroll management and end up getting drunk and losing their money.

Group of People Lifting Drinks Up to Cheer

That said, you should avoid drinking if at all possible. Assuming you do accept some free beers/cocktails, then keep the quantity to a minimum.

Having more than one alcoholic beverage per hour can lead to making bad decisions. You may be tempted to play long sessions and/or place big bets when you’re buzzed or drunk.


The problem with dark flow is that it’s hard to notice until it’s too late. You may only realize that you’ve fallen into a slots trance after your bankroll has vanished.

That said, you want to take precautions to avoid dark flow. You should also be aware of other addictive slots qualities, such as LDWs, near wins, lights/sound effects, and comps.

The easiest way to avoid playing too long is by only bringing what you can afford to the casino. Something as simple as leaving your debit/credit cards in the car may be enough to avoid dark flow.

You can also snap yourself back into reality through the use of a smartphone alarm or playing by the entrance. Both methods create distractions that will pull your mind from a slot machine.

The first step to avoiding slots addiction is to recognize the traps. The next step is to use some of the advice provided in this post for staying in the present.