Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The utter futility of scratch card games online with the UK National Lottery

With an idle moment late last night I wondered how the National Lottery's online scratch card games work. So I decided to poke around and intercept the network connections and have a look. Doing so revealed the utter futility of spending any time on these.

It's not even like the regular lottery where the result is random. In the "Instant Win" games the outcome is entirely known the moment you click Buy and your interaction with the game makes no difference at all. As you interact with the game you are literally wasting your time (and money).

Here, for example, is the game Winning 7's which involves being presented with a board with 25 squares on it from which you choose 16. The more 7's you uncover the higher your prize.

The thing is, it doesn't matter what squares you uncover, the order in which you will uncover numbers is predetermined. You are not influencing the game at all. Here's why. In Firebug you can see the game downloading its state at the start:

And if you pretty print that XML you can see the amount that will be won, and the order in which the numbers will be revealed:
<?xml version='1.0' encoding='UTF-8' ?>
<ticket>
  <outcome prizeTier="14" amount="0.00"/>
  <params wT="0" />
  <turn n="8" wP="0" />
  <turn n="7" wP="0" />
  <turn n="5" wP="0" />
  <turn n="1" wP="0" />
  <turn n="3" wP="0" />
  <turn n="5" wP="0" />
  <turn n="2" wP="0" />
  <turn n="7" wP="0" />
  <turn n="5" wP="0" />
  <turn n="7" wP="0" />
  <turn n="9" wP="0" />
  <turn n="4" wP="0" />
  <turn n="5" wP="0" />
  <turn n="6" wP="0" />
  <turn n="7" wP="0" />
  <turn n="3" wP="0" />
</ticket>
On that go I was destined to receive £0.00 and have the numbers 8, 7, 5, 1, 3, 5, 2, 7, 5, 7, 9, 4, 5, 6, 7 revealed in that order no matter where I clicked. Imagine my surprise on my first click:

And a few clicks later:

The great advantage of this scheme is that it makes the game very secure. It doesn't matter what you do to hack the Flash applet or even modify that XML, the web site knows the correct outcome. When each game ends you end up going back to the same URL (there's no need for the Flash game to tell the web site what you won).

The same is true of every other game I looked at. And some take a long time to "play". Some even emulating shuffling or randomization.

In the end, it was soul destroying to think that people play these games. It's all a cruel trick. At least the lottery is clear: the chance of your numbers coming up is really, really, really small. Here there's the illusion that you are participating in some way.

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If you enjoyed this blog post, you might enjoy my travel book for people interested in science and technology: The Geek Atlas. Signed copies of The Geek Atlas are available.

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