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Some of the most downloaded and top-grossing video games in leading app stores use casino themes in their designs, raising questions about the potential dangers of gambling apps.

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Ardy Raghian is a freelance reporter who focuses on underreported community issues. He was a former city feature editor for the City on a Hill Press at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a former radio reporter for an environmental news show on the university’s KZSC station.

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Matthew Rand is a freelance writer based in Santa Cruz, California. He is interested in the interaction between technology and social issues and enjoys reading, hiking, biking, surfing and rock climbing. The most unfortunate part of his life is being an avid fan of Cleveland sports teams.

Many popular gaming apps – GSN Casino being the case – create their own look and feel for slot machines, blackjack tables, and the like. Game Show Network

Many worries about the future plague Brett as he works at a gambling addiction program.

The 21-year-old’s biggest concern after being released from a three-month program in California: meeting people, places and things that might trigger his desire to gamble. But that’s nothing compared to the biggest threat he’ll face: the smartphone and the many casino-style games available with a quick tap in the app store.

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“I don’t even have to go to the casino,” said the former business student, who asked to remain anonymous because of the stigma attached to his struggles. “Just pull out your phone and you’re there.”

Brett’s gambling problem began a few years ago with bets on NBA games, followed by bets on other professional sports. It wasn’t long before his habit spread to casino games on social media. When played on a mobile device or PC, even through the Facebook site, such games mimic slot machines and card games in casinos. The main difference is that players cannot win real money. They bet using in-game play money, and if they run out, they can spend real dollars to win more.

“There are a lot of these games,” Brett said. “Many of them are top games as well.”

He started playing the slot game Zynga Poker last year. But he craves the thrill of betting for real money. Not long after, he placed bets in a brick-and-mortar casino, causing him great financial damage. When he lost more than $5,000 through a combination of card games and sports betting, he was forced to ask his parents for money to settle his debt. That’s when he and his parents decided he needed to enter a recovery program.

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These mobile games led to Brett’s gambling addiction. Part of what got him hooked was the “freemium” nature of social casino titles, a tactic that has become a lucrative new business model in the video game industry. The lure is simple: engage players with a free game and once they’re engaged, trick them into paying for extras like virtual money, gifts, and other moves.

The games “normalize gambling behaviour,” said Sally Gainsbury, a researcher at the Center for Gambling Education and Research at Southern Cross University in Australia. “It is seen as an acceptable everyday activity that helps people develop a positive attitude towards gambling, and this can transfer to young people willing to pay money to gamble.”

And that may be the biggest problem, said John Kindt, a gambling critic and professor of business and legal policy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “When you combine electronic games with gambling and sports in the context of young people who believe they are bulletproof, you have a whole host of social and economic problems.”

Representatives for Zynga declined to comment, while representatives for Caesars Interactive Entertainment and Big Fish Games did not respond to requests for comment.

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There are probably many more Brets out there. Video games are more popular today than ever, and their influence continues to grow. For casino game developers, this means that the monthly audience is more than three and a half times larger than the mass of people who visited Las Vegas in the whole of last year.

The global smartphone casino app audience averaged 145 million monthly active users between July 2014 and June 2015 (excluding Asia, which is not registered and accounts for a quarter of the global market), according to SuperData Research. Gambling researcher Gainsbury estimates that gaming will attract 269 million people worldwide by 2016.

This audience also opens their wallets for games. According to market analysis company App Annie, social casino games regularly accounted for a quarter of the top 20 grossing apps in the Google Play Store last July. The Apple App Store showed similar statistics for the month, with social casino apps consistently occupying three spots in the top 20. Both Slotomania: Free Casino Slots and Big Fish Casino: Free Slots consistently ranked in the top 10 on both stores.

Although the games are free to play, the major publishers make millions in revenue from the purchase of game extras. Zynga’s total adjusted sales from social casino games were estimated at $80.1 million in the first quarter of 2015, and Caesars Interactive, whose main social casino titles include Slotomania and Caesars Casino, reported gross revenue of $167.6 million according to Eulers Research.

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Social casino smartphone apps boast more than three and a half times the monthly audience of Las Vegas visitors in all of last year.

Sales continue to grow: The global casino gaming market on social networks grew to $809.6 million in the first quarter of 2015, up 7 percent from the same time a year ago, according to Eulers Research. Mobile phone revenue accounted for 61 percent of the total market during the quarter, compared to 50 percent in the year-ago period.

The global social casino gaming market is expected to bring in $3.2 billion by the end of 2015, with North America accounting for nearly half of the market, according to SuperData.

Games alone are not the only thing that attracts customers. The developers have hired high-profile celebrities to help endorse them as well.

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Basketball star Shaquille O’Neal teamed up with PlayStudios in March to lend his likeness to two social casino games included in the company’s MyVegas app: Caddy Shaq, a slot game, and ShaqJack, a blackjack title. “When players see the game with all the lights and sounds and features, I think that makes people want to stay there,” O’Neill said.

He should know: O’Neal said he often plays games during downtime between watching and analyzing playoff basketball games. He even recommended MyVegas to his five children, ages 9 to 19. O’Neill said he likes the games because they help make learning math skills fun.

For Lisa Woolley, the games highlight a new and little-known social issue related to video game addiction. Woolley founded the online Gamers Anonymous after her 21-year-old son committed suicide in 2001 after spending two years playing a game called EverQuest, an Internet fantasy game.

“He used to be normal,” she said. “He had ambitions for the future, like any other person. But when he was sucked into this game, he became a different person.”

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Wooley said her son was addicted and it also made her depressed. “Gaming is an accepted drug of choice for some people,” Woolley said. “They use it to escape reality, and parents use these games as babysitters.”

Social casino game developers and industry advocates say these apps aren’t as dangerous as critics charge. They say stories of harm stem from abuse.

Game developers have struck deals with celebrities and popular brands to help raise their profile. Game Show Network

“It’s not the games themselves that are addictive,” said Andrew Pedersen, senior vice president and general manager of social casinos at the cable TV channel Game Show Network, whose GSN Games division makes casino apps for smartphones. “It’s about individuals who have this obsessive aspect to their personality.”

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Tony Lawrence, a 58-year-old recovering gambler and counselor at the Aboriginal Gambling Help Service in Adelaide, Australia, says he has used casino games on social media as a learning tool for himself and his clients.

“It gives them a little adrenaline rush and helps them control their addiction and change their behavior,” says Lawrence, who himself spends up to two hours a day on Slotomania.

However, the freemium model presents a challenge. Lawrence coaches his clients to choose games that don’t have constant pop-ups for purchaseable add-ons, saying they can be addictive.

“I look at it like I’m a gambling addict, and if I start buying credits online, that’s the end of me, and I’ll just struggle from that,” Lawrence said. “I have to be really

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