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Some of the most downloaded and top-grossing video games in the major app stores use casino motifs 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 under-reported community issues. He was a former city bureau editor at the City on a Hill Press at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a former radio reporter for the university’s KZSC station’s environmental news program.

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Matthew Renda 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 regrettable part of his life is being an avid fan of Cleveland sports teams.

Many popular gaming apps, this one being GSN Casino, draw their appearance from slot machines, blackjack tables and the like. Game Show Network

Many worries about the future weigh on Brett as he works in a gambling addiction program.

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

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

Brett’s gambling problem began a few years ago with bets on National Basketball Association games, followed by bets on other professional sports. It wasn’t long before his habit expanded to social casino games. Played on a mobile device or PC, even through the Facebook website, these games mimic casino slot machines and card games. The key difference is that players cannot win real money. They gamble with in-game play money, and if they run out, they can spend real-world dollars to get more.

“There are a lot of these games,” Brett said. “Many of them are also the most popular games.”

He started playing Zynga Poker, a slot game, last year. But I craved the thrill of betting with real money. Before long, he was making bets in a brick-and-mortar casino, much to his financial detriment. 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 pay off his debt. That’s when he and his parents decided he needed to enter a recovery program.

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These games, made for mobile devices, led to Brett’s gambling addiction. Part of how it caught on was the “freemium” nature of social casino titles, a tactic that has become a lucrative new way of doing business within the video game industry. The appeal is simple: attract players with free-to-play, and once they’re engaged, entice them to pay for extras like virtual money, gifts, and more turns.

The games are “normalizing gambling behaviour,” said Sally Gainsbury, a researcher at the Center for Gambling Education and Research at Southern Cross University in Australia. “It is being seen as an acceptable everyday activity, which helps people develop positive attitudes about gambling, and which could be transferred to young people who want to pay money to play.”

And that may be the biggest problem, said John Kindt, a gambling critic and professor of business policy and law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “When you link electronic games to gambling and sports in the context of young people thinking they are bulletproof, you have a trifecta of social and economic problems waiting to happen.”

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

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There are potentially many more Bretts out there. Video games are more popular today than ever before and their influence continues to grow. For casino game developers, this translates into a monthly audience more than three and a half times larger than the masses that visited Las Vegas all of last year.

The global smartphone casino app audience reached an average of 145 million monthly active users between July 2014 and June 2015 (excluding Asia, which was not recorded 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 in 2016.

That audience is also opening their wallets for games. Last July, social casino games regularly made up a quarter of the 20 top-grossing apps in the Google Play Store, according to App Annie, a market analysis firm. Apple’s 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 have consistently ranked in the top 10 on both stores.

While the games are free-to-play, revenue from in-game purchases of extras runs into the millions for the biggest publishers. Zynga’s total adjusted sales of social casino games were estimated at $80.1 million during the first quarter of 2015, and Caesars Interactive, whose leading social casino titles include Slotomania and Caesars Casino, reported gross revenue of $167.6 million of dollars, according to Eilers Research.

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Social casino apps for smartphones have a monthly audience more than three and a half times larger than the masses that visited Las Vegas all of last year.

Sales continue to rise: The global market for social casino games increased to $809.6 million during the first quarter of 2015, a 7 percent increase over the same period a year earlier, according to Eilers Research. Mobile 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 reach $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 hired high-profile celebrities to help support them as well.

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

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

For Liz Wooley, the games highlight an emerging and little-known social problem related to video game addiction. Wooley founded Online Gamers Anonymous after his 21-year-old son committed suicide in 2001 after spending two years playing a game called EverQuest, an Internet fantasy game.

“He was normal before,” she said. “He had ambitions for the future, just like anyone else. But when he got caught up in that game, he became a different person.”

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

Developers and advocates of social casino games say these apps are not as dangerous as critics claim. They say stories of damage 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 for cable channel Game Show Network, whose GSN Games division makes smartphone casino apps. “It’s about the individuals who have that kind of obsessive aspect to their own 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 social casino games as a teaching tool for himself and his clients.

“It gives them that little bit of adrenaline and helps them control their addiction and modify their behavior,” says Lawrence, who spends up to two hours a day at Slotomania himself.

Still, the freemium model presents a challenge. Lawrence coaches his clients to choose games that don’t have continuous pop-ups for purchasable extras, saying they can trigger addiction.

“I look at it in terms of I’m a gambling addict, and if I start buying credits online, that would be the end of me, and I’d just struggle from there,” Lawrence said. “I have to be very strong, and my clients have to be

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