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

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

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Matthew Randa is a freelance writer based in Santa Cruz, California. He is interested in the interaction between technology and social issues, and he likes to read books, travel, bike, surf and rock climb. The saddest part of his life is being an avid fan of Cleveland sports teams.

Many popular gaming apps — this is GSN Casino — derive their look and feel from slot machines, blackjack tables, and the like. Show Game Network

Many worries about the future weigh on Brett as he progresses through a gambling addiction program.

The 21-year-old’s biggest concern after being released from the three-month program in California: meeting people, places and things that might trigger his urge to gamble. But they’re nothing compared to the biggest threat he’ll face: his smartphone, and the many casino-style games available with a quick click in an 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 right 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 extended to social casino games. Such games played on a mobile device or computer, even through the Facebook website, mimic the slot machines and card games in casinos. The main difference is that players cannot win real cash. They gamble with the game’s in-game money, and if they run out, they can withdraw real-world dollars to get more.

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

He started playing Zynga Poker, a slot machine game, last year. But he craved the excitement that came with real money gambling. Before long, he’s gambling in the casino, much to his financial detriment. Losing more than $5,000 through a combination of card games and sports betting, he had to ask his parents for money to deal with his debt. So he, and his parents, decided he needed to enter a recovery program.

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These games, designed for mobile devices, ignited Brett’s gambling addiction. Part of how he got hooked was the “premium” nature of social casino titles – a tactic that has become a profitable new way of doing business in the video game industry. The lure is simple: attract gamers with free play, and once they are engaged, entice them to pay for extras, such as virtual money, gifts and more turns.

The games “normalize gambling behavior,” 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, which helps people develop positive attitudes about gambling, and this can be transferred to young people who want to pay money to gamble.”

And that’s perhaps 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 tie electronic gaming to gambling and sports in the context of young people who think they are bulletproof, you have a trifecta of social and economic problems waiting to happen.”

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

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Potentially there are many more Brits out there. Video games are more popular today than they have ever been, and their influence continues to grow. For casino game makers, this translates into a monthly audience more than three and a half times larger than the crowds that visited Las Vegas last year.

The global audience for smartphone casino apps averaged 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. Gainsbury, the gambling researcher, estimates that the games will attract 269 million people worldwide by 2016.

This audience opens their wallets for games as well. Last July, social casino games consistently accounted for a quarter of the top 20 highest-grossing apps on 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 gaining 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 games are free to play, revenue from in-game add-on purchases is in the millions for the biggest publishers. Zynga’s total adjusted sales from social casino games were estimated at $80.1 million during 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 Eilers Research. .

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Social casino apps for smartphones boast monthly audiences that are more than three and a half times larger than the crowds that visited Las Vegas all of last year.

Sales continue to rise: The global social casino gaming market rose to $809.6 million during the first quarter of 2015, up 7% compared to the same period a year ago, according to Eilers Research. Revenues from mobile accounted for 61 percent of the total market in the quarter, compared to 50 percent in the corresponding period last year.

The global market for social casino games 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.

The games alone are not the only thing that attracts customers. Developers have hired high-profile celebrities to assist them as well.

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Basketball star Shaquille O’Neal teamed up with a company called PlayStudios in March to lend a likeness to two social casino games included in the company’s MyVegas app: Caddy Shaq, a slot machine game, and ShaqJack, a blackjack title. “Once players see the game with all the lights, sounds and features, I think it 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 Liz Woolley, 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 EverQuest, an online fantasy game.

“He was normal before,” she said. “He had future ambitions, just like any other person. But when he was drawn into this game, he became a different person.”

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

Developers and industry supporters of social casino games say these apps are not as dangerous as critics claim. They say the stories of hurt stem from abuse.

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

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

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

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

Still, the premium model presents a challenge. Lawrence coaches his clients to choose games that don’t have persistent pop-ups for buyable add-ons, saying they can be addictive.

“I look at it in terms that I’m addicted to gambling, and if I start buying credits online, that will be the end of me, and I’ll just struggle from there,” Lawrence said. “I have to be really strong,

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