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Some of the most downloaded and top-grossing video games in leading 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 who focuses on underreported societal issues. He was a former city writers editor of the City on a Hill Press newspaper at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a former radio journalist for the environmental news show on the university’s KZSC station.

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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 he loves reading books, walking, cycling, surfing and climbing. The most unfortunate part of his life is being an avid fan of Cleveland sports teams.

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

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

The 21-year-old’s biggest concern after his release from the three-month program in California: encountering people, places and things that might trigger his urge to play. But they are nothing compared to the biggest threat he will face: his smartphone and the many casino games available with a quick tap in 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 attached to his fights. “Just whip 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 extended to social casino games. Played on a mobile device or PC, even via Facebook’s website, such games mimic slot machines and card games in casinos. The main difference is that players cannot win real money. They bet with the game’s play money, and if they run out, they can use real dollars to get more.

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“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 he wanted the thrill of betting real money. Shortly after, he bet on a brick-and-mortar casino, much to his 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 deal with his debts. 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, sparked Brett’s gambling addiction. Part of how he got hooked was the “freemium” nature of social casino titles — a tactic that has become a lucrative new way of doing business in the video game industry. The lure is simple: draw players in with free games and, once engaged, entice them to pay for extras such as virtual money, gifts and more rounds.

The games “normalise 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, which helps people develop positive attitudes towards gambling and which can 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 and legal policy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “When you link 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.”

Spokesmen for Zynga declined to comment, while those for 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 they have ever been, and their influence continues to grow. For casino game producers, that translates into a monthly audience that is 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 is unregistered 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.

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These audiences open their wallets for the games as well. As of last July, social casino games regularly accounted for a quarter of the 20 top-grossing apps in the Google Play Store, according to App Annie, a market analysis company. Apple’s App Store showed similar statistics for the month, with social casino apps consistently taking three spots in the top 20. Both Slotomania: Free Casino Slots and Big Fish Casino: Free Slots consistently ranked in the top 10 in both stores.

Although the games are free-to-play, revenue from the purchase of in-game extras adds up to 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 key social casino titles include Slotomania and Caesars Casino, reported gross revenue of $167.6 million, according to Eilers Research.

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Social smartphone casino apps have a monthly audience that is 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 social casino gaming market rose to $809.6 million during the first quarter of 2015, a 7 percent increase compared to the same time a year ago, according to Eilers Research. Revenues from mobiles made up 61 per cent of the total market in the quarter, compared to 50 per cent in the previous 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.

The games alone are not the only thing that attracts customers. Developers have 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 slot game, and ShaqJack, a blackjack title. “When players see the game with all the lights, sounds and features, I think it makes people want to stay there,” O’Neal said.

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He should know: O’Neal said he often plays the games during downtime between watching and analyzing playoff basketball games. He even recommended MyVegas to his five children, aged 9 to 19. O’Neal said he likes the games because they help make learning math 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 her 21-year-old son committed suicide in 2001 after two years of playing a game called EverQuest, an online fantasy game.

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

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

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

Game makers have signed deals with celebrities and popular brands to 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 casino apps for smartphones. “It’s about individuals who have that kind of obsessive aspect in their own personality.”

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

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

Nevertheless, the freemium model presents a challenge. Lawrence trains his clients to choose games where there aren’t continuous pop-ups for extras to buy, saying they can trigger addiction.

“I look at it in terms of me being a gambling addict and if I start buying credits online that would be the end of me and I would just struggle

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