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Some of the most downloaded and highest grossing video games in the leading 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 journalist who focuses on under-reported social issues. He is a former city desk editor for the Hill Press newspaper at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a former radio reporter for the environmental news program 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 intersection between technology and social issues, and enjoys reading, hiking, biking, surfing and rock climbing. The saddest part of his life is being an avid fan of Cleveland sports teams.

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

Many worries about the future plague Brett as he works through 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 they’re nothing compared to the biggest threat he’ll face: his smartphone, and dozens of casino-style games available with a quick tap from the app store.

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“You don’t even need to go to the casino,” said the former business student, who asked that his name be withheld because of the stigma attached to his struggle. “Just take your phone out and head over 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 grew into social casino games. Played on a mobile phone or PC, and even through the Facebook website, such games mimic slot machines and card games in casinos. The key difference is that players cannot win real money. They bet with the game’s play money and, if it runs out, they can use real-world dollars to get more.

“There are a lot of games,” said Brett. “A lot of games are very popular as well.”

He started playing Zynga Poker, a slot machine game, last year. But he craved the excitement that came with betting for real money. Before long, he was gambling in a brick-and-mortar casino, which hurt him financially. 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 cover his debt. It was then that he and his parents decided he needed to enter a recovery program.

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These games, designed for mobile devices, sparked Brett’s gambling addiction. That’s part of how he became addicted to the “freemium” genre of social casino titles — a strategy that has become a lucrative new way of doing business in the video game industry. Enticing is easy: Attract gamers with free play and, once engaged, entice them to pay for extras, such as virtual currency, gifts and more twists.

These games “enhance gambling behavior,” says Sally Gainsbury, a researcher at the Center for Gambling Education and Research at Southern Cross University in Australia. “It is seen as an acceptable daily activity, to help people have a positive attitude towards gambling, and that can transfer to young people who want to pay money to gamble.”

And that could be a big 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 within the context of youth who think they are bulletproof, you have a trifecta of social and economic problems waiting to happen.”

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

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

The global audience of casino applications on smartphones reached an average of 145 million active users per month between July 2014 and June 2015 (excluding Asia, which is unrecorded and makes up a quarter of the global market), according to SuperData Research. Gainsbury, a gambling researcher, estimates that games will attract 269 million people worldwide in 2016.

Those in the audience open their sports bags too. This past July, social casino games made up a quarter of the top 20 grossing apps on the Google Play Store, according to App Annie, a market statistics company. Apple’s App Store showed similar figures for the month, with social casino apps consistently holding three spots in the top 20. Both Slotomania: Free Casino Slots and Big Fish Casino: Free Slots are consistently ranked in the top 10 on both sites.

Although games are free-to-play, revenue from additional in-game purchases runs into the millions for major publishers. Zynga’s adjusted net sales from social casino games totaled $80.1 million in the first quarter of 2015, and Caesars Interactive, whose key social casino titles include Slotomania and Caesars Casino, reported net revenue of $167.6 million, according to Eilers Research.

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Social casino apps for smartphones boast 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 casino gaming market rose to $809.6 million in the first quarter of 2015, a 7 percent jump over the same period last year, according to Eilers Research. Revenue from mobile phones accounted for 61 percent of the total market during the quarter, compared to 50 percent in the year-ago period.

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.

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

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Basketball star Shaquille O’Neal partnered with a company called PlayStudios in March to lend his likeness to two public casino games featured on the company’s MyVegas app: Caddy Shaq, a slot machine game, and ShaqJack, a title blackjack. “When players see a game with all the lights, sounds, and features, I think it makes people want to sit there,” O’Neal said.

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

For Liz Wooley, these games highlight an emerging and under-recognized problem in society related to video game addiction. Wooley founded Online Gamers Anonymous after his 21-year-old son killed himself in 2001 after spending two years playing a game called EverQuest, an online fantasy game.

“He was normal before,” she said. “He had ambitions for the future, like any other person. But when he got into that game, he became a different person.”

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

Developers and promoters of the social casino gaming industry say these apps are not as dangerous as critics charge. They say the stories of injuries stem from abuse.

Game makers have 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 community casinos for cable channel Game Show Network, whose GSN Games division makes casino apps for smartphones. “It’s about people like that who have that kind of depressing element in 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 community casino games as an educational tool for himself and his clients.

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

However, the freemium model presents a challenge. Lawrence coaches his clients to choose games where there are no ongoing pirated add-ons, which he says can cause addiction.

“I consider myself 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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