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

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Ardi 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 show on the university’s KZSC station.

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Matthew Renda is a freelance writer from Santa Cruz, California. He is interested in the connection between technology and social issues and enjoys reading, hiking, biking, surfing and rock climbing. The saddest part of his life is that he is an avid fan of Cleveland sports teams.

Many popular gaming applications — such as GSN Casino — derive their look and feel from slot machines, blackjack tables, and the like. network game show

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

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

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I don’t even have to go to the casino,” said the former business student, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the stigma associated with his struggle. “Take out your phone and you’re there.”

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

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

He started playing Zynga Poker, a slot game, last year. But he longed for the thrill that comes with betting for real money. Soon he was gambling in physical casinos, which was draining 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 pay off the debt. That’s when he and his parents decided he had to leave to recover.

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Brett became addicted to gambling because of these games designed for mobile devices. They caught on in part with “freemium” 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 players by playing for free and, once hooked, encourage them to pay extra like virtual currencies, gifts and more exchanges.

Sally Gainsbury, a researcher at the Center for Gambling Education and Research at Southern Cross University in Australia, said the games are “characteristic of gambling behaviour”. “It is seen as an acceptable everyday thing, which helps people develop a positive attitude towards gambling, and this can be passed on to young people willing to pay for gambling.”

And that may be the biggest problem, said John Kind, a gambling critic and professor of business and legal policy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “When you combine gambling and electronic gaming with a context that young people believe is bulletproof, you have a trifecta of social and economic problems waiting to happen.”

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

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There are many potential brats. Video games are more popular today than ever before, and their influence continues to grow. For casino operators, that translates into a monthly audience more than three and a half times the audience that visited Las Vegas last year.

According to Superdata research 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 unreported and accounted for a quarter of the global market). Gainsbury, a gambling researcher, estimates that the games will attract 269 million people worldwide in 2016.

And that crowd opened their wallets for the matches. Last July, social casino games regularly accounted for a quarter of the top 20 apps in the Google Play Store, according to market analysis firm App Annie. The Apple App Store showed similar figures this month, with social casino apps taking three consecutive top 20 spots. Both Slotomania: Free Casino Slots and Big Fish Casino: Free Slots are consistently in the top 10 in both stores.

Even though the games are free to play, the revenue from game add-on purchases reaches into the millions for the biggest publishers. Zynga’s total adjusted social casino game sales during the first quarter of 2015 were estimated at $80.1 million, and Caesars Interactive, whose core social casino titles include Slotomania and Caesars Casino, reported total revenue of $167.6 million, according to Eilers Research.

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Social smartphone casino apps have more than three and a half times the monthly audience that visited Las Vegas last year.

Sales continue to grow: The worldwide market for social casino games grew to $809.6 million during the first quarter of 2015, a 7 percent jump from the same period last year, according to Millers Research. Mobile revenue accounted for 61 percent of total sales in the quarter, up from 50 percent in the same period last year.

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

Games aren’t the only thing that attracts customers. The developers have recruited high-profile celebrities to support them.

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Basketball star Shaquille O’Neal partnered with Playstudios in March to equalize two public casino games included in the company’s MyVegas app: Caddy Shack, a slot game, and Shackjack, a blackjack title. Once the players see the game with all the lights, sounds and signs, I think those people want to be there,” O’Neill said.

He should know: O’Neal said he often plays sports in between watching and analyzing basketball games. He also recommended MyVegas for his five children, ages 9 to 19. O’Neill said she likes the games because they help make math skills fun.

For Liz Woolley, these games highlight a new and little-known social problem related to video game addiction. Woolley founded the online Gamers Anonymous after his 21-year-old son committed suicide in 2001 after two years of playing EverQuest, an online game.

She said he was normal before. “He had ambitions for the future like everyone else. But when he got into the game he became a different person.”

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

Developers and supporters of the social casino industry say the app is not as dangerous as critics make it out to be. They say trauma stories come from abuse.

Players have also partnered with celebrities and popular brands to raise their profile. network game show

“The games themselves are not addictive,” said Andrew Pedersen, senior vice president and general manager of social casino for the cable channel game show network, a division of GSN Sports that makes casino apps for smartphones. “It’s about people who have something very important to their personalities.”

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Tony Lawrence, a 58-year-old recovering addict and counselor at the Aboriginal Gambling Support Service in Adelaide, Australia, says he has used community casinos as an educational tool for himself and his clients.

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

However, the freemium model presents a challenge. Lawrence advises his clients to choose games that don’t have constant pop-ups to buy add-ons, which he says can be addictive.

“I look like I’m addicted to gambling, and if I start buying credits online, that will be the end of me, and I’ll fight from then on,” Lawrence said. “I

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