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Some of the most downloaded and most profitable video games from major app stores use casino designs in their design, raising questions about the potential dangers of gambling apps.

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Ardi Ragian is a freelance reporter who focuses on underreported public issues. He was the city office editor for City on a Hill Press at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and radio reporter for an 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 enjoys reading, hiking, cycling, surfing and rock climbing. The worst part of his life is being a fan of Cleveland sports teams.

Many popular gaming apps – this is GSN Casino – draw their appearance from things like slot machines and blackjack tables. Game show network

There are many worrying things about the future for Brett, who is in a gambling addiction program.

The 21-year-old’s main concern after his release from a three-month program in California is meeting people, places and things that could lead him to gamble. But that’s nothing compared to the biggest threat he faces: the casino-like games he can quickly access in his smartphone and app store.

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“I don’t have to go to a casino,” said the former business student, who wished to remain anonymous because of the stigma associated with his struggles. “Just pick up your phone and there you are.”

Brett’s gambling problem started a few years ago when he started betting on NBA games and later on other professional sports. Its use soon expanded to social casino games. Played on mobile devices or computers, and even through the Facebook website, such games resemble casino slots and card games. The main difference is that players cannot earn real money. They bet with play money and when they run out they can spend real dollars to win more.

“There are so many games,” Brett said. msgid “Most are popular games.”

He started playing Zynga Poker, a gambling game, last year. But he wanted to bet the thrill of real money. Soon after, he played in a land-based casino and suffered a huge financial loss. After losing 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. Then she and her parents decided that she needed to undergo a recovery program.

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These games for mobile devices were the reason for Brett’s gambling addiction. Part of its appeal has been the “free” nature of social casino titles, a tactic that has become a profitable new way of doing business in the video game industry. The motivation is simple: introduce players to free games and then make them pay extra for communications such as virtual money, gifts and other spins.

These 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 everyday activity that helps people develop a positive attitude towards gambling, which can be transferred to young people who are willing to pay for gambling.”

That’s perhaps the biggest problem, says John Kindt, a gambling critic and professor of corporate policy and law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Combining video games with gambling and sports can create three types of social and economic problems for young people who think they are bulletproof. “

Zynga spokespersons declined to comment, and representatives from Caesars Interactive Entertainment and Big Fish Games did not respond to requests for comment.

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There are many more Bretts than that. Video games are more popular than ever today and their influence continues to grow. For casino game makers, that’s three and a half times the number of visitors to Las Vegas last year.

According to SuperData Research, the global audience for smartphone casino apps averaged 145 million monthly active users between July 2014 and June 2015 (excluding Asia, which has no account and accounts for a quarter of the global market). . Gambling researcher Gainsbury estimates that these games will attract 269 million people worldwide by 2016.

Those viewers also open their game wallets. According to market analysis firm App Annie, social casino games made up a quarter of the top 20 most profitable apps on the Google Play Store last July. Apple’s App Store shows similar statistics, with social casino apps taking three places in the top 20. Both Slotomania: Free Casino Slots and Big Fish Casino: Free Slots are consistently in the top 10 of both stores.

While the game is free to play, the largest publishers’ revenue from additional in-game purchases runs into millions. In the first quarter of 2015, Zynga’s social casino games revenue was $80.1 million, while Caesars Interactive’s, which includes the social casino titles Slotomania and Caesars Casino, was $167.6 million, according to Eilers Research. .

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Social casino apps for smartphones have three and a half times more visitors per month than the audience who visited Las Vegas last year.

Revenue continues to grow: In the first quarter of 2015, the global social casino games market grew to $809.6 million, up 7 percent year-over-year, according to Eilers Research. Mobile phone sales accounted for 61 percent of the total market this quarter, compared to 50 percent a year ago.

The global social casino games 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 aren’t the only thing that attracts customers. The developers have hired celebrities to support them.

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Basketball star Shaquille O’Neal partnered with PlayStudios in March to sponsor two social casino games included in the MyVegas app: the Caddy Shaq slot and the ShaqJack blackjack game. “When players see the game with the lights and the sounds and the features, I think people want to stay there,” O’Neill said.

He should know: O’Neal said he often plays playoff basketball games during halftime between watching and studying them. She recommended MyVegas to her five children, ages 9 to 19. O’Neill said she likes the games because they make math skills fun.

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

“It used to be normal,” she said. “He had ambitions for the future like everyone else. But when he came into the game, he became a different person.”

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Wooley said her son’s addiction also made her depressed. “Gaming is an acceptable option for some people,” Wooley said. “They use it to escape reality, and parents use these games as caregivers.”

Social casino game developers and industry advocates say these apps aren’t as dangerous as critics think. They say the history of damage stems from violence.

Game manufacturers have made deals with celebrities and well-known 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 casino for the Game Show Network cable channel, whose GSN Games division makes casino apps for smartphones. It’s about people who have this obsession with their personalities.”

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Tony Lawrence, 58, who works as an Indigenous Gambling Consultant in Adelaide, Australia, says he uses social casino games as a learning tool for himself and his customers.

“It gives them some adrenaline and helps them control their addiction and change their behavior,” says Lawrence, who spends twice a day at Slotomania.

However, the freemium model has its challenges. Lawrence teaches her customers to choose games that have no add-ons available for purchase, which she says can encourage addiction.

“I’m addicted to gambling, and if I buy a loan online, that’s the end of me, and I’ll fight from there,” Lawrence said. “I have to

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