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

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Ardi Rajian is a freelance reporter focusing on under-reported social issues. He was a former city bureau editor at the University of California, Santa Cruz Hill Press and a former radio journalist for the university’s KZSC environmental news program.

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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, biking, surfing, and hiking. The most unfortunate part of his life was being a huge fan of Cleveland sports teams.

Most popular gaming apps – this is GSN Casino – get the look and feel of slot machines, blackjack tables and the like. Sports Display Network

Many worries about the future cast a shadow over Brett as he works his way through a program for gambling addiction.

The 21-year-old’s main concern after being released from the three-month program in California: meeting people, places and things that can fuel his desire to play. But that’s nothing compared to the biggest threat he faces: his smartphone and the many casino games available with a quick tap in the app store.

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“Don’t want to go to a casino,” said the former business student, who asked not to be identified because of the stigma attached to his struggles. “Take out the phone while you wait.”

Brett’s gambling problem began a few years ago with betting on NBA games, and then betting on other professional sports. It wasn’t long before his habit extended to social casino games. Played on a mobile device or computer, even through the Facebook homepage, such games mimic casino slot machines and card games. The main difference is that players cannot win real money. They bet with play money, and if they run out, they can use real dollars to win more.

“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 craved the thrill of real money betting. Before long he was gambling in a real casino, which cost him financially. When he lost more than $5,000 to card games and sports betting, he had 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, designed for mobile devices, fueled Brett’s gambling addiction. Part of how it stuck was the “free” nature of social casino titles — a tactic that became a lucrative new way of doing business in the video game industry. The motivation is simple: attract free-to-play players, and once they’re engaged, entice them to pay for extras like virtual currency, gifts, and more roles.

Sally Gainsbury, a researcher at the Center for Gambling Education and Research at Southern Cross University in Australia, said the games “normalise gambling behaviour”. “It is seen as an acceptable daily activity that helps people develop positive attitudes towards gambling and this can be passed on to young people willing to pay.”

That may be the biggest problem, said John Kindt, a gaming critic and professor of business policy and law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “When you combine electronic games with gambling and gaming in the context of young people who think they’re bulletproof, you have a triple set of social and economic problems waiting to happen.”

Zinga spokespeople 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 will probably be a lot of Brits there. Video games are more popular today than ever before and their influence continues to grow. For casino game producers, this has translated into a monthly audience three and a half times larger than the audience that visited Las Vegas last year.

According to SuperData research, the global audience of casino apps on smartphones averaged 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). Gambling researcher Gainsbury estimates that 269 million people worldwide will be attracted to gambling in 2016.

These audiences also open their wallets for sports. In July, social casino games regularly made up a quarter of the 20 top-grossing 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 occupying three consecutive top 20 spots.

Although the games are free-to-play, the revenue from purchasing in-game add-ons is close to millions for the biggest publishers. Zynga’s adjusted social casino game sales were $80.1 million in the first quarter of 2015, while Caesars Interactive, which includes major social casino titles Slotomania and Caesars Casino, reported total revenue of $167.6 million, according to Eilers Research.

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Social casino apps for smartphones boast a monthly audience three and a half times larger than those who visited Las Vegas last year.

Sales continue to rise: According to Eilers Research, the global social casino gaming market grew to $809.6 million in the first quarter of 2015, a 7 percent increase over the same period last year. Mobile phone revenue accounted for 61 percent of the total market in the quarter, up from 50 percent in the same period last year.

According to SuperData, the global market for social casino games is expected to bring in $3.2 billion by the end of 2015.

Games are not the only thing that attracts customers. Developers have hired famous celebrities to endorse them.

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Basketball star Shaquille O’Neal teamed up with a company called PlayStudios in March to create images for two social casino games included in the company’s MyVegas app: Caddy Shaq, a slot game, and ShaqJack, a card game. “When players see the game with all the lights and sounds and features, I think it allows people to stay there,” O’Neill said.

Need to know: O’Neal said he often plays basketball between watching and analyzing basketball. He even recommended MyVegas to his five children, ages 9 to 19. O’Neill said he likes games because they help make learning math fun.

For Liz Woolley, the games highlight a growing and little-known social problem related to video game addiction. Woolley started the online Gamers Anonymous after her 21-year-old son killed himself in 2001 after playing a fantasy online game called EverQuest.

“It’s normal,” she said. “Like everyone, he had ambitions for the future, but when he got immersed in this game, he became a different person.”

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Woolley said his son was addicted, which left him depressed. “Sports are some people’s drug of choice,” Woolley said. “They use them to escape reality and parents use these toys as babies.”

Developers and consultants in the social casino gaming industry say these apps aren’t as dangerous as critics charge. They tell stories of the damage done by abuse.

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

“The games are not addictive,” said Andrew Pederson, senior vice president and general manager of social casinos at the cable channel’s game show network, whose GSN gaming division produces casino apps for smartphones. “It’s about people who have this kind of obsession in their personality.”

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Tony Lawrence, 58, a recovering gambler and counselor at the Aboriginal Gambling Support Service in Adelaide, Australia, says he has used social casino games as an educational tool for himself and his clients.

“It gives them a bit of an adrenaline rush and helps them control their addiction and change their behavior,” says Lawrence, who spends about two hours a day alone at Slotomania.

The freemium model remains a challenge. Lawrence coaches his clients to choose games that don’t have constant pop-ups for purchasable add-ons, saying they can become addictive.

“I look at it like I’m addicted to gambling, and if I start buying credits online, that’s going to be the end of me and I’m going to fight from there,” Lawrence said. “On it

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