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Some of the most downloaded and top-browsing video games in popular app stores use casino themes in 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 social issues. He was a former city bureau editor for the City on Hill Press at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a former reporter for the environmental news program on the university station, KZSC.

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Matthew Rand is a freelance writer based in Santa Cruz, California. Interested in the interaction between technology and social issues, he enjoys reading, walking, cycling, surfing and rock climbing. The most unfortunate part of his life is being a big fan of Cleveland sports teams.

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Worries about the future weigh on Brett as he struggles with 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 could trigger his desire to gamble. But that is nothing compared to the biggest threat he will face: his smartphone and the many casino-style games available with a quick tap in the app store.

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“I don’t even have to go to the casino,” said the former business student, who asked not to be named because of the stigma attached to his struggle. “Just pull out your phone and you’re there.”

Brett’s gambling problem started a few years ago with betting on NBA games, followed by players betting on other professional sports. It wasn’t long before his behavior spread to social casino games. Play on mobile or PC, even through the Facebook site, games like these fake slots and card games in casinos. The main difference is that players cannot win real money. They bet using 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 more popular games.”

He started playing the slot game Zynga Poker last year. But he craves the excitement of real money gambling. Eventually, he bet on 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 had to ask his parents for money to pay off the debt. Then he and his parents decided he needed to enter a recovery program.

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These mobile games fueled Brett’s gambling addiction. Part of what he saw was the “freemium” nature of social casino titles, an approach that has become a lucrative new business model in the video game industry. The lure is simple: let players play for free, and once they’re engaged, tempt them to pay extra, like virtual money, prizes and other moves.

Gaming is “gambling behavior,” said Sally Gainsbury, a researcher at the Center for Gambling Education and Research at Southern Cross University in Australia. “It seems to be an acceptable daily activity that helps people develop a positive attitude towards gambling and that can transfer to young people willing to pay gambling.”

And that could be a bigger problem, said John Kindt, a gambling critic and professor of business policy and law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “If you combine video games and gambling and sports in the context of young people who think they can’t get through a bullet, you have three socio-economic problems waiting to happen.”

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

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There are probably many more Brits out there. Video games are more popular today than ever, and their influence continues to grow. For casino game developers, this means a monthly audience of three and a half times the number of people who visited Las Vegas last year.

The global smartphone casino app audience averaged 145 million monthly active users between July 2014 and June 2015 (excluding Asia, which is not registered and accounts for a quarter of the global market), according to SuperData Research. Gambling researcher Gainsbury estimates that by 2016, gaming will attract 269 million people worldwide.

Those spectators also open their wallets for sports. As of last July, social casino games regularly account for a quarter of the top 20 apps in the Google Play Store, according to market analysis firm App Annie. Apple’s App Store posted similar figures for the month, with Social App Casino taking three consecutive top 20. Slotomania: Free Casino Slots and Big Fish Casino: Free Slots both have consecutive top 10 places.

Although the games are free to play, major publishers make millions in revenue from the purchase of game add-ons. Zynga’s adjusted total sales of social casino games were estimated at $80.1 million in the first quarter of 2015, and Caesars Interactive, whose main social casino titles include Slotomania and Caesars Casino, reported total revenue of $167.6 million, million , according to Eulers Research.

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Social casino apps for smartphones have a monthly audience that is more than three and a half times the number of people who visited Las Vegas last year.

Sales continue to grow: The global social casino gaming market grew to $809.6 million in the first quarter of 2015, up 7 percent from the same period a year ago, according to Eulers Research. Revenues from mobile phones were 61 percent of the total market in the quarter, compared to 50 percent in the period a year ago.

The global social casino gaming market is expected to bring in $3.2 billion at the end of 2015, with North America accounting for almost half of the market, according to SuperData.

Games alone are not the only thing that attracts customers. The developers have hired celebrities to help them as well.

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Basketball star Shaquille O’Neal teamed up with PlayStudios in March to model two social casino games that are part of the company’s MyVegas software: slot game Caddy Shaq and blackjack title ShaqJack. “When players see the game with all the lights and sounds and features, I think people will want to stay there,” O’Neill said.

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

For Lisa Woolley, the games highlight a new and under-recognized social problem of video game addiction. Wooley founded Gamers Anonymous after his 21-year-old son committed suicide in 2001 after two years of playing the online fantasy game EverQuest.

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

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Wooley said her son was an addict, and it also depressed her. “Sports is an 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 gaming industry say these programs are not as dangerous as critics claim. They say stories of harm are based on abuse.

Game developers have made 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 casino on the cable TV channel Game Show Network, whose GSN Sports division develops casino apps for smartphones. “These types of people should focus on 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 casino games on social media as a learning tool for himself and his clients.

“It gives them a little adrenaline rush and helps them control their addiction and correct their behavior,” says Lawrence, who himself spends up to two hours a day on Slotomania.

However, the freemium model presents challenges. Lawrence advises his clients to choose games that do not have frequent pop-ups for additional purchases, saying it can be addictive.

“I see it from the point of view that I am a gambling addict and if I started to buy credit on the Internet, that would be the end of me and I would just struggle from there,” Lawrence. “I’ve got

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