Candy Crushing: The Dangerous Mini-Casino in Your Pocket

close up of hand woman typing on smart phoneWe’ve all done it: sat in a meeting or in the office, at church or at a school function, staring at the screens of our smartphones. Sometimes it’s to read an urgent work email or a text message from a friend. But for many, it’s because they’re playing an online game.

We don’t often associate those online games with gambling. But what happens when the lines start to blur, and real money becomes involved? Suddenly the cost of “free” games becomes expensive, and some individuals find themselves unable to control their use.

Is Mobile Gaming the Same as Gambling?

Gambling is intertwined with American culture, despite being illegal in many areas. Take this year’s Super Bowl as an example: the American Gaming Association estimates that nearly $4 billion was bet illegally on the big game. Many people are shocked to learn that commonplace activities like fantasy football are actually a felony offense in many states. Internet gambling is also illegal, except in three states: Nevada, Delaware, and New Jersey. But online games, even those with a financial component, are widely available and largely unregulated.

Gambling and playing games are thought to be relaxing leisure activities, in part because they can also stimulate dopamine, a brain chemical that makes us feel good. But this can lead us to associate gaming with escaping from stress, or as a way to self-medicate to avoid emotional or physical pain. As we become increasingly dependent on our smartphones (approximately 60% of Americans own one), the potential for accessing a feel-good burst of dopamine rests in our palms.

The Dangers of ‘Freemium’ Games

The types of games many people play on their phones are “freemium” (a combination of “free” and “premium”). These are apps you can download or stream in platforms like Facebook, and they’re all totally free to play. However, you can also purchase virtual goods with real money. These virtual goods enable you to return to the game immediately if you fail a task, or buy tools that will enhance your gameplay and make you more successful at completing those tasks. Pricing of items can range from a few dollars to thousands. The global virtual goods industry was estimated at $14.8 billion in 2012, and it has continued to rise since then. Not bad for intangible objects!

One of the most popular freemium social games is Candy Crush Saga, which is often casually associated with addiction. British Member of Parliament Nigel Mills apologized after he was caught playing Candy Crush during a committee hearing in December. He’s not alone: 14% of social gamers play at work for at least one hour per day.

There are also casino-style games like Zynga Poker and slot-machine games galore, often stylized after the latest trend in pop culture. Just these social-casino games accounted for approximately 11% of Facebook’s total revenue in 2014. And with 1.3 billion active users on Facebook each month sending an average of 735 million game invitations to their friends every day, the potential to recruit new players is endless.

Problem Gambling Help for All Ages

Unlike requirements for entering a casino or purchasing a lottery ticket, users only have to be 13 years old to use Facebook or download freemium apps. And even then, monitoring the age of those online is an impossible task for companies or law enforcement. It’s important we start the conversation with youth about online gaming and gambling, just like we do with drugs and alcohol.

ecpg problem gambling helpProblem gambling is a legitimate addiction. The more people are aware of the signs and symptoms, the sooner they can seek help. This is critical because less than 8% of those with symptoms of problem gambling seek treatment, due in part to a lack of awareness and understanding, fewer resources available, and the public perception that gambling addiction just isn’t a real problem.

There are healthy ways to enjoy games without letting your enjoyment become an issue in your life:

  • Give yourself a time and/or money limit and stick to it.
  • Don’t let gaming, whether digitally or in a traditional casino, distract from living a full life.
  • Understand that it’s entertainment—you can take it, or leave it.
  • Always hope to win, but expect to lose.

If it seems like any form of gambling or gaming is taking up greater amounts of your time; if you borrow money to play; or if you keep buying back in to maintain gameplay, these are signs that there may be a problem. Co-occurring mental health issues like alcohol or substance abuse and anxiety increase the likelihood of gambling addiction. Help is available, and treatment works!


  1. 27 million virtual goods market users purchase through Facebook Payments. (2013, 11 March). Retrieved from
  2. Mason, Rowena. (2014, 8 December). MP Nigel Mills apologises for playing Candy Crush in committee hearing. Retrieved from
  3. McNaughton, Marissa. (2011, June 24). 50% of Americans Online Ages 18-44 Play Social Games Daily. Retrieved from
  4. Mobile technology fact sheet. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  5. Morris, J.D. (2015, January 23). Gaming Group: Illegal bets on Super Bowl will total $3.8 billion. Retrieved from

Kristin West is the Outreach Coordinator at the Evergreen Council on Problem Gambling (ECPG). ECPG is a nonprofit organization based in Olympia, WA that serves all Washington state residents with treatment for problem gambling, prevention programs for youth, and training for health care professionals.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Laurel

    March 2nd, 2015 at 10:19 AM

    So I have never thought about any of these games being that dangerous to get started on until reading this, and now I have concerns over the games that my kids are playing!
    I don’t know of any of them that have spent or lost any money online playing games, but I suppose that it would be very easy to fall into that trap if this was something that you were predisposed to doing.
    There are just so many things to get involved with these days that would have never been an issue in the past, it’s scary.

  • Kristin W.

    March 2nd, 2015 at 7:52 PM

    Hi Laurel,

    Thanks for reading! There are plenty of new dangers with technology, but hopefully if we talk about the risks, and talk about what being responsible looks like, we can help our kids (and each other navigate) through our complicated world :-)

  • Paul

    March 3rd, 2015 at 10:21 AM

    I guess that there are a good many people who start out using these games as a distraction, as a way to divert their attention away from all the negativity in their lives, and then they get so caught up in all of it that they can’t find a way to stop.

    I know that there are so may lives ruined every day with drinking and drugs, and I would suspect that there are just as many people who are finding their lives equally ruined by gambling and gaming.

  • lane

    March 3rd, 2015 at 4:35 PM

    I guess that it would be too easy to just not play the games?

  • Nolan M.

    March 4th, 2015 at 3:32 AM

    Lane it would be easier for possibly me and you to just not play the games but for an addict things are not ever that simple. It’s like telling an alcoholic not to have that drink when everyone else at the bar is or not to have a smoke when everyone around them smokes. It would be the easiest thing if there was no such thing as addiction but we all know that this is not the reality in which they live.

  • Kristin W.

    March 4th, 2015 at 9:39 AM

    Hi Lane, For some it may be very easy not to play the games. For others, after receiving a lot of invites to play with friends, the social aspect becomes a big draw, and then if they have other risk factors there is a chance it can become addicting. Hopefully I was able to convey that, and if you have any questions we can start the conversation over on Twtiter today with #ProblemGambling!

  • harriett

    March 4th, 2015 at 2:38 PM

    What concerns me so much about this topic is that this is so easy to get involved with for adults, so think about how enticing it could be to teens or tweens looking for games to play online. They may not even realize just how problematic that these games could become until they are way in over their heads.

  • Essie

    March 5th, 2015 at 10:29 AM

    how do the games differ from the sites that are already illegal? there has to be some small legal loophole that they are taking advantage of.

  • Kristin W.

    March 5th, 2015 at 3:51 PM

    Hi Essie, My main understanding is that in these freemium games you cannot WIN money. You can use money to play, and to enhance gameplay, but you are buying a virtual good for a fixed price. With online gambling, you must pay to participate and you may win money. What makes these games significant is the social component, the widespread availability, and the fact that you can buy millions in virtual poker “chips” for thousands of dollars to play poker online. Definitely a gray area, and for people prone to addiction, it can feel the same.

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