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Virtual pokie app a hit - but 'not gambling'

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Richard Willingham

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The highest-grossing phone and tablet app in Australia is a virtual poker machine game easily accessible to children and teenagers, prompting outrage from gambling critics and the established pokies industry.

Slotomania, which is owned by Playtika, a subsidiary of the casino company Caesars Entertainment Corporation, was the highest-grossing app at the iTunes store in Australia last year, and two other ''slots'' games were in the top 20.

The free game, also available on Facebook, simulates pokies but when all credits have been used players must either wait for a length of time or buy more credits - with real money - to continue to play. But credits and winnings cannot be converted to real money, something the game's terms and conditions state clearly.

The similarity to pokies and access to gambling-style games for young people is of great concern to many in Australia, with worries that games normalise gambling behaviour and groom young people.

Playtika's terms say the game is intended for people over 21, but if players are between 13 and 18, they should get parental consent.

Under interactive gaming laws from 2001 - a review last year is still being considered by the Commonwealth - the game is not considered gambling because people cannot win money.

A Monash University public health expert, Charles Livingstone, says early exposure is a risk factor for development of gambling problems. ''The possibility that young people can gain access to parental or other credit cards or payment systems extends the risk of harm significantly,'' he said.

It is not the first time such apps have caused concern, but anger is building about the lack of action to address the issues.

Anti-pokies campaigners including Senator Nick Xenophon, Tim Costello and the Greens' Richard Di Natale are worried the apps put young people at future risk.

Senator Xenophon is planning to introduce a private member's bill to close the ''loophole'' that sees the games not classified as gambling.

Clubs Australia has been a critic and has called on the government to intervene. Playtika was contacted for comment.

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