Every year, more people are playing games
on their phones.
And one category, called social casinos, has
quickly become a multi-billion dollar industry.
But new evidence shows game developers are
targeting vulnerable users, all with the help
of Facebook and its massive trove of personal
For the record, “PBS NewsHour” produces
some content as part of a business relationship
From Reveal at the Center for Investigative
Reporting, Nate Halverson has the story.
NATE HALVERSON, REVEAL FROM THE CENTER OF
INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING: Suzie Kelly is a
grandmother from suburban Dallas.
Five years ago, she and her husband were thinking
But, all that changed one afternoon, when
she sat down to watch TV.
SUZIE KELLY: There was a commercial for Big
I thought it was a casino-casino at first,
and then I realized it was a game.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Big Fish Casino.
Play for free.
Play for fun.
NATE HALVERSON: The game she downloaded is
part of a rapidly- growing industry called
“social casinos” that launched on Facebook
about 10 years ago.
These apps bundle together games like poker,
roulette and slot machines.
Kelly’s slot machine game was free to play,
But, once her free chips ran out, she had
to buy more to keep playing.
SUZIE KELLY: I would say that my spending
increased to hundreds of dollars and thousands
of dollars within the first month.
NATE HALVERSON: How much could you win playing
Big Fish Casino?
SUZIE KELLY: Real money?
Nothing at all.
NATE HALVERSON: Why?
SUZIE KELLY: Because they don’t pay real money.
They only take money, to give you virtual
chips to continue to play on their app.
NATE HALVERSON: Fully aware she could never
cash out her chips, that first month, Kelly
still spent nearly $8,000.
SUZIE KELLY: I just couldn’t stop.
You know, it’s like, holy cow, what the hell
have I done again?
NATE HALVERSON: Nine months after downloading
the free game, Kelly had spent more than $40,000.
SUZIE KELLY: I have an addiction.
I just — I realize I had to get out of it.
I needed out.
NATE HALVERSON: She decided to quit, and emailed
the game company.
Kelly showed me hundreds of messages between
her and Big Fish Casino.
And you write to them, and the subject line
is, all caps, “cancel account.”
SUZIE KELLY: Right.
I wrote, I just can’t do this anymore.
I’ve maxed out my AmEx twice.
NATE HALVERSON: Did they delete your account?
SUZIE KELLY: No, sir.
NATE HALVERSON: Kelly asked Big Fish Casino
to delete or permanently ban her from playing,
nearly a dozen times.
The company never did.
She continued spending, hiding it from her
In total, Kelly would lose more than $400,000.
SUZIE KELLY: You know, I had to come clean
with my husband.
I took a breath, I remember this, and I said,
its like I said, I’m sorry, Chuck.
I said, I think we might lose.
I don’t want to lose everything.
KEITH WHYTE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NATIONAL
COUNCIL ON PROBLEM GAMBLING: I mean, it’s
And it should be unacceptable.
NATE HALVERSON: Keith Whyte is the executive
director of the National Council on Problem
He said real casinos would be required to
cut her off, or face big fines.
But there are no regulations on social casino
KEITH WHYTE: Those people who, like Suzie,
appear to have very severe gambling problems,
or gambling-like problems, they can’t just
NATE HALVERSON: Whyte said their helpline
is increasingly filled with people addicted
to social casinos, and they’ve lost serious
He said social casino games appear to be five
times more addictive than traditional casinos.
KEITH WHYTE: In the U.S. alone, you’re talking
well over 100 million people who report playing
somewhat regularly on social casino apps.
And again, no one’s tracking this, because
it’s not being regulated.
NATE HALVERSON: Last year, social casino companies
earned more than $5 billion, nearly as much
as all the casinos on the Las Vegas Strip.
But companies like Big Fish claim their games
are just entertainment, and have avoided any
KEITH WHYTE: It’s a very highly lucrative
but somewhat secretive industry that has exploded
across the United States in the past decade.
NATE HALVERSON: Big Fish declined our request
for an interview, but sent a written statement
saying the company is “dedicated to delivering
experiences,” and that “we strive to ensure
that our social games comply with all applicable
standards, rules and requirements.”
I spoke to former employees of these social
None wanted to go on camera, but described
a darker side, saying it was widely known
some players were addicted, and their warnings
to management went ignored.
One player spent so much on the game, she
couldn’t afford her prescription medicine,
and they told me another’s home was in foreclosure.
Suzie Kelly said the first time she tried
to quit, Big Fish called her on the phone,
not to cancel her account, but to assign her
a personal VIP host, Byron Scott, who gave
her free chips to keep her from leaving.
Where would this relationship with Byron Scott
What did it become?
SUZIE KELLY: This was a daily thing, back
It was like a friendship.
And you know, my mother passed away in 2016.
They sent me flowers.
And they also sent, of course, chips to keep
JOSE BROTONS, PRODUCT MADNESS/ARISTOCRAT SOCIAL
CASINO: Hi, guys.
NATE HALVERSON: We tracked down footage from
a 2013 tech conference of Jose Brotons, who
helped pioneer the VIP system for social casinos.
He is speaking on stage to a roomful of game
Brotons worked for Aristocrat, the same company
that owns Big Fish Casino.
He designed the VIP system to target the tiny
fraction of players who will actually pay
to play the games.
JOSE BROTONS: You’ve got to think that about
3 percent of your users are going to be generating
80 percent to 90 percent of the value for
NATE HALVERSON: We obtained leaked company
documents that show how his VIP system tracks
players by their Facebook IDs, closely monitors
their game play, and then prods people to
keep them spending.
They refer to their VIPs as whales, a term
taken from the casino industry to describe
Social casinos now use behavioral analysis
software to quickly identify people who are
likely to become big spenders.
Behaviors like increasing your bet, or playing
frequently, are signals to the companies,
and they target these players with heavy marketing,
and label them, proto-whales, as Brotons explained
to a roomful of game developers back in 2015.
JOSO BROTONS: We are now capable of predicting
proto-whales within their first gaming session,
so we can assign a very high likelihood that
a person’s going to be a proto-whale.
NATE HALVERSON: I show Kelly documents outlining
the creation of the VIP program,
SUZIE KELLY: Yes, bingo.
For me, that’s like, let’s find the weakest
person and destroy their life.
NATE HALVERSON: Does it feel like they’re
targeting your addiction?
SUZIE KELLY: Absolutely.
NATE HALVERSON: There is another company profiting
from these games.
Facebook makes hundreds of millions of dollars
selling virtual chips to players like Kelly.
Julien Codorniou, a Facebook executive, spoke
at a game conference in 2014 about social
JULIEN CODORNIOU, FACEBOOK EXECUTIVE: It’s
the number one category on Facebook.
It’s a category that, you know, never stops
Every year, we see new companies out of nowhere
coming up with amazing games, amazing IP,
launching on Facebook, launching on mobile,
making significant money.
NATE HALVERSON: Facebook’s website shows how
it tracks people online, and can predict who
is likely to spend big by analyzing user data.
Facebook helps social casinos find those potential
It charges a premium to nudge players to spend
more, to target people whose online behavior
might be a sign of addiction.
JULIEN CODORNIOU: It’s very good for gaming
companies because they can decide to target
on Facebook, or on mobile, you know, specific
users, or just the whales.
NATE HALVERSON: Facebook declined to speak
on camera, but sent a written statement saying
that while they don’t build ad products specific
to social casinos, they understand that certain
games or products can impact some people differently,
and they are working to understand the long
term impact of certain kinds of content.
Sam Lessin is a former top executive at Facebook.
He now runs his own venture capital firm.
But back in 2012, he wrote an email to his
then-boss and close friend, Mark Zuckerberg.
Lessin wrote that he wasn’t proud of their
work with slot machine companies.
I’m fine with it, he wrote, just not proud
Lessin won’t discuss his time at Facebook,
but agreed to speak generally about how companies
are targeting people like Suzie Kelly.
She ended up spending over $400,000 playing
a slot machine game.
SAM LESSIN, VENTURE CAPITALIST/ENTREPRENEUR:
I mean, it sounds disgusting, right?
You know, we’re going to have to live in a
world where both very, very good people, and
very, very bad people have better tools.
NATE HALVERSON: Do we want hyper-targeted
ads from beer companies to alcoholics?
Do we want hyper-targeted ads from casinos
to gambling addicts?
SAM LESSIN: No, of course, we don’t want those
Like, no thinking person is like, that’s great.
But then the question is, well, OK, like,
let’s be really clear, what rule do you want
And how are you going to enforce that rule?
NATE HALVERSON: Suzie Kelly joined a lawsuit
last year in the state of Washington, where
Big Fish Casino is based, arguing that the
game constitutes illegal gambling, and she
is asking for her money back.
She is now getting help for her gambling addiction,
and says she no longer spends money on Big
But, she is still dealing with near financial
ruin from the game.
If you could go back in time to that moment
when you were about to download the app, what
would you tell yourself?
SUZIE KELLY: Don’t do it.
You don’t know this until you play this game,
but you’ve got a problem.
If you have an addiction, you’re screwed.
NATE HALVERSON: And there is nothing stopping
companies from continuing to target people’s
For “PBS NewsHour”, I’m Nate Halverson
with Reveal, in Plano, Texas.
AMNA NAWAZ: If you have spent hundreds or
thousands of dollars playing a social casino
game on Facebook or a mobile device, Reveal
wants to hear from you.
To share your story, go to revealnews.org/whale.