Are Free Games Really Free? We Don’t Think So


Spending $.99 seems like a small price to pay for a little bit of help beating that annoying level of Candy Crush on which you’ve been stuck for the past two weeks, right? Wrong; that’s exactly what the genius people behind this ‘free’ game want you to think. The game was free, but you will spend money and make them very, very wealthy because of it. Free games are anything but. We know it, our kids know it, and the people that make the games know it. In fact, our two oldest girls have their own tablets on which we’ve downloaded a myriad of free games and activities. We like to take them on flights, in the car, to restaurants and everywhere in between. Our 4-year-old loves Minion Rush, and our 7-year-old likes math games (she’s an intellect). What we failed to realize as people who do not play games on our iPads is that free means nothing other than the fact that you can download the game without paying for it.

Imagine our surprise when all of a sudden I received an email from iTunes with the tagline, “Thank you for your recent iTunes purchase,” that I assumed meant my husband was downloading music. I ignored it, deleted it and moved on. It was when I received the 7th or 8th email that I sent a quick text to my husband, “How much music did you download?” to which he responded, “None. Why?” Crap – we’ve been hacked.

After logging onto my iTunes account, I note that there are dozens – DOZENS – of charges for things like Barbie and My Little Pony and everything in between. What the…I immediately approached my oldest daughter and asked her if she knew what was going on. She said to me, “I downloaded some new levels and new outfits for my sister’s and my tablets, mommy.” But…no. She needs a password to finalize purchases.

“It’s (insert password here) mommy, I watched you type it when you downloaded that puzzle game for me last week,” says my daughter with a smile filled with pride at her intelligence and good memory. I had to walk away. Because I was going to lose it after realizing that she’d spent close to $90 on additions to her games because I let her watch me input my password.

If that’s not a good indication of just how NOT free that free games are, I don’t know what is.

I have a friend who is constantly trying to beat levels on Candy Crush and she spends, of her own accord, $.99 every time she’s frustrated or stuck. It’s a nominal fee, and she doesn’t even think twice about purchasing another life or a little help. I mean, why would she? You can’t get anything else in life for under a dollars, so why even consider it real money? It wasn’t until she realized she spent almost $20 buying additional moves and lives and help on one level in one day that she realized that perhaps she did have a problem. And that’s wherein lies the issue.

Free games are free so that you will download them, play them and then get sucked into making in-app purchases. The fee is nominal, so you don’t think about it. It’s so low that it doesn’t even resonate as actually money, so you make the purchase. Imagine that; you spend $3 per day on app lives to beat levels and think nothing of it, but by the end of the month you’ve just spent $93 on a silly game. It doesn’t seem like much because it’s not, but sometimes it’s the ‘not much’ purchases that make the biggest and most substantial financial impacts. Trust us; we know.

How it Works

According to PsychGuides, it’s all very Vegas-like. Game developers track their users and figure out exactly what they need to do to attract big spenders, though big spenders are not the goal. They know that some people will spend a lot of money to keep themselves entertained, but they only rely on a handful of people who spend a lot of cash in their apps. The most prominent part of their revenue is the small purchase made here, and the small purchase made there – by almost everyone.

When it comes to big spenders, the game is a little different. This is when the game company will make the game significantly more difficult, but offer rewards that will make it easier for users to win – yet they still keep things just out of reach for the user so that they will spend more and more along the way to actually win. This works because most of these games do not have an end, so there is no way to win no matter how hard you try or how much money you spend. It’s all just one big trick.

The Struggle is Real

There is also a real issue that faces those who spend a lot of money on free games. It could be a sign of addiction. Video game addiction happens more than you might think, and people are actually spending their savings, their mortgage and their grocery money on games that they want to win so that they can have the satisfaction that they believe the game might bring with them. It’s not going to happen, but sings are lying, irritability and restlessness.

The best way to avoid the spending trap is to remove your card from your app so you cannot make purchases. It’s not the most convenient way to go about saving money, especially if you do need to purchase something at some point. However, it’s a good way to save money and make sure that you don’t become addicted to making small purchases for a win you will never achieve. After all, most wins are only momentary; there is always another level or another road block you have to conquer after each minor victory. There is no big victory.

Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images


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