If you’re like most people around the world, probably hop on your smartphone, tablet or computer to play a game at some point in the day.
In 2007, comScore found that 217 million people worldwide — or 28 percent of all people online — played online games. A separate study conducted five years later by market research firm Newzoo revealed that a whopping 126 million Americans alone, ages 10 to 65, played online casual and social games.
The good news is a large portion of games available are completely free…or are they? Many games are free to download and don’t cost a penny to play, but many supposedly free online games strongly encourage players to spend real money to make advancements or upgrades.
Because the games are so addictive, once players get started, it’s hard to let go — and because they’re “free,” it’s easy to feel like there’s no real harm in playing them. But if you start spending real money from your bank account to play, when does the free gaming experience cause more harm than good?
The Allure of the Candy Crush Saga, Farmville and Other Games
There are a tremendous number of popular free games that millions play every day. The Candy Crush Saga and Farmville 2 are just two of thousands of games teens and adults alike enjoy.
There are plenty of reasons why we love them; they’re colorful, make fun noises and play to our imaginations. After a long day at work or school, successfully harvesting crops or mixing and matching tasty candy gives us an exciting release.
But a 2012 Psychology Today article found that while for the most part, games are played for enjoyment along with the simple challenge of successfully reaching new levels, some people may use them to satisfy psychological needs.
Whether trying to escape an unpleasant reality or access feelings of freedom not experienced at work or home, being able to play and win games fulfills a need not otherwise met.
The allure of video games has even been compared to that of gambling. Though there are many experts on both sides of the fence, some argue that need to engage in the activity is so strong for many video game players that it closely aligns with an obsession to win at a slot machine or black jack table.
Of course, not everyone who is playing the games is looking for an escape, or feeding an addiction. Many are just looking to have a good time for a small portion of their day. However, it’s possible for this seemingly innocent fun to do real damage to your savings account.
Virtual Currency vs. Real Currency: Is There a Difference Anymore?
I can remember a time when there was absolutely no confusion between virtual currency and real currency. I grew up in the Atari 2600 / Nintendo NES era when video games were pretty straight forward. You buy the gaming console, purchase game cartridges and play for virtual points.
There was never a need to use those points to buy anything in-game. You never needed virtual points or currency (gained through skill or paid for through real currency) to unlock levels in Super Mario Brothers, or buy more bullets in Duck Hunt. You also didn’t have to pay for (or wait multiple hours) to gain three more lives. All of that was handled up front, so that your playtime was left only to skill. Either you played well and reached new levels, or played poorly and lost. And if you wanted to try again, you had a handy reset button to help you out.
While many gaming experiences maintain components of the old-school format (i.e. gaming consoles like Xbox 360, Sony PS4, etc.), online gaming has muddied the lines. Because many aspects of online gaming are now free to players, developers have to find other ways to make money. Some work with advertisers, some charge for games up front and some ask users to pay for various aspects of the game as they go.
So what’s the big deal? If you have the opportunity to download a game for free, what’s the harm in paying for some extras along the way?
There’s probably nothing wrong with doing so in moderation, but one benefit to paying for a game ahead of time is setting those limits right off the bat, while paying for upgrades in free online games could result in reckless back-end spending as virtual currency and real currency become one.
My Experience With the Free Online Games
Like many others, I have spent countless hours playing free online games for virtual currency. My games of choice came from the “Story” series available for Android and Apple smartphones.
One day, I decided that I wanted to try a Farmville-esque game, but wasn’t into playing Facebook games and decided to find an alternative, which for me was Farm Story. Similar to Farmville, it allowed me to plant and harvest crops for virtual money then use that money to purchase virtual food and expand my farm.
I enjoyed the game a great deal — that is, until I noticed an ad in the corner of my device for another “Story” game called Restaurant Story. By downloading this game, I would receive some freebies for Farm Story, so I thought, Why not?