‘Free’ Online Games Like Facebook’s Candy Crush Saga Are Draining Your Bank Account

If you like to hop on your smartphone, tablet or computer when you have down time, you likely play a game at some point during 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, social games.

The good news is a large number of games available online 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 these 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 Candy Crush Saga, Farmville and Other Games

There are a tremendous number of popular free games that millions play every day. 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 a mindless release.

But a 2012 Psychology Today article found that while, for the most part, games are played for enjoyment and provide satisfaction for successfully reaching new levels, some people might use them to meet 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 perhaps 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 the need to engage in the activity is so strong for many video game players that it closely mirrors an obsession to win at a slot machine or black jack table.

Of course, not everyone who is playing these 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 Versus 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 and 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 the 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 accomplish that.

While many gaming experiences maintain components of the old-school format (i.e. gaming consoles like Xbox 360, Sony PS4, etc.), online gaming has blurred 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.

One thing’s for sure, online gaming is a big business. A research report from eMarketer in June 2010 found that social games generated more than $725 million in 2009 in the United States alone. Of course, some of the games likely came with an initial cost, but I know from experience that many people pay far more for virtual currency on some free games than they ever could for those that require up-front payment.

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 initially 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 Free Online Games

Like many others, I have spent countless hours playing free online games. 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, so I 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 livestock to 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?’