Free games….that aren’t so free.

Written by Dr. Andrew Doan & Brooke Strickland on .

By Brooke Strickland

Free online games are everywhere. Maybe one of your friends likes playing these games and told you about it.  So, in a moment of boredom, you pull one up onto your computer screen or iPhone.

And sure, it’s free – at least at first. People are getting sucked into the game and then find after they are put into a continuous cycle of playing, find out that they can upgrade and have even more fun with “extras” for a monetary charge.  At first, it might not be a big deal – a few dollars here, a few dollars there – but before you know it, you’re spending money that you don’t have.  It might be $50 or $5,000 – these are numbers that real people are spending today on supposedly free games. In an article by Mike Rose, he brings up the question, is it ethical for game makers to make money off of these free games? [1]

These people that spend money on free games, termed “whales”, are not only in danger of depleting their savings accounts, but are also in danger of jeopardizing their real-life relationships because of their incredible amount of time spent in front of the screen.  There are a lot of stories online about gamers that have struggled with spending their hard-earned paychecks on fake items found in games. Whether it’s a hat, a sword, a farm animal, or a magic ring, people are buying these items online to advance themselves in the game.  One ex-employee at an unnamed gaming company chose to leave the company because of what he saw was a damaging business model that was built to suck money out of gaming addicts.  He says: "I used to work at [company], and it paid well and advanced my career," the person told me. "But I recognize that [company]'s games cause great harm to people's lives. They are designed for addiction. [company] chooses what to add to their games based on metrics that maximize players' investments of time and money. [company]'s games find and exploit the right people, and then suck everything they can out of them, without giving much in return. It's not hard to see the parallels to the tobacco industry.” [2]

So, we bring up the question as well: do you think it’s unethical for game companies to create an addictive game, make it free, then lure gamers in, making them pay money to keep advancing?

Video game addiction is real.


  1. 1. Greenfield, Rebecca. “The Ethics of the Candy Crush Pusher.”  The Atlantic Wire. Published online July 26, 2013. Accessed July 26, 2013.
  2. 2. Rose, Mike. “Chasing the Whale: Examining the ethics of free-to-play games.” Gamasutra. Published online July 9, 2013. Accessed July 26, 2013.