The Dangers of Free Mobile GamesTons of people play games on their mobile devices, to the point that these small games are doing big business. In 2015, over 50% of Americans played a mobile game, and in 2016, smartphone and tablet games collectively made nearly $40 billion. A lot of mobile games are available to download for free, making their money by selling boosts or items within the game (a business model called “freemium”), and while some of these games treat their players with respect, others are more predatory or scammy. They appeal to children or people with addictive personalities, trying to get them hooked so they rack up massive bills for in-game goodies. To learn more about the tactics these games use, and how you can restrict purchases on your mobile device, keep reading.

They make it easy to spend money

Freemium mobile games often contain a variety of design elements that encourage you to make repeated in-app purchases. Their store pages are prominent and very easy to access, and every purchase is rewarded with satisfying sound effects and visuals, similar to slot machines. The goods you buy are either time-limited or expendable, offering a temporary rush of power that you have to routinely refresh with money to keep. It’s also common for free mobile games to require you to convert your real money into an in-game currency, such as gems or gold bars, before you purchase anything. This obscures the actual dollar value of the items you buy with that currency, and allows you to buy several items at a time before you have to pay real money again, which keeps you in the fantasy of the game for longer. While the game is teaching you how to play, it may give you some in-game currency for free and urge you to spend it so you get in the mood to spend more. The worst examples of these games aggressively try to sell you in-app purchases, and don’t clearly communicate how their economies work, to the point that the U.K.’s Office of Fair Trading has published guidelines calling these practices harmful to consumers.

The app marketplaces that host these games are part of the issue, as well, as they also try to make spending money as painless as possible. Your phone can bill your in-app purchases to your mobile account or a saved credit card, which dramatically reduces your resistance to parting with money and offers little indication that you’re spending, apart from an emailed receipt. Young children, who may not be far enough in their development to know how money is valued or how digital payments work, can be especially vulnerable to overspending their parents’ money in mobile games. In fact, Apple, Google and most recently Amazon have all had to issue massive refunds for unauthorized in-app purchases made by children, in response to lawsuits and prodding from the Federal Trade Commission. Normally, though, app marketplaces have language in their terms of service agreements indicating they will not issue refunds for in-app purchases, so these big refunds are exceptions rather than rules.

They try to draw you back

Similar to fake spyware apps, free mobile games can collect a lot of data on you. Instead of using that data to steal your identity, though, they use it to target you with things they know you like. For example, if you often play a game with a certain social group, and you haven’t opened the app in a while, that game may send you a message indicating that your friends need help in order to entice you back. Big spenders, referred to as “whales” by game designers, are especially targeted because they’ve already shown a willingness to part with large sums of money, and can be responsible for 70% of a game’s revenue from in-app purchases. Some games also make use of variable reward systems, which have been psychologically shown to create the most repetitive and persistent habits compared to other reward schedules. The variable reward systems in these games dole out prizes based on random odds that are hidden from the player, typically using especially rare and powerful items as objectives, and people can become addicted to the high attained from finally getting what they want after lots of tries. As an example, this Reddit user (please note this post includes explicit language) spent $16,000 over 18 months on the free mobile game “Final Fantasy Brave Exvius” to obtain rare characters.

Restricting mobile game purchases

If you have a child who plays freemium mobile games, or you play them yourself and think you may have a problem, you can adjust the settings on your phone to make in-app purchases more difficult. On iOS devices, go to the General Settings menu and tap on the Restrictions section, then enable restrictions, set a passcode (or have a loved one set one for you so you don’t know it) and scroll down to the In-App Purchases button and switch it off. For Android devices, open the Google Play app and go to Settings. Scroll down to the Require Password for Purchases setting and select For All Purchases Through Google Play on This Device. This will make it so your Google account password has to be entered any time someone wants to make a purchase. Unfortunately, unlike iOS devices, Android devices don’t have the option to lock in-app purchases with a separate passcode.

As an alternative to freemium mobile games, both the App Store and Google Play have Pay Once Play Forever sections with games that only ask you to pay once up-front and then don’t ask you for a cent more. You may balk at the idea of paying $1 to $5 for a game before you’ve even tried it, but they make it much easier to control your spending. To learn more about making the most of your mobile device, visit our technology blog.