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Parental Nightmare: The Dark Secrets Of Kids’ Freemium Games!

Welcome, weary parents, to another (yay?) digital post, where we explore the digital frontier of freemium games – the oft double-edged sword of our children’s digital entertainment.

As we embark on this journey, fueled by coffee and sleepless nights, we’ll navigate the realm of games that promise fun at no expense, but often come with hidden costs. (*cough, our children, cough*)

The Great Debate: Are Freemium Games a Playground or a Pitfall for Kids?

Are these freemium games a boon for our little ones’ development, or are they cunning traps, luring us into a vortex of in-app purchases?

This Kinda Scummy Game

In the age of tablets and smartphones, freemium games have become the go-to pastime for our tech-savvy offspring. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve been sucked into installing a variety of p2w (Pay to Win) games over the years (and am currently stuck playing Lords Mobile).

As the colourful icons innocently beckon, coaxing you and your children to install them with the promise of free fun, behind them lies a world of strategic monetisation schemes and ad-driven incentivisation.

Join me as we delve into the heart of this debate, shedding light on the good, the bad, and the downright confusing in the realm of freemium gaming.


With close to two decades of experience as a seasoned digital marketer, specialising in SEO, advertising, and experience with in-app monetisation, and conversion rate optimisation, I bring you a personal insight into the factors that make these games addictive.

It’s a perspective that urges caution before you consider installing yet another freemium game on your kids’ tech.

So get comfy, grab your tea or coffee and a choccie. I’m armed with anecdotes, caffeine-induced wit *cough*, and I’m here to unravel the mysteries of freemium games to you all, like a sleep-deprived bandit on the case.

Predatory Practices: Unmasking the Psychological Tactics

It only takes a second to be bombarded with freemium games on the app store or play store (I’m an android fanboy, but the rest of the family all have the fruit phones) and in this vast realm of “free gaming” you’ll find that a large swathe of developers employ cunning tactics that entice you and your children into installing their app.

These are psychological maneuvers designed to tap into the vulnerabilities of young players, transforming what should be a fun past-time into a potential financial minefield.

So follow me as we delve deeper into the darker arts of freemium gaming.

Revealing Commonly Used Manipulative Tactics

Here’s a non-comprehensive list of some of the most commonly used tactics that game developers use to hook you into spending money or time on their games.

  1. The Urgency Gambit:
    • One common tactic involves creating a sense of urgency. Games may present limited-time offers or exclusive deals, pressuring players – especially children – to make impulsive purchases before the opportunity vanishes.

      It’s a digital version of limited-time discounts, preying on the fear of missing out. **THE DFS SALE IS NOW ON**

      The number of times i’ve heard “but it’s worth £xx.xx-xxx.xx and is on sale for £1.99-99.99” is shocking.

  2. The Power of Progression:
    • Another ploy revolves around manipulating the sense of progression. Games strategically place obstacles or slowdowns, tempting players to spend money for instant advancement.

      The notion of getting ahead faster becomes alluring, especially for younger players eager to conquer virtual challenges and get their hit of dopamine for “achieving” a higher level. This particular mechanic is incredibly popular amongst the “Clans / Kingdom / Lords of War” or card based games.

  3. The Allure of Virtual Goods (ULTRA-RARE):
    • Virtual goods, be they enticing skins, weapons, cards, or in-game currency, act as digital bait.

      Developers often create a desire for these items, making in-app purchases appear as a shortcut to a more enjoyable gaming experience.

      Maybe it’s “legendary” or “ultra-rare” – It’s the art of making pixels feel indispensable. Anyone who has ever purchased a blind-bag or partaken in the ancient Japanese art-form of Gachapon will be familiar with the rarity mechanic.

      If you’ve ever had the misfortune of buying a Magical Mixies doll and having your kids devastated when they open up the common or rare, but they REALLY HAD TO HAVE THE SUPER RARE TOY THEY DIDN’T KNOW EXISTED 5 MINUTES AGO… this is kind of the same.

  4. The Subtle Peer Pressure:
    • Some freemium games might leverage social dynamics. By introducing multiplayer elements or comparing players’ progress, the developers can create a subtle form of peer pressure.

      The desire to keep up with friends or appear more accomplished nudges players towards spending to stay competitive. This rings especially true if certain games are popular in your kids school.

  5. The Impulse Trigger:
    • Games may strategically position in-app purchase prompts during moments of excitement or achievement.

      Whether it’s after completing a challenging level or achieving a milestone, the dopamine and emotional high increases the likelihood of impulsive spending.

  6. Rewarding Ad Watching: The Illusion of ‘Free’
    • Some games employ the tactic of rewarding players for watching ads. While seemingly innocuous, this creates an illusion of ‘free’ benefits. Players, especially the younger audience, might fall into the trap of watching more ads or making purchases to accelerate progress, or worse still, some of the most predatory games require watching ads after each death regardless of game length.

      Not only does the repeated exposure to these ads cause upset in the children, but more often than not, the extremely predatory games will advertise their own circle of repetitive “games”.

      There have been times where I’ve seem my kids play these games for 5 or so seconds before they die and get hit with an ad. It makes the game unplayable, so you’ll inevitably get guilt tripped into purchasing the “ad free” version of a crudely created game that will provide 20 minutes of entertainment for your child, before they realise the game is shit and they move onto the next clone of whatever it was you got conned into installing in the first place.

      (Can you tell I’m bitter?)

Understanding these psychological tactics is crucial in the fight for parents navigating the freemium landscape and figuring out which games are suitable for your kids.

So now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s dive into the different tiers of freemium gaming.

Three Tier Gaming

Truly Free to Play Games – God Tier

In this ideal tier, truly free-to-play games offer 100% of the gaming experience without any paywalls hindering progress. Examples include Animal Jam, Subway Surfers, and Crossy Roads.

Truly free to play games, that might offer 100% of the game for free and no speed or “beneficial” advantages to paying for skins, or loot boxes etc.

Games falling into this category provide cosmetic items, avatars, or in-game currency for purchase, allowing players to personalise their experience.

Examples include: Animal Jam, Subway Surfers, Crossy Roads.

Occasionally, ad-supported games, such as classic re-releases like SEGA’s Sonic the Hedgehog series, can also find a home here, offering a balance between a premium experience and occasional ads.

P2W (Pay to Win) / Ad Supported / 50% Free – Mid Tier

This middle tier exists in the gray area where games can be played without spending money, but monetary contributions or ad engagement offer advantages, often accelerating progress or unlocking powerful characters.

Did you know that something as simple as increasing the perceived reward of a secondary in app currency from double to triple can double the number of people that click on the ad!

Titles like Clash of Clans, Lords Mobile, PVZ 2, and many vertical scrolling shooters fall into this category.

It’s important to approach these games with caution, especially considering the growing body of research highlighting the impact of operant conditioning, particularly in reward-driven ad watching or by building loyality to the game with the introduction of log-in rewards which scale with consecutive or “streak based” logins.

So keep an eye out when your child plays these games, as some of them use strategies like making ads seem rewarding or giving extra bonuses for turning the game on every day. They’re trying to make the game so enticing that your child keeps coming back all the time and this positive re-enforcement can cause issues.

If you’ve ever caught your kids saying, “Can I just do my logins?” they might have fallen into a common trap. While it’s not inherently a bad thing and doesn’t necessarily need to be stopped, it’s essential to be aware of it.

Why do developers use this strategy? The truth is that rewarding users works, and the numbers speak volumes. When the reward for watching an ad increases from double to triple, users are 50% more likely to engage with an advert.

Before & After Reward - Ad Viewing Fequency. Double reward viewing frequency - 18% -- Triple reward frequency - 27%.
Attribution: “How to Reward Users for Maximized Video Ads Monetization – via Medium”

To put it in perspective, at its peak, “Flappy Birds” was generating roughly $50,000 USD in ad revenue per day ($18,250,000/year). Now, with the tripled reward, it could be earning $75,000 a day ($27,375,000/year). All because players, or your child, were willing to spend 30-60 seconds to progress a bit faster in the game.

So Should We Watch Ads for Rewards?

Don’t get me wrong; I’ve done it before and will probably continue to do so for games I enjoy. However, the mechanic itself poses a problem in games that use the “advancement” mechanic hidden behind a time or paywall.

The game turns into a kind of cookie-clicker, robbing you of the dopamine hit you might experience from achieving milestones. Whether it’s finally building that top-level structure, recruiting a level 5 army veteran, or upgrading a skill that now takes 34 days, 30 minutes, and 22 seconds (unless you pay in gems, watch an ad, or click some buttons to reduce the time and feel that sense of achievement once again).

If you’re intersted in reading more about the psychological impact of reward elements in gaming then give this article a read: Davide Pirrone, Regina J. J. M. van den Eijnden & Margot Peeters (2023) Why We Can’t Stop: The Impact of Rewarding Elements in Videogames on Adolescents’ Problematic Gaming Behavior, Media Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/15213269.2023.2242260

Free to Install (/w 10% content) / Ads Every Death / Lootbox Economy – 💩 Tier

The most concerning freemium games are created by unscrupulous developers who specifically target younger users. I was thrilled when I learned that the Bluey mobile game was finally available on the App Store.

However, I was disappointed to find out that they require a £6/month subscription to access all characters and levels – it is absolutely a form of unfair pricing. £72/year for a glorified sticker book.

Baby Bus follows a similar model, although I’d categorise it in the mid-tier since you can still enjoy around 20-40% of the content without subscribing.

The games that commonly employ tactics often fall into the category of “stickman” style games. These are formulaic games involving tasks like running a fast-food restaurant, serving pizzas/burgers/shoes!? to customers, unlocking new areas, and enduring a constant stream of ads – it’s a repetitive cycle.

It’s important to try to avoid these types of predatory games. They can be ok if you’ve got a few minutes to kill, but really try to keep these games off of your younger kids tech where possible.

Game Examples

The Good Guys

In our quest for digital enlightenment, let’s look at some of the better examples of free games without the catch.

Crossy Road:

If you haven’t played Crossy Road then you haven’t lived! A pixelated wonderland where your characters hop up the screen dodging obstacles, cars and trains. Think of it like frogger on speed.

There’s a reason this game was earning up to $50k/day via banner ads. It’s insanely popular and for those of you who have an Apple Arcade subscription, Crossy Castle is even more fun and addictive!

Ads are optional, and while it does employ a gatcha mechanic, in-app purchases aren’t intrusive or a requirement to play the core game.

Sad that the Disney version is no longer available. I played a lot of it with the kids on the firestick during lockdown!

Available on: Play Store | App Store | Amazon Store

Pokémon GO:

The game that got us off the couch and exploring the real world to catch a part of our childhood. I still occasionally play it myself, but my eldest is super loving it right now.

While in-app purchases exist for cosmetic items, convenience, battle passes and additional pokeballs. The core experience encourages outdoor exploration without a direct hit to your wallet.

No ads are also a bonus, but it can be a bit frustrating chasing a rare pokemon, only to run out of pokeballs and toy with the idea of spending real money to make sure you catch it.

The game itself is a bit samey, but it’s a bit of fun to have while walking out and about.

Available on: Play Store | App Store

Hearthstone: Tactical Card Battles

For the budding strategists, there’s Hearthstone. This digital card game set in the Warcraft universe offers battles that stimulate young minds. While in-app purchases are available, players can also earn cards through gameplay.

Available on: Play Store | App Store | Amazon Store

Subway Surfers: Skill-Based Progression Lastly, Subway Surfers takes us on a fast-paced ride where skill matters more than deep pockets. With occasional ads and in-app purchases limited to cosmetic items, it’s a game that rewards players based on their abilities rather than the size of your wallet.

Available on: Play Store | App Store | Amazon Store

The Bad Guys

Some of these games have limited playability, if you’re looking to keep yourself entertained then feel free to whittle away your commute time on these addictive but slightly suspect games.

Do try to keep your kids away from them as they offer nothing in the way of actual gaming.

Clash of Clans: The Allure of In-App Fortunes

Clash of Clans, a strategic kingdom-building game, has drawn millions into its addictive gameplay. However, behind the medieval charm lies a realm of aggressive in-app purchases that can provide advantages to those willing to spend real currency.

This game solidly falls into the P2W category. It’s a time killer if you’re into that sort of thing, but don’t get sucked into wasting money on it!

Candy Crush Saga: The Sweet Trap of “Wait or Pay”

Candy Crush Saga, the reigning monarch of match-three puzzles, hides its insidious “wait or pay” model.

Players are given limited lives that regenerate slowly, sometimes you can watch an ad to regenerate lives, but otherwise you’re forced into paying for unlimited lives.

Dungeon Keeper: The Dungeon of Monetisation Woes

If you were a Bullfrog fan growing up, you might remember Theme Hospital or Dungeon Keeper. I was eager to see what EA had in store for us on this re-release, but this clash of clans clone was woefully over monitised to the point of unplayability.

I’m surprised it lasted until 2022 before EA finally pulled the plug on this “game”.

Evony: The King’s Return – Strategic Wallet Depletion

You know that ad that you have seen a million times? Pull the switch, release the water or lava and ensure your hero collects the gold or saves the maiden? Yeah, this is the game that it’s trying to get you to play.

Evony, a strategy game centered around building and conquering, not a puzzle game like the ad will have you believe; has been criticised for its aggressive in-app purchases that can significantly impact competitive gameplay, turning it into a pay-to-win battleground.

Mobile Strike: War Games, Real Wallet Impact

Mobile Strike, a war-themed strategy game, invites players into a world of heavy in-app purchases, where spending real money becomes a shortcut to resources and power.

Another example of paying for your dopamine hit!

The Ugly

Steer clear of games that don’t offer anything in the way of entertainment or education – it’s a move that benefits both your sanity and your kids’. Avoiding these games ensures a more enjoyable and balanced digital experience for everyone.

Rather than listing out any particular offenders, just be mindful of what your children ask to install and stand your ground when you inevitably hear “but so and so is allowed to play it”.

Should I Let My Children Play Freemium Games?

You’ve made it this far! (Or you’ve just clicked here from the table of contents) either way, well done! I do tend to waffle on sometimes.

It’s your choice as a parent, whether or not you want them to play it. I tend to keep a vigilant eye on what my kids are allowed to play and if there’s anything suspect or obviously an ad trap, then I won’t let them have it.

Just be mindful that while some freemium games offer a genuine challenge, others are just there to keep your attention for as long as possible to generate the developers as much ad revenue as they can!

If you’re really struggling for gaming ideas and you’re keen to ensure your kids play ad free games, then you could always take a look at Amazon Luna – ideal for playing games like Fortnite and Trackmania on a mobile device or tablet, Netflix also has a decent selection of mobile games including Bloons TD, Candy Crush and a lot more.

Roblox is also a firm favourite, although I only allow the little ones to play while supervised and the bigger kids have relatively free roam.

If all else fails then spend a bit of money and get Minecraft!

Article Published: 17th January 2024 – Additional information to be added.


We all have different rules for how our kids use tech. I admit, when we’re all down with sickness (ooh, ah ah ah ah), their tablets, consoles, and TVs take over some of the parenting duties for the day.

I’m curious to hear from fellow parents about the freemium gaming scene. Do you let your kids dive into these games? Any favorites? Ever got caught up in a Pay-to-Win situation? Share your thoughts—I’d love to create a comprehensive list of safe games for all ages and I’m thinking of digging deeper into this topic in the future!

Not done reading yet? Why not take a look at my other post discussing the pros and cons of screen time for kids.

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