I'm not convinced that so called 'free to play' games should be legal, though I guess there's no rule in the world that stops bright folk playing us for saps.
I've been addicted to 'Boom Beach' since the day I bought my Samsung Note. It's supposedly a strategy game in which you build a small army which you can use to conquer islands overrun by computer generated force or forces controlled by other players. What's become obvious over the time I've been playing it is that there's actually very little strategy other than the psychological strategy of the creators who have a deep knowledge of what motivates human beings.
I've been playing it for months and I'm now at level 46, my HQ at level 16. That will mean nothing to you unless you play 'Boom Beach' but, to put that into context, the highest players in the world are around level 60+. What's more significant is that I've played it without spending a penny.
Money is a big element in the game. I read somewhere recently that 'Boom Beach' earns the makers hundreds of thousands of dollars each and every day. The money comes from players buying 'diamonds' which are the most powerful currency in the game. You'll notice that all these supposedly 'free-to-play' games require a virtual currency. In some games it's gems and in others it's coins. In 'Boom Beach' it's diamonds and diamonds allow you speed things up because without diamonds, everything takes an eternity to complete.
That delay is a powerful motivation. The psychology of delayed gratification is a strong one, as the best writers often prove. If you've ever read 'Lord of the Rings', you'll notice that Tolkien interleaves three narratives through the final half of the book. It's a brilliant technique which means that he can delay the gratification of giving you a vital piece of plot for the next but two chapters. He does this at the end of nearly every chapter, meaning you're always left on a hook.
The same is true of these games. As you level up, you feel more motivated to carry on and yet the goals become harder to achieve. Or, that is, harder to achieve without paying. In the course of a week, I can earn about 100 free diamonds by simply playing the game. However, I could buy diamonds which cost £3.99 for 500 or £79.99 for 14,000. I don't, of course, but lots of people do. 14,000 diamonds would allow me to level up my base (the game's single most important unit) at least three more times. As it currently stands, I'd probably have to play it for 140 weeks to get that far. That's nearly three years.
Without buying diamonds, you get stuck like I'm currently stuck. Every day, I try to get my resources (wood, stone, metal) to a level where I can upgrade my base. Every day, I'm raided by players and I lose all my resources. I often wonder how many of those players have paid the £79.99. It's been going on for months now and I'm at the point where I wonder why I keep going.
The reason I keep going, I suppose, is because I've already invested time into the game. Once somebody is locked in a pattern of behaviour, it's hard for them to break out of it. I'm locked into a pattern of behaviour. I need to quit now and spend that time reading a book or going for a walk because I should realise that at an elevated level, the mathematics of the game have already been carefully modelled by very bright people who also understand human psychology. The game, like so many others of the same type, is bright and cheerful and you feel like you're having fun playing it. Yet it's also unbeatable. There is no goal other than the goal of making me return to it and (had I cash) encouraging me to pay money for a completely virtual reward. More than that, it reveals how easy it is to manipulate people, break their free will and turn them into drones. Deep down, the whole culture of these games is very sinister. It reveals the mean truth of consumerism. The system tempts us, flatters us, sweetens us, courts us, romances us, but in the end, it only really wants to consume us entirely.