Here’s something to think about. Video games have been around for decades, but their burst of mainstream popularity is only a few years old. Why is that? What is it about this generation of video games that gave rise to reams of casual fare? The answer is multi-tiered, but according to recent survey findings, the economic downturn of the late Aughts did a great deal to bring a much wider audience to the relatively cheap pastime of gaming. Moreover, the rise of the free-to-play market, its subsequent success, and the chilly economy all tie into each other in a big way.

Last week, published the results of a survey that was conducted across 1,435 casual tournament players at its free-to-play games website. Among the users who were polled, 66% said they’re spending more time gaming, and 29% claimed they’re playing more games because they’re “free entertainment.” In a nutshell, the players who were polled are still suffering from the fallout of the bad economy. The reduction in leisure budgets across the US has helped fuel a big rise in freemium and online gaming.

ArcadeWeb is a site that rewards casual game players with real money under certain conditions and circumstances (tournaments, for instance), so its survey numbers aren’t a perfect indication of casual gamers’ habits. Nevertheless, the report still offers a decent breakdown on what might be the biggest reason for the surging popularity of casual and free-to-play games: most of us are still pretty danged poor. What little money we make is going to food, clothes, and gas. Leisure takes a back seat.

The runaway success of the Wii was the first indication that the deteriorating economy was having a direct effect on people’s perception of gaming. Sure, media hype helped sell the system, but when the economy tanked, families started to look at game consoles as a replacement for more expensive leisure. When it looked like Disneyland was out of the question for many parents, the Wii became the “family treat” at Christmas. It had a big selection of compelling, easy-to-play games, to say nothing of staples like Super Mario and Zelda. It was also by far the most affordable console at the time, next to the Xbox 360 (which kept cooking itself, anyway), and the PlayStation 3 (which launched late, and with the infamous “599 US Dollars” price tag).

Since 2006, the games industry has gone through massive changes. The Wii is still affordable and popular, but nothing’s quite as affordable as the free-to-play games that have cropped up over the past handful of years. When gaming came to Facebook, it grabbed the attention of moms and dads who hadn’t touched a game since the glory days of the arcade, but were intrigued by the idea of growing a virtual farm. And when the price tag came into view—”Free! Free! Free!”—it’s no mystery why the lousy economy is still a great breeding ground for freemium titles.

The free/casual game boom isn’t a satisfactory trade-off for the livelihood of the thousands of capable Americans who’ve lost their jobs in these rough times. Nevertheless, it’s undeniably interesting to observe how families’ necessarily frugal choices have shaped the industry as we know it today.