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The House That ‘Design Home’ (and Millennial Anxiety) Built

A wildly popular mobile game allows users to decorate virtual spaces with real-life (and easily purchasable) furniture. It’s the future of advertising—but what does ‘Design Home’ say about the future of the people who play it?

Alycea Tinoyan

Every so often, an otherwise superfluous mobile game taps into our subconscious and becomes an instant cultural touchstone. Flappy Bird catered to a newly minted class of smartphone commuters who had at least one hand free to fidget with their screens, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood allowed a generation raised on tabloids to play out familiar reality-star narratives, and Pokémon Go turned errand runs into nostalgic scavenger hunts.

Now, people are tapping away at Design Home, an app with a premise slightly more grown-up than its predecessors. Each day, Design Home users are presented with a few empty rooms that they are responsible for virtually furnishing. They choose one, fill it with furniture, submit the design to be rated by other users, and then move on to the next one. The guidelines for how to furnish these rooms—referred to as “challenges”—are written like HGTV erotica, or the plot of your favorite Property Brothers episode with a few influencer-esque details. “To create the iconic look from her favorite part of the world, this travel writer started with white walls and dark wood beams,” reads one recent prompt. “Next step is adding warm colorful decor. Furnish a Mediterranean-style living room for a travel writer’s home in Alexandria, Virginia.” Nevermind the budget of this suspiciously well-off travel writer, the only thing a player needs to worry about is the bedside table that best matches those beams. After a player submits a finished design, she receives a small “payment,” and waits for other users to score their work out of five stars. If she scores high enough, she receives a bonus piece of furniture for later use. (Though it’s rarely the one she wants.) If that player does really well, her design might be featured on an in-app feed. No matter what, people will see the design and—per the structure of the game—be obligated to judge it.

Screenshots via ‘Design Home’

Millions of people have been sucked into the Design Home vortex. “It launched like a house on fire,” Design Home general manager Chris McGill said. Since it came out in November of 2016, the free game has been downloaded over 50 million times. More than a million people play the game every day, most of whom are women between the ages 25 and 55. It currently ranks 20th in the App Store’s Simulation category and its last major challenge received 53,716,633 submissions, according to Design Home’s Facebook page. In 2018, it generated $157.7 million via in-app purchases (which range from $1.99 to $100), which is $60 million more than it made in the previous year.

In essence, Design Home is a more furniture-centric version of The Sims. But what truly sets it apart from other life simulation games is its merchandise. Decorating a room requires consulting a catalog of furniture from “partners,” which include major chains like West Elm, smaller startups like Article, and the infamous Kathy Kuo (a New York-based designer whose eclectic offerings have puzzled and enraged users). In a brilliant act of gamified advertising, these partners submit their inventories to be included in the game, and the app’s content team decides which to include. The pieces that end up on the screens of Design Home’s giant user base get automatic exposure.

The empty rooms in each challenge are styled to be hyper-realistic so that subtle details like the stain of wood flooring, crown molding, and the print on a wallpaper can all shine through. In fact, Design Home—which is owned by Glu, the same game development company that made Kim Kardashian: Hollywood an instant success—employs a team of 3D artists and architects who digitally recreate each individual piece of their partners’ furniture based on its specs. “It is an arduous and handcrafted process,” McGill said. The fact that Design Home must fit into less than six inches of a smartphone screen means that bolder pieces of furniture will always catch the eye of its users. Whether the game’s millions of users see a piece of furniture ultimately depends on its ability to pop mid-scroll. While at a recent interior design expo in Las Vegas, McGill realized the game had warped his ability to evaluate decor normally. “My eyes see what would look good, and what does not look good within the context of the game,” he said. “Things with more detail and contrast and texture look better in the game than things that are super beautiful, but are more flat and plain in real life. So I literally can’t see things in real life anymore.”

Like so much of the digital economy, Design Home is sponsored content. The app offers an appealing way to showcase various company products to millions of design-minded individuals, and in turn it also has an endless stream of content with which to delight its users. McGill would not disclose the specific terms of Glu’s partnership with furniture companies, but it is hard to imagine an arrangement without financial benefits. Convincing customers to engage with the prices and styles of a furniture company’s latest inventory is far more valuable than a static ad, especially if that company’s product is featured in a challenge that requires players to include specific pieces. (“Style with a Modloft dining table, two black Article items, and four industrial CFC items including a sofa,” reads one recent challenge.) Every piece of furniture has a separate “info” page that allows users to click through to a retail site where they can purchase tangible items. And some challenges are sponsored by the popular HGTV reality show, House Hunters. “In many ways, it is partly a game, but also an ad with gaming mechanics,” McGill said. “Our goal is to change the conversation between makers and consumers by putting a playground in between them, and allowing them to play with products, learn about products, and learn about what they like.”

The rooms themselves are versions of spaces everyone’s seen before: Kardashian living rooms, Airbnb Pluses, or the lobby of a WeWork are translated into a cocktail bar full of low-rise, pink-velvet couches, a rustic cabin in the desert, or a skyscraper condo with black marble accents and tall, glass ceilings. (In general, Design Home leans toward the aesthetics of Instagram, a platform that rewards minimalism, flattering backdrops, and a general obfuscation of place and time.) Players are also encouraged to choose from a handful of familiar supplemental accessories that look as if they were picked straight from a social feed: towering cacti, deer skulls, Jeff Koons-esque balloon animal sculptures, monstera-leaf wall prints, and neon signs that read “LOVE” are just a few examples. “Many, many players call it ‘Pinterest, the game,’” McGill said. “But instead of just pinning things, they can play with them.” Design Home’s content team also draws inspiration from that social network as well as design magazines like Architectural Digest, Dwell, and Elle Décor. Last year they held a “Jungalow-style” challenge that incorporated plant-heavy designs popularized on social media. In 2019, they want to include more of Pantone’s Color of the Year—“living coral.” And this spring, they’ll be channeling “soft pastels and spring florals.”

For anyone who has gazed longingly at the lush settings influencers and celebrities show off online, the game scratches an itch. But a Design Home decorator’s “salary” is never quite enough to cover all the overhead costs that a beautiful room requires. Just as in real life, rugs are stupidly expensive. The cost of matching dining chairs adds up. A fiddle leaf fig tree is no insignificant purchase. So the game becomes interior design Tetris in which players scroll through their options to find the cheapest version of a geometric accent cabinet or a POLaRT bench in order to placate the Design Home gods while still maintaining some sliver of creative dignity. But if players want to ensure they are submitting their best work (something that will be highly rated), they’re obligated to make certain strategic in-app purchases.

Like any other successful (and therefore addictive) smartphone game, Design Home can be an expensive pastime. “The way they hook you is kind of like the way UberEats did free delivery until everyone had completely forgotten how to actually cook, so on the day they threw in a $5 charge we all just went with it,” a 2017 Vice article headlined “Design Home Has Completely Taken Over My Life’” posits. “You start with $18k and a dream, and you end up designing mediocre living rooms in Portland, choosing between the lesser of 50 incredibly evil kinds of foot stool.” “Kathy Kuo haunts my dreams,” Audrey Gelman, co-founder of The Wing, recently told The Cut. She has spent $50 on the game and is part of a group text called “Design Home Homies.” A handful of Facebook groups exist for players to share screenshots of their favorite designs and cheer people on. Others have also used them as venues to rant about the game. “This game is getting really annoying nowadays,” one member of the Facebook group “Design Home Friends” recently complained, in reference to the poor scores she received on her designs. “I kept pushing through each day hoping they’ll do something about their results but now i’m done. i’m saying goodbye to them all and to all you wonderful designers.” A perpetual dissatisfaction with the game’s pricing structure and voting system is a constant in these groups. In other words, the fantasy life they set out to live becomes just as frustrating and monotonous as their real one.

Video games often help us act out our preferred life stories and offer a sense of control over our own destinies. But Design Home’s recent appeal, and razor-sharp focus on real-life products and design trends, can tell us something about the type of void aging millennials are seeking to fill. They are a generation scorned by the Great Recession, holed up in city rentals, and unable to afford new homes or furniture. But they also can’t help but be influenced by social media and the excessive displays of wealth that comes with it. They long to feel what it’s like to afford the lifestyle of a successful adult, even as a handful of socioeconomic factors have combined to make that harder over the years.

Video games obviously weren’t the first pastime in human history to recreate some semblance of adulthood. In a broader sense, Design Home is just the newest iteration of a dollhouse, a scrapbook, or an inspiration board. But cosplaying as an adult is now scattered through almost every type of game. Even sports titles offer their own version of domestic success. “I’ve skipped through the actual games just to get to the part where I get to enter contract negotiations with players,” The Ringer’s Shaker Samman told me. “In NHL 2004, your manager got to buy cooler things to decorate his office with depending on how far you progressed. In Madden 06, your player’s apartment got nicer as he performed better on the field, and in 2K Games, you can choose to spend your virtual currency on improving your player, or say ‘fuck that’ and spend all your income on getting him new clothes or shoes that I, a young person in media, cannot afford.” These roles can also help people feel like they have a small sliver of oversight amid the existential problems their generation faces. “The idea of getting by in 2030 is just too big to wrap my head around, the path there is too obscure and has too many steps,” The Ringer’s Michael Baumann told me. “So sometimes I have to turn on my Xbox and get Fulham to the Champions League final in order to feel like I’m making concrete progress in something I can control.”

Over the years, the flagship adult simulation video game, The Sims, has adjusted to appeal to the modest fantasies of a generation scorned by cramped studios and contract jobs. Expansion packs like “Get to Work,” “City Living,” and “Cats & Dogs” allow players to establish a stable work life, apartment hunt, and bond with animals—all reasonable goals for the average 30-something. “What we made in the past, the game’s still very suburban, very much a nuclear family, middle class, middle America kind of vibe,” Grant Rodiek, a senior producer on Sims 4, told me. In his team’s research to revamp the most recent version of the game, it consulted a set of gaming influencers—people EA refers to as “Game Changers”—on everything from decor and life goals. “A lot of times, we ask them: ‘What are the things that you will use to design your house?’ And they’re always very specific. They get really big on different lamps, different patterns, dark paint. We’re always trying to catalogue all of these requests and get to them as quickly as possible.” The most recent addition to Sims 4 is “Get Famous,” an expansion that allows players to aspire to social media stardom by managing their public identity. In this world, Sims can vlog, produce music, and write product reviews in order to collect a daily royalty based on their online following. And all the while, they can advertise their daily progress on platforms like Simstagram. According to one review, however, attempting to master the fraught digital ecosystem on which we’ve built our modern economy in a game is just as harrowing as doing it in real life. “I was unpleasantly surprised at just how much of a grind the game’s ‘path to stardom’ was,” Lauren Michele Jackson writes for the New Yorker. “Getting famous takes forever, and, obviously, it is more fun to be famous than it is to get famous.”

Herein lies the double-edged sword of a game like Design Home. Various forces in the digital world have made us envious of celebrities with huge followings, nice sneakers, and spacious living rooms. Our social feeds have taught us about candlelit parlors filled with white marble cocktail tables and rustic Virginia estates with lovely ceiling beams. Why wouldn’t we seek to replicate that kind of luxury in our video games? But because the digital economy was designed to feed off of the approval of others, Design Home also recreates its own aspirational hierarchy. Public approval and the replication of the latest visual trend will always matter more than personal taste. The result is an endless loop of insufficiency. But it is, at the very least, what your average millennial has learned to expect from adulthood.


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