Forget Animal Crossing. My coronavirus escape is a game about throw rugs

Commentary: The game Design Home has me obsessing about rattan ottomans and watercolor whales. Please send help.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
5 min read

You won't see any socks strewn on the floor of this bedroom. 

Design Home/Glu Mobile

Despite limits on international travel, I've spent the past few weeks hanging out in Greek villas and Monte Carlo penthouses. I've also spent an excessive amount of time thinking about the decor that should fill these spaces. Would a simple, woven ottoman look gauche against those marble floors? What sort of luxe side table would best complement the wall's gold inlay? 

Strange things to ponder during these weighty, uncertain times, I know. Curse you, Design Home, and your insidious ways. 

Design Home is a mobile game for iOS and Android that tasks you with designing rooms in much the same way you'd decorate a house you built in The Sims. I am obsessed.

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One of my five-star rooms. No, my real home doesn't look like this. 

Screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

I'm not the only one. Design Home has been downloaded more than 75 million times since launching in November 2016 and has more than a million daily active users, according to developer Glu Mobile. And like many games, it's seen an uptick since the start of the coronavirus outbreak as people hunkering at home seek a respite from the Groundhog Day-like time loop.   

"The game has always been relaxing, but it's now become a much-needed distraction," says Toni Hawkins, a player from Hermiston, Oregon. 

That's no surprise. "Jet-set back to Asia's most stunning locales as you relive the life of an heiress to a luxury hotel chain," reads one recent set of challenges. Let's just say Design Home will never ask you to furnish a living room that now triples as a home office and an elementary school classroom. Face masks and hand sanitizer are not among the items you can place on a nightstand. This is escapism at its fanciest.

Like many free games, the game's not really free, of course, since if you're anything like me, you won't be satisfied until you've found just the right casual, striped accent chair to match the breezy blue curtains in your coastal Maine living room. So you'll drop a couple of bucks on diamonds, one of the in-game currencies, telling yourself this is the only time this week you'll spend $1.99 for a digital rug and a plant made from pixels.  

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I designed this Barbados beach villa. Now I want to live in it. 

Screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

You'll be lying.

Design Home invaded my life a year after its debut. I decorated a few mismatched rooms out of curiosity but quickly discovered that tracking table lamps is way more relaxing than tracking the day's political mudslinging or the spread of COVID-19. To date I've designed almost 500 rooms, from living rooms in French mansions to kids' bedrooms in suburban Kansas. Almost 500 rooms. Do you know how many carefully chosen Cynthia Rowley couches and West Elm floor lamps that is? 

Neither do I, but I don't care. It's fun.

The more you play, the more goods you acquire. More paintings, wall clocks, vases, ferns and other accents for your inventory. More choice means better-designed rooms, and a greater chance your fellow players will give your eclectic Florence patio a score of 4 stars or higher. That nets you a piece of furniture as a prize -- and deludes you into thinking you should compete on the Netflix show Interior Design Masters. Five stars and you get the prize plus a bunch of diamonds (16 of my rooms have been bestowed five stars, not that I'm counting).

And the cycle continues. Spend real dollars on fake furniture. Kick yourself. Justify spending real dollars on fake furniture with reassuring "everyone has their guilty pleasures, plus life during a pandemic is stressful" self-talk. Choose between solid and patterned sofa. Get jolt of satisfaction when you put together the perfect room. Rinse. Redecorate. Repeat.

On the game's Facebook page, which has more than 2.1 million likes, players from around the world proudly share screenshots of their rooms -- and complain, about everything from glitches in the voting system to the price and size of digital objects. "What's with all the accent tables being so big?! Most seem to be much taller than the sofas," one player wrote. "They look ridiculous."  

Um, you call that a formal living room? 

I've never been a gamer, so it took me a while to figure out why Design Home has me in its evil clutches. Yes, I pride myself on keeping my home cheerfully appointed and well-organized. But while Real Me is fine with my sister's college dresser and a living room cat maze made of empty Amazon boxes, Design Home Me has designed $8.1 million worth in fake living spaces. 

Most studies exploring the link between gaming and real-life behavior have focused on shooters, not first-person fabric selectors. But Chris McGill, the game's general manager, says he's heard many anecdotes about Design Home influencing players' real-life decor choices. And now, with the current lockdown, people spending week after week at home have more time to observe their surroundings and what they might like to change. 

"While I'm staying home, Design Home has motivated me to paint my walls, use different colors from my typical palette and change up my furniture," says Nickey Williams, a player from Bethlehem, Georgia. "Knowing I have something positive to do ... that will take my mind off of daily pressures."

McGill describes Design Home as a creative learning tool. 

"It's learning what you like, and you apply that to your real life, whether it's directly because these are real products in the game or you're learning something about your own taste in color theory," he says.  

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Another player's creation. The blue teddy bear accenting the formal living room genuinely concerns me. 

Screenshot by Leslie Katz/CNET

Designing hundreds of digital rooms has definitely taught me a lesson or two.

Tropical floral rugs don't pair well with rustic deer skull wall hangings. Hot pink furniture should be used sparingly. And under no circumstances should a kid's giant pastel teddy bear accent a formal living room. When I see other Design Home players making such choices, I turn into a terrible snob, rolling my eyes and muttering harsh holier-than-thou judgments. "Good god, that's hideous."

Real Me doesn't do this when I walk into other people's homes.

But even if Design Home never translates to a better coordinated living room, sometimes it's nice to escape to a space where none of your chairs have been clawed to within an inch of their life by Mr. Destructo Paws. 

In Design Home, you don't have to wipe smudges from walls, pick up your husband's socks or wipe down surfaces with disinfectant. It's a sparkling clean, sun-drenched world where you effortlessly hop between Sydney, Tokyo, Brussels and Key West and the only stresses involve deciding between Taylor Burke Home and Apt2B. Especially now, don't we all need places like that? 

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