The virtual, vicarious pleasures of home-decor games

Most video games are designed to take you away from the realms of reality. You end up playing a heroic protagonist in an exotic, far-off land, completing mythical quests and going on fantastical adventures (or at the very least, crushing candies or matching jewels). Now, a new genre of games is making itself at home in the most unlikely of locations: a home.

Casual games based around interior design and decoration – with different rooms to pass through, and new combinations of lights, rugs and furniture to match – have become an unlikely hit as the world hunkered down indoors. Users took to games such as Design Masters, Design Home, and Redecor: Home Design Makeover for a domestic change of scene that the pandemic had made hard to access.

The games are rarely time-bound, and call for creativity, rather than strategy, resource management or an all-out thirst for violence. The objective is simple: you start with an empty shell of a sweeping manor or sunlit apartment, a marketplace and a virtual budget. Complete tasks to buy items like an Art Deco lampshade, an Eames chair, a delicate lace curtain or a modernist sculpture to place in your rooms. And admire your handiwork – most items are licensed images of actual furniture and upholstery, accurate down to the filigree, shadows and texture. Mix and match to complete your challenge.

Then, the fun begins. The completed homes are typically entered into a voting system. Two payers get pitted against each other to be rated by other players, or the in-game community rates your masterpiece. If you win, you’re awarded a bigger budget for the next level. If you don’t, well, none of this is real anyway.

Shikha Sharma, a 22-year-old medical student from Delhi says she downloaded Design Masters on her phone in April 2020 partly out of boredom and because it appealed her interest in design. “It also worked in my favour because it didn’t need intensive attention or much of an effort,” she says. “I could simply drop it and not go back to it for a few days if there wasn’t enough time.”

She says it’s helped her live out her dream of being able to design her own house some day. “Eventually, I also realised I enjoyed playing because it catered to my aspirational sense of owning and designing own property someday,” she added.

Arpit Bansal, 28, who works as a credit monitoring manager at an international bank in Hyderabad, discovered Design Home after he was confined to his single-bedroom flat for nearly four months, working from home when the lockdown took effect. “I realised how addictive and cathartic these games could be,” he said. “Post-lockdown, though, I was heavily inspired by the game and had hundreds of ideas buzzing in my head, which sent me on a mini-makeover spree around my flat.” He could not give his home a complete overhaul. “But the game helped me realise how furnishing a flat with small items could make it far cosier. I ended up buying a rug for the living room and three floor-lamps that I scattered across my flat.”

A modern home is all very well, but a virtual one allows you to make the expensive mistakes and conduct daring experiments you couldn’t afford in real life. (COURTESY HOUSE DESIGNER)
A modern home is all very well, but a virtual one allows you to make the expensive mistakes and conduct daring experiments you couldn’t afford in real life. (COURTESY HOUSE DESIGNER)


As in the rest of the world, the pandemic triggered a surge in casual gaming users in India. According to app download data maintained by SensorTower, between January 1, 2020, and September 30, 2020, India was the world leader in terms of mobile game downloads. We were responsible for 7.3 billion installations, making up 17{28ab41d673507bfe0daf970418d2e81f9476b3e139564442359ad7402c370b16} of all game installations the world over.

Interior design games ended up being the one of the highest grossing titles. Design Home: House Renovation, the most famous of the genre, is the 9th highest grossing game in India, according to SensorTower data. It turned out to be more popular than big-budget and well-established gaming titles such as Clash of Titans, Marvel Contest of Champions and Mortal Kombat.

“The advantage that mobile casual games such as interior design titles have is that they appeal to a massive audience, which starts from kids, all the way to their grandparents,” says Prahlad Singh, a former freelance video game quality analysis (QA) tester. “The fact that almost all of these games allow a very high rate of in-app or in-game purchases, makes them incredibly lucrative for their parent company.” In-game purchases are small real-money transactions within a game that enable players to buy into levels of the game they want, giving them a chance to cross challenging levels, or get better.

In countries such as the US, games like Design Home have introduced an in-game shopping feature that enables users to directly buy the home accessories they’ve been playing around with in the game. The revenue models have helped both developers and home décor brands. In India though, the fantasy is good enough.

“I don’t have the space to decorate my house like I can do virtually in the game, but it’s a very comforting feeling to be able to live your dream and decorate massive mansions to see how you would live if you were super rich,” says Singh.