When Danielle Flores-Gary can’t sleep at night, she doesn’t count sheep or practice relaxation techniques—she competes in home design challenges on her iPhone.
The 43-year-old founder of Floral Crush Studio, a Los Angeles–based event florist, opens up a 3-year-old, home decor gaming app called Redecor to join competitions with other wannabe designers from all over the world to see who will get the most votes for decorating a virtual space. It could be accessorizing a smart bathroom by selecting items and finishes from the app or furnishing an all-seasons outdoor patio.
“I redecorate a room when I’m trying to go to sleep and wake up to see if I’ve won,” says Flores-Gary. “It’s really fun to see how bad other people’s taste [are] and you do home in on your style.”
Redecor is just one of the entries in the burgeoning category of mobile apps that are drafting off the enormous popularity of HGTV and its brethren by “gamifying” the worlds of home remodeling and design for the mainstream.
These games allow users to live out their own home design fantasies as they redesign and furnish virtual spaces. Interest in these sorts of home decor apps and games has been exploding—especially since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the world to spend so much time at home. Options range from basic competitions and practical design templates to others co-branded with celebrities such as Chip and Joanna Gaines of “Fixer Upper” fame and Drew and Jonathan Scott of “The Property Brothers.”
The most popular of these apps have more than a million daily active users. And while most are free, they make money by prompting users to spend their own cash on in-app purchases such as furniture and finish upgrades.
Design Home, one of the early pioneers of the genre released in 2016, allows players to become virtual interior designers and express their creativity. It’s similar to The Sims and Animal Crossing but focuses solely on home design. In the middle of 2020, as COVID-19 kept many folks at home, it was the No. 1 free simulation game, programs designed to replicate real-world activities in a virtual setting, on Google Play.
Since Design Home was launched five years ago, newcomers House Flipper, Property Brothers, and Redecor (the third top-grossing sim game on Google Play) have also been quickly gaining steam.
“Anytime you see people playing, you should look at what’s the evolutionary drive being satisfied by this,” says Edward Castronova, professor of media at Indiana University. “This is like playing house or having a dollhouse: They’re tapping through to this same interest in an app.”
Flores-Gary played a few puzzle games on her phone here and there before discovering Redecor. Her social media algorithms pegged her as a person who might be into design leading to an ad for the decorating game appearing on her phone.
The algorithms were right—it was right up her alley.
The event florist, who has designed installations for award shows, including the Oscars, Golden Globes, and Grammys, and high-end Rodeo Drive shops, has explored new design styles on the app that allow her to choose various colors and furnishings for different rooms. She’s learned that she prefers a neutral color palette with a lot of light wood finishes like ash presented in a very clean and modern style.
But she has no plans to make any updates to her downtown L.A. loft.
“I’m too lazy,” she adds.
Home decor games pull in a wide group of users
Roughly three-quarters, 76%, of Design Home users are female and a large majority of players are millennials, according to data by mobile marketing agency Udonis. But there are plenty of other genders and age ranges that have jumped onto design app boat as well.
Michael Couey, 14, is a big fan of design apps like Havenly and Modzy. The Salisbury Mills, NY, student got hooked on the genre by watching “Get Organized with The Home Edit” on Netflix. The show features home organizers Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin as they tackle the unruly closets and pantries of celebrities and regular folks alike. The apps allow him to take on similar projects and test out his own home design skills.
While Michael still has a ways to go to achieve his dream bedroom—such as painting the space a bluer white with a “cooler tone,” he says, to replace the “strange beige color” that currently adorns his walls—he has moved his bed, dresser, and desk to give his sanctuary a more spacious feel. The apps give him new layout ideas and inspire future purchases.
“I’m still working on saving up to replace some of the more ‘antiquated’ furnishings, though,” he adds.
The games encourage users to spend money on real-world design
These decor apps may be free, but they are tempting players to buy stuff in the real world—whether it’s actual furnishings and decor items or upgraded finishes, like brass hardware.
For example, Design Home users can upgrade their rooms by paying for furniture from brands such as Serena & Lily, Pottery Barn, and West Elm. To progress through the game, players have to reach a certain dollar amount for room design cost. Once players have placed $20,000 worth of furniture in room challenges—$1.99 gets about $3,000 of in-game cash—they can move up to Level 2, and so on.
Michael has his own prepaid credit card to make purchases, and his mother, Louise Goetz, trusts him not to rack up a big bill on these apps.
Games such as Design Home play directly into millennial women’s common fantasy of owning a home and decorating it with designer furniture—the kind of stylish pieces they see in the homes of wealthy influencers on Instagram, or on HGTV. The game serves as something of an escape from their less glamorous realities while offering a simulated taste of the life they wish they were living.
Because there are so many emotions involved for the users who want to be able to afford a nicer home and stylish decor, monetizing their feelings is proving to be natural and easy in these apps. Folks who say they’d never spend money on in-app purchases somehow end up doing so for games like Design Home.
Despite her late-night Redecor habit, Flores-Gary has yet to fall into that trap herself.
“They try to get you to spend money for nicer finishes like brass hardware” on virtual rooms, she says. “That’s part of the game for me, too: how to keep winning without spending money.”