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A man holding a smart phone consider three couch options; an ornate victorian style couch, a modern looking couch with wooden legs, or a large comfortable leather couch. Illustration.

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Making a home in the mansion on my phone

The illusion of agency coupled with an ever-improving digital estate scratches my fixer-upper itch

As I hurtle toward middle age, I find solace in having some of the trappings of an adult life: a solid job, freedom from (most of my) soul-crushing debt, a car that I paid for myself, and the right to spend an entire Saturday afternoon rewatching Parks and Recreation guilt-free. However, apart from the married-with-2.5-kids bit, which I’m still on the white picket fence about, there is one piece of the American dream that seems exceptionally out of reach, especially living in the Bay Area: owning a home. Instead, I’ve found my tiny slice of the pie in a silly freemium iPhone game.

The foundation of Matchington Mansion is Candy Crush with slight tweaks to avoid litigation. By matching colored cushions in groups of three or more, you clear the board and rack up stars. But unlike games in which levels are strung together with a perfunctory board game-like map and a very loose plot, Matchington Mansion has a bizarrely baroque premise and narrative framework.

As the game opens, you learn that Jane, an elderly author with whom you have no blood relationship, has willed you her rundown estate. Your mission is to trade in the stars you earn from swiping cushions together to clean, renovate, and furnish the space, both indoors and out.

Tiffany, the ruffle-skirted interior designer who guides you through the game, seems to also live in the mansion, Kato Kaelin-like. Then there’s Tex, the evil businessman type with the requisite smarmy handlebar mustache, an estranged relative looking to reclaim his inheritance from Jane. There is also the plant lady, the package guy, the weird artsy neighbor, and a variety of other caricatures who traipse through your initially shabby, overgrown garden to inch the plot forward. Toss in secret passageways and buried family secrets that are revealed as you continue to swipe and you’ve got yourself a PBS miniseries. And though I know the renovation construct is a very thinly veiled attempt to keep me playing, I’m committed to seeing how Jane’s mansion turns out.

This isn’t my first foray into digital homesteading. I dodged obstacles on a raft in Oregon Trail on my way to my manifestly destined farm. I channeled my inner Robert Moses as I mapped the delicate infrastructure of my Sim City. And I acted as a god, directing every aspect of my minions’ lives and environments, in The Sims. But this became too much. I didn’t want to have to make every decision for my digital denizens, and became so paralyzed by the number of choices to be made that I abandoned them to live for the rest of their days in my college desktop computer.

Matchington Mansion strikes a balance between those games, with their over-reliance on my divine intervention, and the feeling of powerlessness that comes from talking back to the couples on HGTV. The choices I’m confronted with in Matchington are structured and doled out in small bits. Country maple dining table or modern mahogany? “Mona Lisa” in my entryway, or “Girl with a Pearl Earring”? Bust of a pirate or a poet in my library? This illusion of agency, coupled with the ever-improving digital estate, scratches the fixer-upper itch within me.

All of my adult life, I’ve been a renter. As I witnessed friends buy property, I was mystified by how put-together their lives were. What choices did they make in their pasts that enabled them to navigate such a grown-up feat? And while the headaches of co-op boards and property laws turned me off, I envied my friends’ freedom to rip out a wall or re-tile a bathroom while I googled ways to decorate my apartment and still get back my security deposit.

The flawed notion that owning property is a sign of success goes as far back as that first dude who owned a cave. As a child of immigrants, I also inherited the idea that owning a piece of my adopted homeland meant that my rightful claim to this country couldn’t be disputed. Then there are notions of home that I’ve disrupted by moving more than 300 miles seven times in my adult life, some moves which were long-planned, a few which were not. How can I invest in a minimalist home with striking architectural details if another hard-to-pass-up job opportunity comes along in a different state? Buying a home feels permanent, a sign of settling down, but also settling for my current lifestyle. Also, no savings.

Despite all that, I want my piece. I want that security. I want to choose whether my bathroom floor has carpet or tile. (Tile is the only correct answer.) So I will wait. I will nurture that nest egg until it is ready to hatch. I will work hard and get promotions at a rate heretofore unseen at my company. I will hope and pray for the housing bubble to burst and for all these tech workers to discover their love for literally any state except California. And in the meantime, I will prepare myself for homeownership by diligently matching cushions until Jane’s estate has been restored to its former glory.

TJ Lee is a content strategist and occasional writer, still somewhat surprised to find himself in Silicon Valley. Read and see more at tjis.me.