Gaming is on the rise across the world, but it’s mobile gaming that’s having a real moment. Thanks to the Covid-19 video game boom and the near-ubiquity of smartphones, more and more people are playing mobile. And as of a few weeks ago, that count of millions of mobile gamers includes me. I am hooked on Merge Mansion.
If you spend any amount of time online, you’ve probably heard of Merge Mansion—the internet is swathed in ads for it. (It was Instagram that pulled me in.) The ads themselves are absolutely bizarre. One live action advertisement features Kathy Bates as Grandma running away from her granddaughter Maddie. Another features an animated Maddie as a tearful bride (what happened to her husband?) whose house burns down. As the ad progresses, Maddie is saved by Grandma, who shows her the mansion and helps her restore it. But wait! Just as the home is coming together, cops come and arrest Grandma. As the police cruiser pulls away, Grandma displays the palm of her becuffed hand, which has the words “He is alive” written on it “Not Penny’s Boat“-style.
Actual gameplay is a little less eventful and full of mystery than these trailers suggest. It starts out as follows: Maddie’s grandmother hands her a set of keys, which turn out to unlock the gate of a mansion. Of course, Maddie didn’t even know her grandmother had a mansion. What’s more, the grounds are in terrible disrepair and Maddie has to get to work cleaning and repairing everything or the entire place will be condemned.
That’s where the video game part comes in: It uses a simple “merge” mechanic—like Candy Crush. You merge existing items and spawn new ones in order to clean up different areas of the mansion and its grounds. As you unlock new areas, the story unfolds and Grandma shows up to tease new mysteries.
The promise of an engaging, weird mystery might be what drew me to Merge Mansion, but the familiar addictiveness of a merge-style mobile game is what keeps me playing. And frankly, it’s a little embarrassing.
I’ve been playing this game nonstop—or at least as much as I can without paying actual money to unlock features more quickly. I play it as soon as I get up in the morning (it’s my new Wordle), use up all my “energy” (the mechanic that allows me to spawn new items), let it rest until the evening, and then play in a few bursts after my toddler goes to bed. I’ve been known to check in on it and use up stored energy during lunch as well.
Honestly, I don’t know why this is so mortifying. Mobile games are designed to keep you from turning them off. There’s something incredibly soothing about cleaning up the dilapidated areas of the mansion. Plus the dopamine hit when I finally get the object I’ve been after for days is real. I’m playing straight into the gamemakers’ hands here, and it doesn’t feel great—but it also feels fantastic. Plus, I have a feeling there’s some internalized toxicity at play. (Am I still a “real” gamer if all I’ve been playing lately is mobile games?)
Instead of being embarrassed, I’ve decided to embrace the shame. Not only did I fall prey to a bizarre Instagram ad, but I am now hooked on a mobile game that is engineered to suck real money out of me eventually. Does it even matter that I haven’t dropped any cash on it yet? Not really. It’s probably going to happen if I play for long enough. The shame I feel when it eventually happens will be real, but it will also be satisfying.
That’s the point, isn’t it? Yes, I’d rather be playing Rise of the Tomb Raider on my PlayStation, but the fact is I haven’t had the time or luxury of sneaking away from my everyday life to make it happen. Even if the type of game I’m addicted to isn’t exactly in my wheelhouse or what I really want to be playing, it’s satisfying for now and provides a convenient escape when I need it the most.
And what’s the big deal, really? Aren’t I the first person to yell if anyone tries to denigrate mobile gaming as invalid? I’m just as much of a gamer when I’m tapping away on a mobile game as I am when compulsively playing on my console. I shouldn’t feel embarrassed about the kind of title I’m playing, and even if I do (because we feel what we feel!), I’ll embrace that emotion, instead of hiding behind it.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a mansion to spruce up.