The first time I meet Katherine, I’m impressed by her poise. She wears her brown ponytail low and loose and radiates a farmhand-next-door vibe. Austin explains to me that she’s an old friend, though by the way his parents gush over her, it’s obvious they wish it had blossomed into something more. And maybe she does, too; the girl next door is now a woman grown, with seemingly nothing to do but stalk about Austin’s shabby family mansion as he attempts to restore it, to middling results.

After a grueling week spent revitalizing the treehouse in his parents’ backyard, Austin asks Katherine up for a nightcap — a seemingly adult invitation for two childhood “pals.” This is it, I think as Austin turns on the string of lights adorning the treehouse, unleashing their sparkly magic as Katherine claps with delight. They’re gonna bone.

Instead, Austin offers to walk Katherine home. The pair heads off into the night; what happens next is not for me to know. What I do know is that when Austin wakes up alone in his twin bed the next morning, the implication is that nothing sordid occured. There will be no bones in this friend zone — which makes sense, since according to the app store, this game is appropriate for players ages four and up.


Austin is my “friend and butler,” according to his surprisingly sparse wiki — surprising because those familiar with the popular mobile game Gardenscapes know its main character to spare no detail. Austin has a tale for every pebble and windowpane of his virtual world. When you open the game, it’s likely you’ll catch him chatting to himself. Then he’ll look up — out? — at you, bashful and pleased, as if he wasn’t sure he’d ever see you again.

Like hell.

Despite starring in two games (Gardenscapes and its spinoff, Homescapes) that consistently rank on iTunes’ list of top-grossing apps, Austin has an unglamorous origin story. Before Gardenscapes, which was Facebook’s 2016 Game of the Year, Austin was but a minor character in the game Township. A farming simulation for most, Township was a gateway drug for me.

I was introduced to Township last summer through an ad that popped up while I was playing Pixel People. I was introduced to Pixel People by a friend — a real, flesh-and-blood friend! — who recommended it based on my recent enthusiasm for Little Alchemy, a “game” in which players start with four elements that they mix together to create new elements, and on and on until you are a full-blown nerd. And I was evangelizing Little Alchemy that fateful day because another friend (hard to believe, but yes, there is more than one) was present and ignoring this whole conversation, instead heads-down building amusement parks on Rollercoaster Tycoon for iOS. I tried to download that game first, but the image details were too small to make out on my phone. (I swear I’m fun, or at least I used to be.)

But that was all fine, because now I had Pixel People, a game where you mate two pixel professionals to create new jobs. So a mechanic and an artist make a photographer, who works at Weddings R Us (or at the gallery, if he’s really good). The pixel people run their businesses, which generate gold coins, which the town needs for land expansion to build more houses for more people. Except at some point, my pixel economy begins to flatline; the 200-something pixel people I’ve created can’t work fast enough to generate the coins I need to expand the land to build more homes to house more people, and now I — an unpixelated human with a real job and real bills and real everything — am being asked to bail out this town of inefficient, unresourceful wastoids.

It took some convincing. But after a week of gameplay gridlock, as I pressed my thumb against my phone to confirm my first in-game purchase, I felt a rush of relief. Why did I wait so long, I wondered as I got back to playing pixel matchmaker. Two dollars was nothing to me. But to them, it was the world.


Of course, two times two equals four. Or, in my case, $96.99. That’s the total amount I spent on speeding up the reproduction of Pixel People before even the laziest part of my brain could no longer whistle this away as an investment in anything besides delaying reality. I was in and out of the game in a month.

I’d heard about “freemium” (or “free to play”) games before this, but I was raised frugally; I knew to stay away from objective wastes of money. The thing about cheapness is that it starts to short-circuit when you want something and can actually afford it. You forget to be frugal. Don’t you deserve to floss after all the luxuries your cheap ass has sacrificed over the years? What’s the point of having a job if you can’t drop $1.99 at the app store every now and then?

Two dollars was nothing to me. But to them, it was the world.

So you download that free-to-play game with the best of intentions. And at first, they are returned. The game showers you with boosters, free gameplay, and infinity lives; you are already writing to your girlfriends back in the real world to tell them to leave their husbands — no man or game has ever been so generous. But as soon as you get comfortable, the New Relationship Energy is zapped from the air, and in its place is an ad for a bundle of boosters for the low price of $19.99. You don’t need the extras to play the game per se, it’s just that you’ve been stuck on this level for three days and are losing interest, but, in an alarming development, not as quickly as the game is losing interest in you; its refusal to just let you win one freaking time, for free, is both infuriating and irresistible. And when the stonewalling and stimulation reach critical mass and you reach critical boredom, you see no other option. You are now paying to play, and to get played. Game over.


I wasn’t going to fall for that again. So when I moved on from Pixel People to Township and saw there were opportunities to speed up factory building and product manufacturing, to smooth over all the other inconveniences of virtual farm life, I was like nah. Maybe it should take 14 hours to build a textile factory, you know? As I advanced through the game, thwarting off ads starring friendly farm animals, I was confident that my internal logic would protect me from mistakes of pixels past.

Then I quit smoking.

Ever have an addiction? Intentionally or not, society tends to place addictions on a spectrum, with socially acceptable vices falsely mapping to socially acceptable addictions and addicts. Coffee addict? Quirky. Cigarette addict? Gross and dated, but as long as you stand 50 yards away from everything, they’re your lungs. Meth addict? Please stop petting my dog.

The way we assign different levels of stigma to different addictions distorts the way we addicts see ourselves (as if we needed help on that front). Those of us with legal or mainstream addictions can easily convince ourselves that we have a choice in the matter; we just happen to be making the wrong one. In my case, I was choosing wrong anywhere between 15 and 20 times a day, for a little over half my life.

I had quit cold turkey once before and stayed smoke-free for four years, so perhaps I was especially arrogant when I decided to quit again. I anticipated cravings, moments of weakness. I did not anticipate the unique hell of depriving my brain a powerful drug I’d been feeding it for years. My hormones raged in ways even my teenage self would find Extra. It became normal to wake up crying each morning. At the end of my second cig-free day, I abruptly left a small gathering of close friends and turned off my phone for almost three days to prove to myself that no one would notice or care. I considered moving away without telling anyone. Why not?

I also ghosted my then-therapist for suggesting, on Day 5, that I start smoking again until I could get on antidepressants and quit a second time. (Don’t suggest this to someone on Day 5.) I visited message boards to make sure this complete loss of control was normal. (It was.) I grappled with the realization that I had been self-medicating with nicotine for so long that I had no idea what I was working with. Who I was working with. I didn’t know myself as a nonsmoker and was, so far, displeased with the factory model.

I was choosing wrong anywhere between 15 and 20 times a day, for a little over half my life.

Months later, I caught up with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while. She had quit a couple vices and addictions the previous year, she explained, but each time she quit one thing, it was subconsciously replaced with something else. So then she had to identify the new, replacement addiction and quit that, too. She was currently working on Diet Coke, which we both agreed was progress.

When she left that night, I thought about my own trajectory. It’d been eight months since my last cigarette, I was proud to realize, but it struck me how little had improved. My life had changed, sure, but mostly from a physical health standpoint. I was still fairly withdrawn compared to the person I used to be: watching more TV, smoking more pot; I hadn’t been on a date in a literal year. Was nicotine so critical to my identity and happiness that without it I was a tired, sad couch-person? And mostly fine with it?

In truth, my nicotine addiction wasn’t to blame for the rut I was in. My version of Diet Coke was.


I have never had a gaming problem. But when I have problems, I game.

Toward the end of college, it was Scrabulous and Bejeweled — the genesis of the modern tile-matching or match-three game, and a distraction from the six-figure debt waiting for me at the end of summer. Words with Friends allowed me to keep some after I quit my first full-time job and could no longer afford to leave the house. So it was no surprise when, during the summer my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and my boyfriend had an accident that required two massive surgeries and six months of aftercare, I sought out the hypnotic and familiar void of Bejeweled.

I was 26 and unjustifiably convinced that I alone could carry our combined weight, me and my boyfriend who couldn’t walk: I fed us and changed his bandages and cleaned the holes in his leg left by the external fixator that kept his knee from bending between surgeries; I texted with his grandpa and picked up prescriptions; I received promising updates on my mother’s recovery but had no one to share them with, my boyfriend’s brain sick with pain and painkillers.

Amid all this, I found something therapeutic about arranging the multicolor gems, how only I could unite them and free them from limbo — which, in retrospect, was probably what I wished someone would do for me. The monotony of caretaking, the guilt, the loneliness: The gems made me forget it all. They just wanted me to put them where they belonged, and once I did, they would disappear. There was a logic to it that was sorely missing from my reality.

So perhaps I could have predicted the outcome when I discovered a new game just as my most epic vice had gone up in smoke. I didn’t even know Gardenscapes was a match-three like Bejeweled when I downloaded it. I was mostly intrigued by the game because of my affinity for Township, which was — surprise! — slowly becoming difficult to play without making an investment.

Gardenscapes opens on a shot of a bustling virtual city that is slightly too clean. A butterfly flutters about, then floats up to what is presumably your apartment — it’s the only one in the building with a planter on the sill. Inside, there are more plants. In case it wasn’t clear, the narrator confirms that you hate the city, live to garden, and often dream of escaping to somewhere green and wild. And on your desk sits a letter inviting you to do just that.

The letter is from Austin, your great uncle’s butler. Your great uncle is dead — condolences — but on the plus side, you’ve inherited his mansion. You’re there with the quickness, but before you even make it inside, Austin is all, check out your huge beautiful mansion-garden that’s in complete shambles, and somehow it’s decided that the next year of your life will be spent winning match-threes to unlock tasks with the purpose of revitalizing this virtual garden.

One year. That’s how long it took me to sense there might be a problem.


The median gameplay “lifespan” for a player like me is usually 40 days. What kind of player am I? Apparently, that’s complicated. Following the emergence of mobile gaming, social gaming, and consoles like Wii, some in the industry (players and developers alike) began to use labels like “casual” and “core” to differentiate game and player types from one another.

The subtext is that casual players are so casual as to not need acknowledgment. Arguments are as follows: The market for puzzle and match games is flooded and derivative; the players are not committed to beating a game (why beat a game when you can play forever?), and casual players don’t spend the money that core gamers do. That last generalization probably had some teeth to it a decade ago; as of March 2018, mobile games (which are largely casual) brought in $50 billion in annual revenue, $10 billion more than Hollywood’s global box office. Women are now the most valuable players in this category — they play more and pay more, representing 60 percent of all mobile gamers.

Core games, on the other hand, are typically defined by their difficulty and by the commitment and skill set a player must have to beat them. Core players own consoles; they buy games on Steam. (They are also the smallest gaming demographic, albeit a passionate one.) The subtext here is that there is a level of seriousness absent from casual gameplay, which ought to be respected and aspired to, regardless of how the economics shake out. The usefulness of these labels has long been a topic of debate in the gaming industry, with more and more developers arguing that making a distinction hurts innovation and the industry in general.

But that’s not all it hurts. Take Gardenscapes: Anyone in a rush would say it’s a casual game. It has easy-to-understand rules; it does not require a huge investment of time or money; there is the opportunity for continuous play (meaning you can pick it up and put it down without starting from scratch).

I picked it up. And when Austin invited me along on his spinoff journey to restore his childhood home, I picked that up, too. And I told some friends about it, who started playing as well. We sent each other free lives every day. We started a group text called “the garden party”: One of us would send a screenshot to ask for tips to beat a hard level, or scream about Austin requiring two stars to clean up the coffee he spilled on his own shirt, or make sure everyone saw the new seasonal meta-game.

I picked it up and thought, with the $13 a day I saved on cigarettes, why not? If this is what it takes to feel better, so be it.

I picked it up, and one year and $1,500 later, I put it back down — and there was really nothing casual about it.


Back in March, a member of the garden party texted the group that she had deleted both ’Scapes from her phone, with her therapist as witness. She was the last to convert and the first to escape, so as Patient Zero of this mess, I knew I was long overdue for a reckoning.

Truthfully, I knew before that. When my new therapist thought I maybe had OCD because I told her I spend an entire day cleaning my house each week, I realized it probably wouldn’t take so long if I didn’t stop to reward myself with Austin visitations every 30 minutes. When I began playing solely on my iPad to avoid incoming text messages that might ask me to leave the couch, or when I had to order dinner because I was too hungry and weak to cook by the time my lives ran out, I was clearly in too deep. And, of course, totaling my annual Austin spend was enough to at least stop me from making in-game purchases, if not quit the game entirely.

What is it about Austin? To be sure, Gardenscapes and Homescapes both rely on the same psychological tricks as Candy Crush to get players hooked. Beating levels surely helped me replace the dopamine I lost when I quit smoking cigarettes. But if it were just that, I’d probably be playing Candy Crush.

It’s not the domestic angle that appeals to me, either. Selecting gargoyles for the garden or replacing the carpet on the stairs for the third freaking time are key differentiators of the ’Scapes games from other match-threes. But I find them annoying and besides the point.

And frankly, Austin is a buffoon (and I’m not the only one who feels this way). He has no sense of urgency, spinning yarns when all you want to do is get to the next level. He’s constantly letting the cat run away or the dog get muddy, depending on which game you’re playing, and he talks to strangers and passersby way too often. And it’s worth mentioning, again, that he is constantly breaking things and spilling things and generally ensuring that your garden is in a perpetual state of disarray.

So what I have to conclude is that it’s as much about Austin as it is about me. It’s about the fact that when I needed dopamine, Gardenscapes gave me dopamine. When I needed someone to hate, there was Austin, knocking over a vase and talking too much. That way, I didn’t have to be angry in real life, about real things. I didn’t have to exhaust myself thinking about how I’d quit cigarettes, and it wasn’t enough, and in fact I felt worse now, bored and uptight, so what was the point, even?

It didn’t occur to me that I felt worse because I had replaced smoking with staring at one screen or another from the moment I woke up until the moment I fell asleep, every day, for the better part of a year. But in retrospect, that seems kind of obvious.


As I researched this article, I read a lot about the missed opportunity for brands and publishers to target mobile and casual gamers. We feel relaxed and chill when we game, which makes us 40 percent more receptive to ads (sounds about right). Everything about our growing numbers tells developers and publishers that ignoring us will cost them.

Never mind what it costs us.

As Patient Zero of this mess, I knew I was long overdue for a reckoning.

This is not a turf war for me. I don’t want to be admitted to the Core Club because I got hooked on a game. What I want is recognition that downplaying the habits that players — particularly women — can develop around casual games is irresponsible, if not dangerous. Women are playing mobile games more than men, with 43 percent of female mobile gamers playing more than five days a week. Why is that? How much are they spending? How long are they playing? What are they blowing off? What excuses did they make, this time? How are they doing — has anyone asked?

I’m not suggesting women need the game police to confiscate our devices and shuffle us back to the kitchen because we didn’t evolve to handle such temptations. I’m suggesting that if even 1 percent of mobile gamers have had an experience like mine, then a scary number of people — most of them women — have a problem. And the way mobile games are covered in the media — not seriously, if at all — perpetuates the shame of liking a game a little too much. If I had known that at one point I was what the industry would consider “a whale” — a player who spends at least $100 a month and accounts for 2 percent of players but about 90 percent of all mobile gaming revenue — that probably would’ve raised red flags for me. But instead, beep-boop-bop, it’s just a silly butler game that I’ve been playing for six hours straight. Nothing to see here, literally, as I am but a shadow of my former self!


The last time I played Gardenscapes, two weeks ago, I gave up before I ran out of lives. I was staying at a hotel and writing this essay, each night returning to my room under the weight and reality of wasting a year, each night reaching for the iPad anyway. I had been stuck on the same level (1,116) for some time, having quit bailing out virtual me with real me’s money weeks earlier, and with some distance from my dopamine fix, it finally landed: The only way to end my losing streak was to stop playing entirely.

So, as Austin winked at me from the corner of the screen, assuring me that I would do better next time, I hoped that for once, he was right. The time for shortcuts was over.