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As readers of this column know, there’s no shame in a mobile game. Despite the fact that at one point in my not-too-distant past I’d been embarrassed about my consumption of corny phone games, Merge Mansion captured my soul and in the process transformed my relationship with mobile gaming and social media. Tuning in to Merge Mansion made it possible for me to tune out doomscrolling.

Before we go further, a moment of honesty: This was not planned. I wasn’t trying to avoid social media when I clicked that Instagram ad for Merge (clearly). Instead, by investing in a mobile game rather than a console one, I was able to train my lizard brain to open Merge—rather than Twitter, TikTok, or Instagram—every time I reached for my phone. This, it turns out, is much easier than getting in the habit of picking up a controller instead of a phone. 

How did this happy accident happen? Like (I’m assuming) many of you, my nights in the past year or so started taking on a toxic shape that always ended with me absentmindedly picking up my phone and just … scrolling. I wouldn’t even realize I was doing it until my 10 pm alarm went off, reminding me to get ready for bed. I’d become the reason journalist Karen K. Ho started sending out reminders to people on Twitter telling them to put down their devices. It was unhealthy; I never really got to relax and would wake up every morning feeling anything but rested.

Then I started playing Merge Mansion. The game works by having you produce objects and then merge them. To produce items, you have to use energy, and eventually it runs out. It only takes 15 minutes or so to deplete your resources, so there are lots of natural stopping points built in. Unlike doomscrolling, which can evaporate hours of your life before you know it, Merge Mansion’s energy mechanic makes it easy to keep track of the time you’re spending in the game. It is, simply put, a much more manageable pastime.

Social media usage is not nearly as tractable. Believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve tried hiding certain apps far away from my home screen; I’ve set Screen Time limits. At one point, I even attempted to remove them altogether, but as a person who relies on social media professionally, that just wasn’t practical.

Mobile games became a loophole. Instead of deleting Twitter or TikTok, I just kept games on my homescreen. Now when I pull out my phone, they’re the first thing I see. And it’s not just Merge Mansion, either. I’m also playing Family Farm Adventure. It’s not that I’ve convinced myself not to open the social media apps—it’s that I don’t want to anymore. I’d rather play games.

And you know what? I don’t care if I spend all evening playing. It’s fun, it’s relaxing, and it’s satisfying. I get a real sense of accomplishment when I upgrade a building or clean muck out of a fountain. And I usually end up playing for 15 or 30 minutes and then go find a book or turn on the TV.

It even shows in my mobile habits: Before I started playing Merge Mansion, I spent about two hours a day on Twitter. Now, it’s an hour a day on mobile gaming and just a half hour—sometimes even less—on the toxic bird app. Mobile gaming is genuinely improving my quality of life, and it didn’t even take any real work on my part.

While some people have had luck replacing doomscrolling with handheld gaming, that’s not the case for me. I absolutely love my Switch (and my new Steam Deck—more on that in future weeks), but the key for me is that the games are on my phone. I don’t have to keep another device within reach to access the games. Because my doomscrolling is an automatic bad habit, I needed to make the solution automatic as well. For me, that meant mobile.

If you’re not much of a mobile gamer but are interested in getting started, try downloading a few types of titles. I find merge and improvement games to be the most successful for me. I don’t necessarily like free-to-play games where you end up having to shell out money in order to succeed (though I have definitely bought some add-on packs in Merge Mansion without any guilt—it’s protecting my mental health, OK?). It’s worth experimenting to see what works and what looks good on a smaller screen (a lot of iOS mobile games render better on an iPad).

Either way, if you want to break that doomscrolling habit, it’s worth digging into. Speaking of digging, get ready to plant some flowers in Merge Mansion.