During the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, at the end of long days juggling work and caring for two homebound kids, when our boys were finally asleep, the kitchen cleaned, and the work problems left for another day, I’d flop on the couch with a laptop and a video game that I’d recently rediscovered from my childhood.
Frac is a three-dimensional version of Tetris created by two Swedish developers in 1990. Objects fall from the top of the screen, and players use the keyboard to toggle them into place. Instead of the 2D shapes found in the much more popular Tetris franchise, Frac delivers cubic structures and a 3D playing area. As with Tetris, the pieces fall faster the longer the game goes on, and when a player completely fills a layer, it disappears. Frac has no social mode or multiplayer option; it’s a primitive DOS-based game that my aunt originally gave me on a floppy disk for our family computer. Some twenty-nine years later, I found it on a website that hosts obscure abandonware games, and I’ve spent more hours than I care to admit positioning cubes into orderly layers.
There’s nothing unique about turning to video games for a break from a disorderly world, but Frac provides an especially clear metaphor for a safe, bounded universe in which perfect order is possible. Outside the window, the night air carried airborne disease, political turmoil, and a windstorm of angry opinion. Inside, the kids were safely asleep; my wife, Hannah, was upstairs watching a Chinese drama; and I could rest on the couch before the demands of another day.
I’d sip a glass of bourbon, finding, like so many others, my drinking inching upward during the lockdown. The game and the drinks gave me a numbing, comforting buzz, and I began to wonder if I were becoming too dependent on the two.
Our new home in Michigan was stuck in drab late winter, and I’d listen to the song “Julep” by the Punch Brothers on repeat. It evoked a vision of somewhere lush and warm and green: “I died happy in my sleep / with my children around and you looking down / heaven’s a julep on the porch.”1
My kids will watch me play nearly any video game, but they find Frac boring and groan when they see me playing it. It’s too repetitive, and they’ve seen it too much. They would much rather watch me send Mario leaping through fantastical lands or racing go-karts above lakes of lava. What they don’t understand is that life with young kids during a pandemic is inherently unstable. Public health guidelines are constantly changing. The stability of our democracy is constantly changing. Their needs and interests and online-schooling setups are constantly changing. After days upon days of confronting new problems, the fixed familiar rules of a repetitive game are a relief. You place the pixelated block where you tell it to go, and it stays the hell there.
Of course, fitting new shapes into limited space is not unlike managing a home with young kids. A few years before the pandemic, we lived in a small apartment in Seattle with a crib, high chair, an assortment of noisemaking colorful things in which one bounces or drools or naps, and a scattering of toys across most floors. Whenever our kids outgrew a particular item, we happily gave it away and enjoyed the reclaimed floor space until we quickly found it replaced by a new gewgaw that had to be arranged, Tetris-like, into our crowded home.
One of the first things I learned about parenting is that your physical space is no longer your own. You have to check for Lego bricks before you flop on the couch. You have to move the pureed peas in the fridge to reach the beer. The book and coffee mug in your lap share space with the sharp-elbowed toddler who sometimes cannonballs in your direction. Even your bed is no longer yours and your partner’s alone. I’m not the only parent who dawdles away too many evening hours on Netflix or Facebook or TikTok; part of the appeal of screen-based distractions is that they seem like a space to call our own, even if they are populated by corporate algorithms.
Parenting itself is training children in the expectations of orderliness that guide society. We teach them to wear shoes and say thank you and practice table manners. We beg them to wash their hands thoroughly for once in their ever-loving lives. We train them to wear masks and avoid spreading contagious disease.
We do our best, and when the kids end up covered in finger paint, we take cute photos and share them with friends. I never wanted to become the kind of dad who gripes at his kids about spilling snacks in the car, and yet here I am, doing just that. Trying to maintain orderliness is a project that never ends. In a world of climate change and biodiversity collapse, it feels like a pathetic selfish goal. Yet there’s also something natural about wanting a safe, ordered space, a well-tended garden to call one’s own. There’s something human in it.
Frac belongs to the category of video games known as tile-matching games, which involve matching colors and shapes according to a small set of rules. The category includes Tetris, Candy Crush, and countless others. I once heard them described as “games of diversion instead of immersion,” things you could play for a few minutes waiting for a bus, as opposed to all-encompassing games that benefit from headphones and high-powered hardware.
But that’s not quite right. Despite their simplicity, these games can be every bit as immersive as the more high-octane World of Warcraft and such, pulling your mind away from the bus stop and the pandemic and into the steady rhythm of organization. There’s a sizable body of research on the cognitive effects of tile-matching games, from the Tetris effect of seeing shapes floating in your mind after you’ve left the screen to the beneficial effects of playing Tetris for processing trauma or the paradoxical discovery that such games actually require less brain power at advanced levels.
I grew curious about the two creators of Frac, whose names appear on the setup screen. The first name turned out to be a fake. “Max Shapiro” is a pseudonym for a scholar who didn’t want to sully his academic reputation with something as frivolous as a video game. Max Tegmark, as he revealed himself in later versions, is a physicist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose research interests run from cosmology to quantum mechanics and artificial intelligence. He has authored more than two hundred technical papers, has a slew of research appointments and awards, and is an occasional media commentator on how artificial intelligence will reshape our society.
Tegmark has a delightfully outdated personal website, probably of late nineties vintage, that mixes scholarly work with photos of his wedding, childhood stories, pictures of smiling grad students eating pizza, cheesy background graphics, book tour dates from seven years ago, and so on. However cautious a young scholar he might have been at the first release of Frac, he now seems to be a confident researcher with curiosity running off in eight directions at once.
His 2014 book, Our Mathematical Universe, has the ambitious subtitle My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality. Over the course of four hundred pages, he probes the possibility of parallel universes, seeks to advance Einstein’s theory of relativity in a serious way, and speculates that “our physical world not only is described by mathematics, but that it is mathematics, making us self-aware parts of a giant mathematical object.” He lost me around page three, but I skimmed on anyway, impressed by the fizzing energy of his mind, by the loose confidence of a scientist cheerfully trying to translate far-out ideas for the public, of a scholar willing to use language like “Holy guacamole! It works!!!”2
Tegmark mentions Frac in the book twice, first describing how it funded his trip around the world in 1991 (the game is free, but there is an invitation to send ten dollars to an address in Sweden), and second to illustrate a point about fractals, which fascinate Tegmark. The game, he says “embodies a mathematical structure where both space and time are discrete rather than continuous.”3
Again, I gazed in appreciation at a mind soaring several hundred feet above my own.
Tegmark’s scholarly articles have impenetrable titles such as “Tunable Efficient Unitary Neural Networks (EUNN) and their application to RNNs.” He also has a “Crazy” page on his website that introduces a personal code: “Every time I’ve written ten mainstream papers, I allow myself to indulge in writing one wacky one. . . . This is because I have a burning curiosity about the ultimate nature of reality; indeed, this is why I went into physics in the first place.”4
Tegmark’s cocreator on Frac, Per Berglund, is no slouch either. He is a physicist at the University of New Hampshire with a string of scholarly publications and a course list that includes such light fare as “Advanced Quantum Mechanics I.” Learning about their industriousness has not made me feel any better about spending evenings on the couch with the game they’d invented.
For several months, I’ve been taking notes for this essay, and for just as long I’ve been hating the fact that I’m writing about myself on the couch with a drink and a video game. Early in the pandemic, I told a friend about Frac being my zone-out activity, and he sort of laughed. I felt a twinge of shame.
Maybe it’s that reaction I’m trying to understand.
Why am I ashamed of resting? Why do I think I should be writing about climate change solutions or quantum physics in my spare time? Tegmark and Berglund surely watch movies or zone out in their downtime, and I know rest is healthy, but it can be the hardest thing in the world to do. There is an insistent cultural imperative to be productive all of the time, to always be hustling and making something of yourself, even if it’s just cultivating your personal brand by posting vacation photos. I know it’s stupid, and yet that imperative to produce has a hold on me anyway.
An interviewer once asked the American soccer player Eddie Johnson which video game platform he liked best. “I don’t play video games. I’m a grown-ass man,” Johnson said, earning the nickname Grown-Ass Man for the rest of his career.5 Johnson and I are both in our late thirties. We grew up in a world in which video games had fully pervaded youth culture yet were still considered by our parents to be frivolous and suspect (or sus, according to the YouTube gamers my kids watch). Even as I rotate shape after shape on my computer screen, I can relate to Johnson’s conflicted feelings about masculinity, to the idea that we should be using our spare time to chop wood or fix up Camaros or stalk bison or something manly and productive.
I am trying to look back in clarity at a moment that has not fully passed. As I write this, we’re more than two years from the first days of the pandemic, and we still don’t have the scientific certainty we would like. We don’t have the social unity that we need. We are still juggling questions of safety, collective responsibility, and whether kids should go to a birthday party at a bouncy gym.
Back at the start of all this, after the first week stuck in the house, we figured hiking was a decent way to get outside and stay distant from others. We had lived in Michigan less than a year, so nearly every forest was new to us. Spring was just beginning to appear in the crocuses and fiddlehead ferns and peepers chirping from the ponds. Our boys, seven and four at the time, charged down muddy trails, scattering small woodland creatures. Hannah and I found moments to exhale and laugh and breathe in the warm damp air. We learned to identify chickadees and tree swallows and downy woodpeckers. We came to appreciate even the elegant swoops of turkey vultures overhead. The boys found a newly hatched turtle the size of a pinkie and beamed as I took pictures.
We kept at it as spring swelled into summer. Our seven-year-old learned native birds, pointing out kingbirds and nuthatches, confident in his identification where I was cautious and hesitant. At home, we devoured birding books and found binoculars and started a life list. We downloaded apps to quiz each other on bird calls and swiped through #birdfromhome and #michiganbirding feeds to build our knowledge together.
For me, learning about birds is not about reaching for new understanding; it’s about finding rituals to practice curiosity and patience. It’s about bonding with my kids. And it’s about finding a way to metabolize some of the anger, grief, and exhaustion that have marked my life as a pandemic parent.
I still play video games more than I would like. I still have a hard time telling when it’s restful or merely habitual. I still eye the whiskey shelf with wariness, wondering if I could identify early alcoholism as easily as an indigo bunting. I still ask myself whether I’m studying the right things.
Maybe we all spend a lot of time in idleness and distraction. I’m not sure we’re called to make every moment productive or edifying. More and more, I’ve come to trust in curiosity as the value I want to maintain as I age. To remain curious is to remain alive to the world. But no one can spend all of the time processing new experiences, especially during a pandemic that imposes so much uncertainty on us. Familiarity has its place. Repetition has its place. I am learning to trust the impulse to return to familiar practices, even if I don’t fully understand it. There is a strange comfort in that.
- “Julep,” track 2 on Punch Brothers, The Phosphorescent Blues, Nonesuch Records, 2015.
- Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality (New York, NY: Knopf, 2014), 6 and 197.
- Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe, 324.
- Tegmark, “Welcome to My Crazy Universe,” The Universes of Max Tegmark, https://space.mit.edu/home/tegmark/crazy.html.
- Connor Fleming, “The Grown-Ass Man Turns Thirty-Three Today,” The Eighteen, March 31, 2017, https://the18.com/en/soccer-news/eddie-johnson-grown-ass-man-panama-hat-trick.