When I was in maybe tenth grade or so, I read a little interview with Lisa Kudrow in InStyle Magazine (slow Sunday, I guess) in which she said that her absolute favorite stress reliever of all time was Tetris on Gameboy. I knew the sweet bliss of zoning out to Tetris myself. When my brothers and I were little, my mother used to buy us new video games for our handheld devices––back then, we had Gameboys and Sega Nomads––so we would stay relatively quiet during the sixteen-hour-plus car rides our family took every summer. Sonic the Hedgehog was a great favorite, but it was anxiety producing, as you were supposed to be aspiring to new levels. My brother had a Kirby game, which was fun, but a little bad-trippy (somehow I knew even at that age.) Tetris, on the other hand, never seemed to make me worry about my accomplishment; I was always just content to play. So streamlined, so clear and mathematical, that dinky digitized Russian theme song––heaven!
But by the time I read that little interview with Phoebe, Gameboy was a thing of my family’s past. Still, her mention of it stirred a longing in me that remained for the next ten years, until finally, I had thirty-odd bucks and some time to spare, which I spent browsing Ebay for old machines. Now, I am the proud owner of an old-ass Gameboy––the big, gray, clunky kind, not the sleeker color versions of the late nineties. Although the screen has fallen off a few times (thank G-d for superglue) I have only had to change the batteries once in the past two years. The most serious technical glitch I’ve encountered has been solved by blowing in the little slot at the top or rubbing the batteries until the machine goes on. Take that, iPhone! (And yes, I do believe playing it on the Game Boy is somehow more enjoyable than downloading it and playing it on my phone would be.) I play it everywhere: on the plane, on the train, on ferries to exotic islands off the coast of Sicily. Okay, so maybe I mainly play when I’m being transported somewhere, but still, I play a lot. People tend to find it pretty funny, and it makes me happy to see how joyfully nostalgic they get seeing this lovable relic. “Does this make you a hipster?” a lady on the New York City subway once asked, only half in jest. I don’t care! I thought to myself. I love Tetris! And if loving Tetris is wrong, I don’t wanna be right!
Recently I read this article about Rutherford Chang, an artist who is working on an ongoing project to beat the top Tetris score in the world (held by Uli Horner, a London-based architect.) Here are a few things he said about Tetris:
“Every 10 lines you complete, you advance one level and the pieces fall faster,” he says. “Eventually they fall so fast that you can’t keep up and you die. You can’t ever beat the game. It’s about squeezing in as much perfection as possible in this limited time before your inevitable death.”
Whether you read Tetris as a parable for life’s finitude or the savagery of capitalism, there’s no denying the focus it requires. “It’s a pretty brutal game,” says Chang. “It definitely requires a lot of concentration, where you only think about this rudimentary logic. It’s meditative.”
Meditative––that’s why I do it. It’s like my version of mindfulness. And for a split second after reading about Chang, I felt envious of him, sitting around all day playing Tetris and doing it to some legitimate end. But then I realized that if I were doing what he is doing, the game would cease to soothe me the way it does. Once something becomes an ambitious pursuit, it no longer can be relaxing (see also: writing.) And so for now, I remain a dedicated amateur.