Until last winter, I hadn’t played video games since my parents let me combine allowance and birthday money to buy an original Nintendo Entertainment System, the old 8-bit home video game console with two buttons and a gray flip-top lid. Back then, I could take or leave Mario and his green-trousered brother, but I would have traded my allowance for uninterrupted time to lose myself in Tetris.
The premise of the game was simple: arrange geometric pieces known as Tetriminos as they descend onto the screen. Completed lines disappeared. My mantra? Always build with Tetris, the point-maximizing simultaneous clearance of four lines at once, in mind. The game soothed me, especially on the heels of a breakup or the appearance of an especially egregious chin zit.
Lying in bed at night, I used to stare at the dark shapes in my bedroom, mentally nudging a dresser or nightstand left or right to fit, Tetris-style, with adjacent shapes. When I got bored at school, my eyes drifted to rectangular door frames and exit signs, all begging to be resituated, squeezed together, gapless to their counterparts, and dissolved. Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies,” one of the game’s blissfully audio-compressed theme songs, played in a loop in my mind.
When I graduated high school, I left the Nintendo behind, stowed in my parents’ family room next to VHS tapes of Full House. The only time I played Tetris after high school was on airplanes. And even then, only when the game was preinstalled into the seatback in front of me. Nothing like Tetris to distract from stress-inducing turbulence. Apart from flights, I didn’t play.
When the pandemic and an onslaught of worry and anxiety hit, I doomscrolled, tossed and turned, and shouted at my kids more often than I should have. Much as I wanted to, I couldn’t get a grip on my emotions. I tried organizing closets to distract myself. Eventually, there were no more shirts to arrange by color, no more too-small hoodies to load into the donation tub. I needed another outlet.
Sometime before Christmas, while browsing for a new game to add to my kids’ Nintendo Switch games library of one (Mario Kart), I stumbled upon Tetris 99. Instantly, I craved the game of my youth.
“When we’re seeking ways to soothe ourselves, we often use a version of something that has worked in the past, even the distant past,” says Dana Dorfman, a New York–based psychotherapist, regarding my intuition to pick up the game after all those years. “It’s like music from old times—it can almost capture our feelings,” she says.
The day the tiny Tetris 99 cartridge arrived, I curled up on the floor in our hall closet so my kids wouldn’t find me for a few minutes and fell right back into my old rhythm of block flipping and stacking.
According to Dorfman, when emotions are dysregulated, doing something deliberately that gives you a sense of control, something you can master, gives you confidence. “The game allows you to organize pieces that, like in life, are coming at you faster and upside down, in such a way that they’ll literally leave the screen. It’s like a microcosm of what you’re trying to do in life, except you’re doing it on the screen in a more concrete and tangible way,” she says.