So my third book comes out today. (It’s the one in the middle.)
It has been hailed as “huge,” “massive,” “huge,” “hefty,” and “it’s huge.” Also, it “reveals where the fun has been lurking all along” (per my science hero Sean Carroll), is “enormously beautiful” (per my teaching hero Patrick Honner), and works “like a pill pocket for math” (per my creative hero Allie Brosh). My pals at The Aperiodical just published a lovely review, and excerpts will be coming soon at Ars Technica, FiveThirtyEight’s The Riddler, and Alex’s Bellos puzzle column at The Guardian. It’s absurd luck that I get to make these things for a living, and I’m inexpressibly grateful to you all for playing along.
The book contains pencil-and-paper games (easier than chess, more interesting than tic-tac-toe), but I chose to end it with a story about a computer game.
Here’s that story.
Before she died, my mother always enforced an ironclad rule of “educational computer games only.” (Math Blaster, yes. Madden NFL ’97, no.) Then, after her death, the adults in my life gave me all kinds of indulgences, among them a decidedly non-educational computer game: NHL 2002.
My favorite feature was Season Mode. Pick a team, then play all 82 games, plus the playoffs. (To speed things up, you could have the computer simulate some games.) Season mode even let you trade players according to a simplistic algorithm: Every player was scored from 1 to 100, and opposing teams would consent to any trade that was roughly fair—say, a 67 for a 66, or an 82 for an 84.
That bit of wiggle room was crucial. It meant you could string together dozens of minor upgrades—68 to 70 to 71 to 73 to 74—and, with enough patience, eventually exchange a benchwarmer for an all-star. It was slow. It was rote. It amounted to toggling through endless menus. But it worked.
So what did I do with my prized game? I spent a few hours turning the Boston Bruins into an unbeatable juggernaut, then simulated season after season, watching them smash records and win strings of championships, the greatest dynasty in sports history. I never played a game myself. I just presided fondly over this rigged universe, like a Greek god playing favorites. The league was a puzzle, and I had solved it.
Looking back, my mother needn’t have worried about non-educational games. Her son could turn even the most pleasurable and frivolous of them into a spreadsheet.
In three books and almost a decade of blogging, I believe that story is the first time I’ve mentioned my mother’s death. I guess I’ve been hiding the ball. Writing jokes, without noting how joke-writing became my way of coping; talking about teachers’ need for compassion, without mentioning my model for compassion; trying to convey how I see the world, without reference to the single event that shaped me most.
But I digress. New book. Out today. Big. Yellow. Best thing I’ve ever written, and I know I say that every time, but honestly, it’s because I’m getting better as I go.
My daughter Casey was just a newborn when my last book came out. Now she’s an irrepressible almost-three. For her, seeing the new book is almost as exciting as getting to sit in the forward-facing car seat. Every time it comes into view, she screams, “Dada book! Dada book!”
It’ll be a while before we can play the games together. I can wait. I find that, somehow, games like these connect parent and child – even across a gap of years.