My preteen son’s laptop had been warning us for months that it was ready to quit forever. The battery had stopped charging properly, the hinge was loose, and, after years of vigorous Minecraft commands, the W key had fallen off. When it finally died on New Year’s Day, West was stricken with panic. His eyes widened as he looked up at me and whispered in horror, “Oh no.”
After our schools closed last spring, online gaming became his lifeline, his sole source of peer connection. I tried to convince him it wasn’t so bad: He’d been saving money to build a gaming PC for a year. Now that his laptop had died, I’d help him with the cost. But West was not reassured. He explained that he could buy nearly all the parts for a gaming PC, but we’d have a hard time finding a graphics card he needed to complete it. Covid-19, he told me, had increased demand and led to a shortage. “I’m sure it will be fine,” I said. I assumed that the graphics card shortage would be like the toilet paper shortage we witnessed last March: a fleeting problem that the market would correct. I was totally wrong.
If I had done my own research, I would have learned that multiple factors prompted the graphics card shortage, beginning with manufacturing and shipping delays during the onset of the pandemic. Just as supply dropped, demand increased exponentially as people who were stuck at home turned to online gaming for entertainment and connection. The problem has been compounded, as my son has repeatedly explained to me with moral outrage in his voice, by bots who buy up the limited supply the moment it becomes available and resell at an astronomical markup. The shortage would continue for the long term, and that’s not even to mention the people buying graphics cards for the purpose of cryptocurrency mining.
Many parents like me have watched their children withdraw over the past year, become sullen and angry and develop difficulty sleeping and eating. In the first months of social distancing, West spent hours in the bathroom with the door locked and the fan on. When we shouted through the door to ask him to join us, he told us he wanted to be alone. It took intense negotiation to get him to shower and eat. Little seemed to cheer him, and yet I heard a clear lift in his voice when he played Minecraft while talking over Discord with friends. He often carried his laptop downstairs and gabbed into his headset while finally eating the sandwich I’d offered him hours before.
West had grown so many inches in quarantine that he barely resembled his pre-Covid self. His voice had dropped and his feet had grown 3 sizes, but when he was gaming, I got a glimpse of who my son would be if Covid hadn’t upended our routines. For West, the Minecraft server was a world that existed outside of Covid, a site free of the restrictions that defined social distancing. Villagers didn’t have to stand 6 feet apart or wear masks, and players could avoid death by simply shifting to creative mode.
I was surprised by how much his regular social development continued there. He was loud in Minecraft; he made new friends in Minecraft. I even listened to him and his peers resolve social conflicts while playing Minecraft. When a player falsely accused my son’s oldest friend of stealing cobblestone and a blaze rod, West intervened on his behalf and threatened to temporarily shut his server down. I was proud of him for taking a stand, and grateful that Minecraft had offered me a window into who my son was among his peers.
But West no longer has that outlet, and I no longer have that window. On January 1, the day West’s laptop died, we preordered a graphics card from a retailer who predicted they’d have new supply by January 16. West understood better than I did that this was a prediction, not a promise. He watched the calendar and prepared himself for disappointment. “I bet they’ll have them,” I said. He shook his head. On January 16, they pushed the date to January 26. “I don’t even care,” West told me. Week after week he obsessively checked the ETA. Week after week he promised me he could not possibly be disappointed because he had no hope or expectation, and then week after week he was crushed. He paced the house and declared that everything was meaningless.
A recent New York Times article pointed out that adolescents are facing mental health challenges due to what psychologists call “ambiguous loss.” They grieve the loss of structure, security, and predictability—the inversion of their world that happened virtually overnight—and they face these changes while largely cut off from their friends. Often I forget that West’s pandemic experience is far more extreme than my own. I’m exhausted from having to juggle parenting with working from home, and I know that my post-Covid world will be a changed one, but I’ll return someday to the same job on the same campus with most of the same colleagues. But West will never get back the world he lost in March 2020. Like him, his friends have physically and emotionally transformed during the pandemic, and in the transition from elementary to middle school, they have scattered to different places. The middle school he attends remotely is in a building he’s visited only once. He knows a total of five other students there. He’s met none of the teachers in person.
Finally, on February 24, the retailer sent us an email that our order had been canceled. By this time, West had his eye on a limited supply that would release the next day. He asked me if he could he skip his remote class that morning to buy one. I agreed. At 9 am, he loaded the tabs for two possible retailers and got as far as loading a graphics card in his cart before the product status changed to “sold out.” Once again, the outcome punished him for having hope. The rest of our day was tearful.
The lesson that Covid has taught me is one that the graphics card shortage has reinforced: I can’t control my son’s universe, and I can’t promise him things that are beyond my control. “It will be fine” is an unhelpful refrain during a pandemic. One day your world is predictable, and the next day that predictability has vanished. One day your virtual world is your refuge, and the next day it’s out of reach. My reassurance means little. Right now, all I can do for West is stand behind him and hover as he refreshes the Newegg tab.