Passing the time: Lockdown apps for progress, entertainment, or both

Alexander Bushroe
If you do find yourself in lockdown or otherwise quarantined, it's important to have something to direct your thoughts and energy toward to ease stress or boredom.
Alexander Bushroe

Time spent in solitude can test the mind. Humans, after all, are social creatures by nature, and we derive a significant portion of our humanity itself from our interactions with our friends, peers and strangers alike.

This is particularly the case for an extrovert like me. People with more introverted personalities, however, also require social interactions, just perhaps at a different frequency or of a different type.

As we all are aware, during the latest uptick in COVID-19 cases around Shanghai, lockdowns and quarantines of varying lengths have been imposed in an effort to keep everyone safe. Many of you have surely been affected, and I wish everyone the best of health and safety.

However, even if it is for a good cause, the deprivation of social interaction can certainly strain a person. Of course, we're lucky to have access to modern technology that enables us to simulate some aspects of that interaction. During a recent lockdown in the housing complex of a close friend of mine, we were able to simulate our usual weekend get-together by setting up an online "conference call."

Not ideal, but I hope we were able to alleviate some stress. Conference call software, after all, need not only be used for business purposes.

If you do find yourself in lockdown or otherwise quarantined, it's important to have something to direct your thoughts and energy toward to ease stress or boredom. Of course, getting work done for your job helps and takes up a significant portion of each day, but it's also important to have downtime to relax. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, as the saying goes.

Catch up on some housework or chores your busy schedule caused you to put off previously. Dig further into your personal hobby, or watch educational videos to pick up a new one. Grab that book you've been meaning to read and dive into it. Yeah, book. You know, the thick rectangular thing made of paper ... apparently they still make those, or so I'm told.

But today I'd like to focus on the main reason that so many of us ― myself included ― rarely pick up a paperback anymore. Our mobile phones just fit so much more nicely in our hands, don't they? And of course, it's not just ergonomics ― the apps within are specifically designed to capture our rapt attention as they bombard us with nonstop entertainment content or repetitive swiping exercises.

Many of the most popular of these programs, though, are more centered around triggering our dopamine receptors than actually stimulating our minds. From checking our friends' latest exploits on social media, to repetitive games where we smash colored candies or move jewels around, to the famous ― or infamous, depending on whom you ask ― TikTok (or Douyin in China) where we swipe through short videos that might make us chuckle but offer little in terms of nourishment for the mind.

So I prefer to focus on apps that provide a combination of entertainment and mental exercise. Not necessarily hard studying, per se, but if you're going to play games, they might as well exercise your mental muscles.

Here are some of my favorite suggestions, all free of charge for their basic versions.

Passing the time: Lockdown apps for progress, entertainment, or both

The Word Guess, a word game app

Word games

One type of game I particularly enjoy to pass time is based on the manipulation of words and language.

During the pandemic, a new game called "Wordle" has gained extreme popularity in several countries around the world. Innovative yet simple; challenging yet easy to grasp, the game involves guessing each letter of a five-letter word. Upon input, the game informs players which letters are correct, which need to be moved to another position, and which are misses.

The player has six guesses to figure out the target word. Simple fun, but at times, you'll find yourself staring at the screen for half an hour with brow furrowed, mouthing out a litany of nonsensical "words" trying to stumble upon the solution to the puzzle.

The original game, though, can only be played once a day and is the same puzzle with the same solution for every user. Ergo, it's limited in terms of daily entertainment value. Fortunately, apps like Word Guess simulate Wordle's experience and can be played an unlimited number of times. Whether you're a native English speaker or not, this game is both entertaining and challenging yet simple to understand.

For advanced Chinese speakers ― and native speakers, of course ― chengyu (成语) games also provide fun and challenge the mind. Chengyu are four-character Chinese idioms that carry special meaning and significance. Several game apps are available in which players piece together these idioms character by character to solve puzzles.

Personally, I find these to be quite difficult, as my repertoire of Chinese idioms isn't vast, but each time I play these games I find myself learning more Chinese expressions to add to my lexical bag of tricks. These games also tie in with ...

Language-learning tools

I won't pick on anyone for being short of fluent in Chinese ― it's quite hard ― but regardless of whether you're an HSK 9 or just at nihao (hello) and maidan (pay the bill), it's a great time to level up and add to your linguistic skills. A plethora of apps are available and offer different types of learning assistance.

Some apps, like my go-to, Pleco, are primarily dictionaries that clearly delineate pronunciation and meaning and offer the ability to save each new word learned as a flashcard for recall practice later. Others, like Du Chinese and The Chairman's Bao, have stories and news articles that users can break down and examine word by word, and have reading comprehension questions at their conclusions. Skritter is an app that stresses character writing and recognition.

Many more apps of this type exist as well, so if the ones I've mentioned don't exactly fit your learning style, try others and find the one most suitable for you.

Passing the time: Lockdown apps for progress, entertainment, or both

Quizoid, a trivia app

Passing the time: Lockdown apps for progress, entertainment, or both

Du Chinese, a language-learning app


It's likely that your favorite pub quiz or trivia night is on hiatus for the time being, so keeping your general knowledge and recall skills sharp is another idea to pass the time at home. There exist countless trivia apps, of course, and each is targeted to a different audience with different question categories.

I personally prefer Sporcle and Quizoid, as the former has vast numbers of quizzes encompassing myriad different topics, and the latter consists of general knowledge questions of increasing difficulty, where the user tries to string together as many correct answers in a row as possible.

Stay sharp for when trivia night returns, or just learn some new interesting facts to impress your friends.

Parlor games

Now, I must be clear ― I'm not endorsing gambling in any way, shape, or form. But parlor games, like card games and other similar forms of entertainment, need not be wagered upon to be fun.

It's certainly true that these games don't necessarily pack the same level of practical learning as language or even trivia apps, but games like these are often a great form of exercise for the mind. Of course, everyone knows about games like poker, but I actually prefer Chinese card games to the ones from back home. There are so many different card games in China ― really, a lot ― but my personal favorite is the classic doudizhu (斗地主), meaning "fight the landlord," where two or three players team up to try to play out their entire hand before the landlord, the other player, does.

It's a wildly popular game that can be played in real time with other players on apps in an effort to earn points, clout, and a high winning percentage, or just for the satisfaction of devising a successful strategy. For more advanced players, and this includes locals, I recommend a souped-up version of this game called guandan (掼蛋), or "throwing eggs," which is popular in parts of Jiangsu and Anhui provinces and features two decks of cards and a two-versus-two matchup style. Trust me on this one ― it's a fantastic game.

Also, in my opinion, learning now to play mahjong is a rite of passage for anyone living in China. The basic rules of the game are simple, despite different variations of the game being popular in different regions. Even if it's a game you don't intend to play often, understanding the rules and knowing how to play is a notch on the belt.

Of course, available mobile entertainment options are not limited to these few categories. But if you're looking to stimulate your mind while swiping around on your mobile screen during idle time, in lockdown or otherwise, these apps might just scratch that itch.

Passing the time: Lockdown apps for progress, entertainment, or both

Guandan, popular in parts of Jiangsu and Anhui provinces, features two decks of cards and a two-versus-two matchup style.

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