Day 244: Blockheads Of The World Unite! The Tetris Story

Originally published August 31, 2012

It was the summer of 1989. Tone Loc was doing his Wild Thing on the radio, western civilization was somehow finding its way forward after the series finale of Moonlighting, and a 14-year-old me wandered into an arcade on the University of British Columbia campus in Vancouver. I remember the room, it was like an abyss of studious concentration, except the studies here involved Italian plumbers, Formula-1 racers, and pinball. Yes, sweet, sweet pinball still lined the wall in the back.

I had about seven dollars in quarters to spend and upwards of an hour to kill. I executed the standard new-arcade recon mission: I checked off the most appealing pinball machine (shiny, with numerous levels and accessory pathways, but without requiring me to spend too much time reading the messages on the score readout), looked to see what was new (Badlands, Strider, other forgettable time-wastery), and poked around for my old favorites (Paperboy – gotta have Paperboy).

Tucked away in a corner was something that looked vaguely Soviet, and unlike anything I’d ever seen before.

I admit, I had a thing for the backwards ‘R’. When I was even younger than 14, that represented those Toys-backwards-R-Us stores we’d go to on vacation, the ones that blew away any toy store back home.

Tetris got all seven of my dollars that day. It was more fun than I’d expected.

The game I’d identified as vaguely Soviet game was actually totally Soviet in origin. The first video game to ever cross from the USSR into the North American market, Tetris was pivotal in launching the Russian gaming industry.

Russian computer engineer Alexey Pajitnov concocted the game while he was working at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Given his position, both occupationally and geographically, the Soviet government technically owned the rights to Tetris, and it was through those channels that the game circulated around the Soviet Bloc. It would be a decade before Pajitnov started earning money on his creation.

Though the figures are not available (or if they are, I don’t feel like looking for them), Tetris has no doubt transformed thousands upon thousands of non-gamers into video game junkies. Its utter simplicity is brilliant – it’s geometry, physics and strategy, dressed up in pretty colors and beeping music.

The little blocks are called tetrominoes, which – like it sounds – is the four-block version of dominoes. There are only five combinations with which you can build four squares into a shape. Since two of those are asymmetrical, they can be flipped, creating the seven lovable, faceless Tetris characters we’ve all had haunting our dreams at one point in our addiction. Those blocks even have names based on the letters they somewhat resemble.

Pajitnov chose the name ‘Tetris’ as a portmanteau of ‘tetronimoes’ and ‘tennis’, which makes perfect sense when you don’t consider the fact that Tetris has no similarities whatsoever with tennis.

The first incarnation of the game was for the IBM PC. A British software firm called Andromeda discovered the game in Hungary, and immediately tried to get hold of Pajitnov to secure the rights. The red tape in dealing with a Soviet citizen for a Soviet government-owned property with England via Hungary was rather intensive. So when American developer Spectrum HoloByte showed up to buy the rights from Andromeda, Andromeda went ahead with the sale, confident that their deal with Pajitnov would come through any day now.

Of course, it didn’t. Tetris launched in the US in 1986 for the IBM PC, and lawyers all over the world celebrated as dozens of lawsuits were set to begin over who could do what with the game. These were golden times.

Arguably the version of the game that stole the most hearts was the colorless Nintendo Gameboy release. As addictive as the game was (and oh shit, it was), there were no lengthy missions to complete, no complex storyline to pursue, and nothing to stop someone from squeezing in a quick fix between bus stops.

There are world championships, of course – $1000 in prize money could be yours if you’ll be in the Portland, Oregon area during the last weekend in September this year – but I’m more interested in the psychological and philosophical questions the game brings.

First, is there an end? Are we destined to trudge on and on, plunking down ‘T’s and stacking ‘Z’s until we die? Tetris is infamously non-linear. While some versions of the game have end-goals (like clearing 40 lines or something), pure Tetris is all about racking up points, however long it takes, until you inevitably top out when your stack gets too high.

But the game does have an end. It has to. A guy named John Brzustowski says so. And it’s all because of these:

If you don’t feel like following that link and reading six chapters about Tetris by a masters student at the University of British Columbia (a complete coincidence that this school shows up twice in this article, though I’d like to think John spent a lot of time playing the same machine that first hooked me), I’ll give you the gist.

Eventually that fickle random piece generator is going to give you a succession of Z and S blocks. You’re going to be forced to leave holes in your stack. The odds are against getting dozens of these in a row, but if you’re good enough to want to test out the infinite-play experiment, it’ll happen eventually.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Tetris is how it affects the brain. Anyone who has played a game that features repeated images or scenarios is familiar with the Tetris Effect, that frustrating inability to shove the game out of your mind when you’re trying to sleep. Some people, after a few hours of play, can see the shapes at the edge of their periphery. Sometimes it’s all internal; an avid player starts to see objects in the real world as placeable shapes, and tries to fit them together in their mind. I get a similar disconnection from reality when I play a lot of Grand Theft Auto.

Scary as that may sound to someone who believes they have never experienced this – though really, if you’ve taken a long road trip and seen long yellow lines winding in front of you in your dreams, you know all about this – Tetris has actually been proven to be good for the brain.

A half-hour a day of dropping and rotating blocks can sharpen your reasoning, critical thinking, language and processing. Your cerebral cortex will get thicker. Your coat will become more lustrous, and more insulating for those cold winter months. Also, you might end up designing something both awesome and insane, like this:

And our parents told us video games were a waste of time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s