Though Tetris is universally recognized as one of the best and most popular video games of all time, I never really got it.
Yes, I played it on everything from a Commodore 64 to a Gameboy; even, recently, on a Windows 10 PC. I just never sought it out repeatedly, or lost myself in the game.
To be honest, I dismissed it as not much of a video game. How could one compare the simple placement of falling blocks (or tetronimoes) to Mortal Kombat, or even one of my early racing game favorites, Pole Position (Arcade version)?
Perhaps if I had known the incredible history the intricate, almost espionage-level tale of intrigue carried out literally across three continents with myriad players and untold numbers of competing interests I might have felt differently.
Thats the true story of Tetris, and the subject of tech journalist Dan Ackermans book The Tetris Effect: The game that hypnotized the world. (Full disclosure: Ackerman and I have known each other for 15 years).
From Russia with intrigue
Ackermans book briskly traces the history of this deceivingly simply game. Briskly, we go from its creation behind the Iron Curtain by Soviet programmer Alexy Pajitnov in the early 1980s through countless versions, deals, variations and platforms, to its breakthrough moment: It was the only game to ship with early Nintendo Gameboy systems.
The outline of the tale is fairly well known (you can get a primer from this video, which also happens to feature Ackerman). Pajitnov created Tetris while working at the Russia Academy of Sciences. He shared it with co-workers, and the deceivingly simplistic game proved itself even in a monochrome mode, the blocks made of ASCII characters a proto-viral hit.
As Ackerman describes it, virtually anyone who discovered and played Tetris was almost immediately hooked and convinced it could be a global hit.
Of course, they were all right.
How ‘Tetris’ gets you high
Ackermans book works because its much more than a rote retelling of legendary video game history. Instead it seeks to explain the earworm-like nature of Tetris. Why did it become a hit? How did it surmount massive cultural, geopolitical and linguistic barriers without breaking a sweat?
Tetris is the rare video game that requires zero instruction and training to play. Its simple, but not at all easy. As soon as you launch any version on virtually any platform, those tetronimos start to fall. The goal is obvious: direct the falling path and landing position of each four-piece block to maximize fill space.
If you do it well, every line of blocks that completely fills a single row of horizontal space at the bottom disappears. The more you accomplish this goal, the faster the blocks fall, forcing you to make strategic and logistical decisions at an ever faster pace.
The game is, at its core, about spatial relationships.
This has proven hypnotic for some. In fact, the name of the book comes from a 1994 Wired article by Jeffrey Goldsmith entitled “This is Your Brain on Tetris. In the article, Goldsmith described what playing Tetris actually does to your brain. It elevates glucose metabolic rates, which creates a kind of high.
Goldsmith, whom Ackerman interviewed for his book, writes:
The Tetris effect is a biochemical, reductionist metaphor, if you will, for curiosity, invention, the creative urge. To fit shapes together is to organize, to build, to make deals, to fix, to understand, to fold sheets. All of our mental activities are analogous, each as potentially addictive as the next.
Tetriss seemingly simple game play, yet intense spatial logic puzzles can burrow into your brain and start to meld with your real life in sometimes unexpected ways.
If while packing the car for a vacation youve seen the suitcases and coolers as tetronimos slotting perfectly together, youve experienced a mild version of the Tetris Effect, writes Ackerman. The game taps into something so fundamentally human that researchers use it to this day to study, for instance, how people learn.
Ackerman devotes ample space to the science of Tetris addiction. But its the insane tale of Tetris development, licensing, distribution and ultimate global triumph that really propels the narrative.
Game never over
At the center of much of this story is not game creator Pajitnov, but Andromeda Medias Robert Stein, the man who single-handedly managed to secure an early, if poorly understood by Pajitnov, deal to bring Tetris out from behind the Iron Curtain.
Stein, who discovered the game in Hungary in 1986, instantly recognized benefits of Tetriss simplicity. It demanded so little of computer hardware and software. Its name was just abstract enough that it might appeal to foreign audiences. And that it wouldnt need the typically expensive translation process necessary for other foreign-born video games. The game, writes Ackerman, had no story, no dialogue, no characters. Its abstractness made it universal.
The handshake deal Stein made with Pajitnov over an early intercontinental communication system known as Telex set in motion years of sub-licensing deals that, ultimately, were built on the house of cards that was Steins original deal.
Eventually, Atari, a publishing magnet, Nintendo and the Soviet Union all played a crucial role in defining the future of Pajitnovs invention.
Yes, there are spaces where Ackerman repeats himself and keeping track of all the names and players can leave a readers head spinning. Future editions might do well to follow the lead of comprehensive books like The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years and list and describe all the key players at the front of the book.
Regardless, I walked away from The Tetris Effect with a minor case of the affliction. I found myself searching various platforms for various Tetris editions and trolling the Tetris Wiki, endlessly fascinated by the stick-to-itiveness of this simple game and astonished at what it took for it to get here.
Part of that success, says Ackerman, was timing:
Tetris is a unique example of an idea, a product and an era comping together at exactly the right moment Tetris made the leap from niche hobby for computer nerds to the heights of mainstream crossover appeal in a way no game has since Pong invaded living rooms and bars in the 1970s.
It does not give anything away to say that Nintendo ultimately triumphed over all others on the licensing front, but getting there is quite the story.
If you care about games of any kind and their hold on the culture, The Tetris Effect is a worthwhile, informative and entertaining read. Its a fascinating lightning-in-a-bottle account where the main protagonist is a silent, persistent cascade of shapes, compelling you to put them right.