In the mid-1980s, a man named Alexey Pajitnov, a programmer at the Soviet Academy of Sciences, created something that would spread far beyond the confines of his Soviet lab. Pajitnov, who often used games as a way to test equipment, was doing just that on an Electronika 60 computer, an antiquated machine that had been use by the country’s Department of Defense. This time, he used a puzzle of falling bricks.
From there, things happened fast. In 1985, the same puzzle game was ported onto the IBM PC, gaining popularity with users around the Soviet Union; it soon wormed its way out of Soviet borders, ending up at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where it caught the attention of a software designer. The designer promptly flew to Moscow, secured the handheld rights, and licensed them to Nintendo, which included a cartridge with the puzzle in all sales of its 1989 Game Boy. Today, that creation born behind the Berlin Wall has made its way around the world as one of gaming’s most famous and ingenious time sucks: Tetris. And the story of this humble puzzle game, with its enduring popularity, is also the story of what makes us tick as human beings.
“Tetris fulfills a very simple need,” says Pajitnov, who now lives in Washington state. “We all have a natural desire to create order out of chaos. The game of Tetris satisfies that desire on a very basic level.”
He’s not wrong, but that satisfaction is rooted in another deeply unsatisfying reality: To play Tetris is to knowingly opt in to something that has no end and no way of winning. The game is “simple to learn, but very hard to master,” Pajitnov says, but that’s not quite right — it’s impossible to master. Despite the laserlike focus it generates, Tetris has no clear endpoint and no easily defined opponents. Unlike with most other video games, you’re playing only against yourself, without any concrete goals other than to keep on fitting blocks into other blocks. The focus is on the process, rather than the result.
So what keeps us sorting Tetrominoes, as those little shapes are called, when we know all our efforts are ultimately futile? As writer Adam Alter explained in his book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked, that futility is actually a key element of what makes the game so appealing: “The hardship of the challenge is far more compelling than knowing you are going to succeed,” he wrote. “The game allows you the brief thrill of seeing your completed lines flash before they disappear, leaving only your mistakes … It is in this sweet spot — where the need to stop crumbles before obsessive goal-setting — that addictive experiences live.” Tetris is a tease, using small victories to lead players down a path with no end.
That’s not to say we don’t get anything out of it along the way. Something remarkable is happening on the cognitive level when we shuffle Tetrominoes: As writer Jeffrey Goldsmith pointed out in a 1994 Wired article on the game (one that was published, it bears noting, long before it made its successful shift to smartphones or the internet), people playing Tetris for the first time will see a significant uptick in their cerebral glucose metabolic rates, meaning that brain energy-consumption explodes. But after four to eight weeks of daily doses, that rate reverts to normal, “while performance increases seven-fold, on average,” Goldsmith wrote. “Tetris trains your brain to stop using inefficient gray matter, perhaps a key cognitive strategy for learning.”
In recent years, researchers have shed some light on what that means, neurologically speaking. A study published in the journal BMC Research Notes in 2009 found that Tetris can increase efficiency in the areas of the brain dedicated to reasoning and critical thinking. Other research, meanwhile, has shown that Tetris may be psychologically healing: In a study published in the journal PLOS ONE, also from 2009, scientists from the University of Oxford found that playing Tetris may help reduce the buildup of flashbacks from a trauma. Because traumatic flashbacks are tied to sensory perception and mental images, the study authors wanted to know whether a visuospatial computer game like Tetris would interfere with the flashbacks.
In the Oxford experiment, participants watched a traumatic film that contained scenes of injury and death; after a 30-minute break, some of the participants played a ten-minute round of Tetris. Compared to the control group, those who played the game saw “a significant reduction in flashback frequency” over the one-week period the researchers monitored. Along the same lines, a 2014 Appetite study found that Tetris could be used to help curb some regularly occurring cravings by “reduc[ing] the vividness and frequency of craving imagery.”
In other words, Tetris is a remarkably formidable distraction, using so much brainpower that other mental processes go ignored. Or maybe the word distraction doesn’t quite do it justice: “The Tetris effect is a biochemical, reductionistic metaphor, if you will, for curiosity, invention, the creative urge,” Goldsmith wrote in Wired. “To fit shapes together is to organize, to build, to make deals, to fix, to understand.” And that’s not the only metaphor in the game. The greatest obstacle in Tetris is time and one’s own ability to navigate it — kind of like life itself.