Gaming Retrospective: Why Was Tetris So Successful?
Tetris is an anomaly in the computer game world. Let’s explain why.
There are very few truly abstract games. We count board games, children’s playground games, sports, video games, all-inclusive. Most games are a stand-in for real-world challenges, or an interpretation of themes from fiction or mythology, which in turn draw inspiration from real-world narratives. Strategy games like checkers and chess are metaphors for warfare. Most video games have a context related to real-world situations and goals, however fantastic. Dungeon crawlers, where you slay monsters, collect loot, and upgrade equipment just to do it some more, carry over the quest metaphor from the old world. Even Pac-Man takes the ancient concept of the labyrinth and makes it a simple quest to collect rewards while avoiding enemies. We could go on all day.
But Tetris is one of the few purely abstract games. The closest metaphor for the game’s premise that you could point to is packing boxes in a moving van or something. It rests firmly in the world of abstract puzzles, a fascinating realm where pure math and logic shape the game’s challenge. Therefore, it’s inherently intuitive for anyone to understand. Show Tetris to a toddler and they’ll grasp the idea immediately. The game transcends all language barriers and real-world experience. There is no story in Tetris. It doesn’t need one.
It’s also a game experience that could not be possible without computers. Yet it’s based on some of the oldest puzzles in existence.
The Origins of Tetris
If you want the video version, here’s an hour-long documentary that starts with the Reaganomics ’80s and the Cold War with the former Soviet Union. It covers the hysterical spiderweb of contracts and sub-contracts that involved licensing for Tetris.
Briefly, computer laboratory workers in the former Soviet Union (now Russia) programmed computer games in their spare time to blow off steam. One of them was inspired by a puzzle he had played with in childhood, Tetrominoes, where the object was to pack the pieces into a rectangular field, so he coded the game we now know today. His fellow lab partners eventually started playing it. A few bootleg floppy copies got passed around the Soviet techie scene, then to the Iron Curtain countries, and eventually Eastern Europe. Next a British video game publisher got wind of the game and flipped it to its first official publisher, Mirrorsoft.
You notice what’s missing from this story? The part where the original author gets paid! For the record, the man who conceived Tetris is Alexey Pajitnov, and he worked together with two other programmers to develop the first prototype on a Russian computer called the Electronika 60. They just let the game code get passed around, with no thought of profit, so it basically belonged to nature.
Stop blaming Communism for the lack of monetization!
A lot of video game historians claim that the reason Pajitnov never got the fortune and fame he deserved is because he was ignorant of Western business ideas, where the Soviet Union at the time had no concept of intellectual property. Pajitnov, legend has it, technically created the game on Soviet time using Soviet equipment and therefore the Russian government was the rightful owner of the game, with Pajitnov due nothing but a scolding from his supervisor for dawdling.
The above is all true, but that’s not the whole story.
In fact, everybody involved knew damned good and well what a capitalist business deal is. But this was the early 1980s, when the concept of proprietary software barely existed at all. Software, the reasoning then went, was like mathematical formulas. Einstein didn’t copyright “E=mc2” and sell it to the military, you know. The creators of the video games Rogue and Nethack, the foundation of the dungeon-crawler game genre we know today, were Americans with a perfectly cognizant understanding of American business, but that didn’t stop them from releasing the source code free as the wind.
Meanwhile, the arcade design of Tetris reflected this general marketing push they were making to phrase the game as a great cultural bridge between the US and the quickly dissolving Soviet Union. Russia was suddenly a big star in American pop culture, with Yakov Smirnoff doing stand-up and Mikhail Gorbachev making diplomatic kissy-noises at Ronald Reagan. Gorbachev even made it into the arcade pinball game Taxi.
The rights to Tetris got snarled up in international boondoggles and to this day, pretty much counts as a cultural theft on the part of Mirrorsoft president Robert Stein. Pajitnov eventually got with the Western Capitalism groove and founded The Tetris Company so that he could cash in on his game’s fame, but still not very aggressively. Tetris and clones of same permeate the gaming world. There’s even a version coded in Lisp running in Emacs:
The commercial rights to Tetris will always be foggy. However, it’s hard to imagine how else it could have happened. There’s very little to copyright in Tetris in the first place. It’s based on public domain block puzzles echoing back through history. Let’s just explore some of those…
If You Like Tetris You Might Like…
Tangrams was the first standardized wooden puzzle game, with roots as deep as 18th century China.
There is, of course, the aforementioned tetrominoes. Mathematically speaking, the tetronimo set includes every solidly connected shape you can make using four base blocks in two dimensions. If you expand that to five base blocks, you get pentominoes, doubtless for sale right now in some form at your local puzzle retailer. If you keep going with these 2D block puzzles of various dimensions, you get a whole class of puzzles called polyominoes.
If you instead expand into three dimensions, you get beasts like the Soma cube. The Soma cube is a seven-piece puzzle which fits together into a cube, and also has a Tangrams-like ability to be built into near-infinite other shapes. Some of them are much more challenging to construct than the cube, which has 240 distinct solutions. The Soma cube’s pieces are a bit of a cheat: six four-block-unit pieces with, again, every possible solidly connected shape you could make with those, and a three-block short L-shape piece included so the cube dimensions work out to 27 (3x3x3). You can likewise find Soma cubes for sale at puzzle retailers. It is worth getting one for a hit of old-school rainy day amusement.
Most of these owe their popularity to people like Martin Gardner, whose column “Mathematical Games” in Scientific American magazine brought these delightfully nerdy pastimes to a generation of mid-century readers – your humble author included.
Now you must be thinking, what with all these other block puzzles in the public domain, surely a video game or two has spawned from them, too? That’s exactly what happened!
Block-Out was a late arcade classic which was ported to the Sega Genesis and DOS PC, among others. It takes a bit more coordination, since you need three ways to rotate pieces. They spruced it up with this weird System-Shock-style theming and virtual troll-head here, with a voice so distorted that the arcade version was just a glitching drone. It is forever known as “3D Tetris,” copyrights be damned.
One virtually unknown Tetris variant is Emlith for original DOS-based Windows. It’s a shareware game that made its rounds in bundles of good old 1990s shovelware. Emlith is Tetris with extra polyomino pieces and tons of extra modes, including wider and narrower screens.
And of course, every variation of Tetris you can think of has been made in between, thanks to its complete cultural saturation. It’s so easy to program from scratch, it’s a common benchmark for programming students.
Another aspect that makes Tetris unique is being the subject of intense study by psychologists. Because of its pure abstract form, there is, for once, no question of the player identifying in a power fantasy or escaping into a deep story. Studies conclude that the futile nature of the game – everybody ultimately loses when it speeds up too much and our mistakes pile too high – combines with the temporary satisfaction of winning or breaking even, to produce an ideal dopamine loop. Tetris has been shown to stimulate brain cell growth in the same areas that exercises like juggling do. Research has also shown that playing Tetris can replace other addictions, including physical chemical dependencies.
The Zeigarnik effect has also been cited as an addictive mechanism in Tetris. Simply put, we’re drawn to unfinished tasks more than tasks that aren’t even begun. Tetris, while we’re playing, is infinitely in a state between unfinished and finished, as lines are completed but more blocks are falling and partial blocks remain. Finally, it’s a simple low-bandwidth task, suitable for waking up over morning coffee because it contains just enough stimulation to pay attention but doesn’t require hard thinking.
Shrinks are so cozy with Tetris that they borrow its name for a syndrome where doing one task a lot affects all of your thinking when you’re not doing that task. Play Tetris long enough, and your whole world becomes about blocks.
Incidentally, I’ve just noticed from watching all these videos that one of the most frustrating experiences is watching somebody else play Tetris when they really, really suck at it. Here’s something to make up for it: