Two weeks ago I talked about Super Mario World, the first video game I ever played. Last week I talked about Crash Bandicoot 2, the first video game I ever owned. Let’s backtrack to a time between those two major events. When I was about six years old, our family moved from Indianapolis to the Phoenix suburbs. We traded the lush farms and forests of the Midwest to a dry and harsh desert. It was a difficult move for me. I didn’t know what to do with this new environment. Luckily, I made a few friends in First Grade and they made that transition easier. One of these friends owned a Game Boy and loaned it to me for an entire week. Inside that Game Boy’s cartridge slot was Tetris.
Despite only playing Tetris for a week, it made a big impact on me. It brought many things to my attention; it helped shape my beliefs and assumptions for decades.
The Most Popular Video Game Ever
Everyone is familiar with Tetris, right? You place tetrominoes in just the right spots, and you make lines disappear. It’s a near-perfect gameplay loop that gets more and more satisfying as your skills improve. The game was developed by Soviet programmer Alexey Pajitnov and it dominated pop culture for at least five years, from the mid-1980s to the 1990s. There’s a version of Tetris for basically every gaming device ever invented. When Nintendo was preparing to launch the Game Boy in the U.S.A. in 1989, Nintendo of America’s President, Minoru Arakawa, famously had a discussion with businessman Henk Rodgers, in which Rodgers told Arakawa:
“If you want little boys to buy your Game Boy, pack in Mario. But if you want *everyone* to buy your Game Boy, pack in Tetris, because everybody plays Tetris.”Henk Rodgers
The Game Boy did indeed sell millions of copies thanks to Tetris. That pack-in title was absolutely vital to the history of handheld gaming. For this exact reason, I think a Tetris tetromino deserves a spot as a Smash Bros. fighter or assist trophy, as stupid as that sounds. But that’s getting off-topic.
One of the reasons why Tetris is so appealing is because of how abstract it is. The object of the game is to literally just line up shapes. It’s remarkably approachable. You don’t need to read paragraphs of dialogue like in an RPG, or know the secret path forward like in a Zelda game. You don’t need to engage in a bunch of acrobatic trial and error like in Super Mario World or Crash Bandicoot 2. All you need to have fun in Tetris is a set of eyes and a set of thumbs.
But the fun of Tetris goes deeper than that. There’s something special about how this game taps into our very neurology.
Humans: The Pattern Machine
Human brains excel at finding patterns and making connections. It’s how we survived and created the culture that we know of today. It is, in the end, how we create meaning. It is how we learn. We notice similarities and differences. We make guesses and hypotheses. We experiment and test our hypotheses. The satisfaction we get when we fit a tetromino perfectly in a line goes back thousands of years; you could even say it’s embedded in our very DNA. And if the connection happens at the right time, seemingly unrelated things become associated in our heads. Art, stories, religion, jokes, everything meaningful happens this way. The Greeks associated the fury of an ocean’s storm, an unknown phenomenon, with the anger inside a human heart; thus, Poseidon’s wrath was born. Two dots get connected, and a puzzle is solved in our heads. The tetromino falls into place, and the line gets erased.
To a young child, it is sometimes hard to make sense of the world, and large changes can certainly throw off the order that you thought the universe abided by. The move to Arizona was coupled with my older brother’s Autism diagnosis as well as my religion expecting me to get baptized soon. The move was already disorienting, but then suddenly I started hearing from my parents and other adults that there was something wrong with my brother. His play was pathologized as “stimming,” his cartoon quoting was labeled “echolalia,” and his interests were vilified as “obsessions.” Assigning these scary scientific words made my head spin. To me, these differences didn’t seem bad. In fact, I liked these things about him. His play was fun, his quotes were hilarious, and he knew an impressive amount of information about his interests. I saw that school was hard for him, though. After the day was over, he looked drained and frazzled. I don’t want to overwrite his story or make myself into a martyr. The internet doesn’t need yet another neurotypical getting attention at an Autistic person’s expense. But if I’m going to write about my childhood, this is an honest part of it. I can’t ignore my sibling’s interests and struggles — they had a profound effect on me, just like any other older sibling would. In those days, I was ignorant about how I could help him. I felt this strange powerlessness that I’d never felt before.
During the week I had it, I played Tetris constantly. I know that some people back in the 1980s and 1990s experienced “The Tetris Effect,” where they would start to imagine Tetris shapes in their everyday life or even in their dreams, but that didn’t happen to me. I didn’t play it long enough for that to happen. Instead, when I played Tetris, it felt like a noisy concert hall inside my brain had suddenly fallen quiet. My worries would stop pinging around for a small moment. I was wholly absorbed in matching tetrominoes, and for some reason, the rest of my brain understood that it should shut up and let me match puzzle pieces.
Recently there have been studies that suggest that Tetris is actually a helpful tool for PTSD victims. It can increase the volume of the hippocampus, a key part of the brain responsible for emotion, memory, and learning. I’m not saying that I was experiencing PTSD back then, but I am saying that Tetris left an impression on my thought process. As I played, it seemed like the rest of my brain could reorganize itself. It was like my brain had become a messy room, and it could finally start cleaning itself up as I played. This process came to me as a thought: “The world is like these puzzles. I can solve these problems, I just gotta figure them out.”
And that’s the belief that I held for many years. I began to take pride in my smarts. I started getting good grades. I even got accepted into my school’s gifted program. I joined extracurricular activities like the Chess Club, the Geography Bee, and a book-reading competition called Battle of the Books. I beamed with confidence — there must be a solution to every problem put in front of me. I tried sticking up for my brother, at least when it came to other kids being mean to him. I was rarely successful, but it did feel like the right thing to do. I also grew confident in my religion’s black-and-white view of morality and the cosmos. God’s laws and commandments began to make sense to me, like neat little rows of puzzle pieces. God had a plan for everything; every problem would get solved, exactly as they should. Baptism didn’t seem like such a daunting event anymore. Of course, I was ignorant that not every problem would have a solution as neat and tidy as Tetris, or that it would even have a solution at all… but it was an underlying comfort that helped me get through that period of confusion as a kid.
Despite all of the ways that it has been dressed up and tweaked throughout the years, I still come back to the original Game Boy Tetris every now and then. Despite how old it is, it feels like the definitive version of the game. It has only been recently, with the release of The Tetris Effect, that I’ve found an entry that could replace the original. In fact, The Tetris Effect somehow translates the Zen I experienced when I played Tetris for the first time into mesmerizing particle effects and satisfying game feel. It was like the game had tapped into the psyche of a kid in the late ’90s — a kid who was trying to create order and meaning in a confusing world.
Sources / Further Reading:
Butler O, Herr K, Willmund G, Gallinat J, Kühn S, Zimmermann P. Trauma, treatment and Tetris: video gaming increases hippocampal volume in male patients with combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder. J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2020 Jul 1;45(4):279-287. doi: 10.1503/jpn.190027. PMID: 32293830; PMCID: PMC7828932; DOI: 10.1503/jpn.190027
One thought on “Tetris and the Art of Making the World Make Sense”
Great post! I can definitely relate to the feeling you describe when playing Tetris. It can be really compelling to focus all your mental energy into a puzzle game where everything just makes sense when it seems like the world doesn’t.