Tetris Effect

Disegno #22 (2019)

Image courtesy of Enhance.

In 1994, the writer Jeffrey Goldsmith penned ‘This is Your Brain on Tetris’, an article for Wired magazine that has enjoyed a degree of celebrity ever since. I was four at the time, and, 25 years on, I remain absolutely furious with him.1

To understand my anger, you have to appreciate that Goldsmith’s article was really excellent, such that writing about Tetris in its wake feels onerous. Most immediately, its legacy was to coin “the Tetris Effect”, a now widespread term that refers to the game’s addictive quality, but also to the manner in which Tetris can actively reshape your thought patterns so that you begin to see the world around you in terms of tetromino blocks. If you’ve ever played the game and subsequently imagined loading a dishwasher as an intricate performance of slotting together pots, pans and cutlery, for instance, you’ve likely experienced the Tetris Effect. “Tetris slyly manages to interface with the neural net in the human skull” wrote Goldsmith. “[…] The Tetris Effect is a biochemical, reductionistic 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.”

This isn’t just pop science either. Goldmith’s term may have begun life in the tech press, but it was quickly picked up by neuroscience to describe the psychological process through which forms of repetitive, pattern-based activity can reorder your mental functions. Any kind of pattern play can prompt this effect, but Tetris seems particularly triggering – a quality explained in journalist Dan Ackerman’s 2016 book The Tetris Effect as resulting from the game’s ability to imprint itself “as both procedural memory, which guides frequent repetition of action, and as spatial memory, which deals with our understanding of 2D and 3D shapes and how they interact”. Tetris, Ackerman notes, is the video game par excellence of “spatial relations and improvised architecture”.

Nowhere is this addictive cocktail of procedural and spatial dimensions more apparent than in Goldsmith’s article, which was fortunate enough to draw upon the feature writer’s Holy Grail: deep personal experience with its subject matter. In 1990, Goldsmith lost six weeks of his life to playing Tetris on his Gameboy while staying with a friend in Japan. “Days, I sat on a lavender suede sofa and played Tetris furiously,” he wrote. “During rare jaunts from the house, I visually fit cars and trees and people together[…] My friend, an economist, threatened a battery deprivation, but he knew my habit ran deep, knew that I could always tilt, blinded by sunlight, to a convenience store. To save face, I would buy a box of tiny chocolate-filled bears, as if AA power cells were an afterthought, not the meaning of my wretched life.” Goldsmith fully submitted to the game’s pharmatronic2 spell and his resultant travails make for terrific copy. As a result, I hate him.

You may be wondering what my problem is.3 Well, the important thing to know is that I’ve played Tetris all my life, so the whole debacle feels personal. To date, Tetris has appeared on more than 65 gaming platforms and I’ve played it on at least three. I once unlocked the game’s notoriously difficult-to-achieve animation of a space shuttle blasting off a launchpad, which is Tetris’s Cold War-inflected reward for excellent play. I figuratively punched the air when curator Paola Antonelli added the game to MoMA’s permanent design collection in 2012, elevating a previously dismissed mode of cultural expression to something worthy of critical attention.4 I actively agree with the Chicago Tribune’s 1988 assessment that Tetris is “a game so good that you won’t be able to say nyet to it”. In spite of this, I have never been reduced to wandering Tokyo like a digital smackhead, an experience of glorious pharmatronic desperation that Tetris’s original designer Alexey Pajitnov, when Goldsmith told him of his opinion of the game’s addictive qualities, charmingly reframed as a “song which you sing and sing inside yourself and can’t stop”.

My sense of insecurity about these matters is worsened by the fact that it is precisely Tetris’s pharmatronic qualities that form the basis of the most recent entry to the canon: Tetris Effect, a Playstation 4 game developed by designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi and his team at California-based developer Enhance. “We’ve done a lot of thinking about how the mechanics need to be so that anyone who has played Tetris before, no matter where they’re from, can pick this up and think ‘this is Tetris’,” explained Mizuguchi in a 2018 interview with video-game website VentureBeat. “In addition to making the experience feel good, we were also motivated to find a way to introduce storytelling into the mix.” That’s a little gnomic as descriptions go, but the creation’s premise is equally slippery – Tetris Effect is both a game of Tetris and a game about playing Tetris. Its basic gameplay has changed little from the original iterations of the 1980s,5 but the additions that Mizuguchi has made around this core represent a shift in the format. Tetris Effect is a piece of design that tries to make tangible the answer to the question that Goldsmith set out to explore 25 years ago: what happens to your brain when you play Tetris?

In 2000, Robert Stickgold of the Harvard Medical School led a research project into the effects of dreaming on learning, the results of which formed ‘Replaying the Game: Hypnagogic Images in Normals and Amnesics’, a report published in the peer-reviewed journal Science. As part of Stickgold’s research, 27 test subjects (including five amnesiacs with severely impaired short-term memory) were invited to play Tetris over the course of three days. Stickgold and his team found that 17 of these subjects subsequently dreamt of Tetris blocks falling through space and slotting together to form lines. Amongst the dreamers were three of the five amnesiacs, whose dreams were shaped by the game despite them having no recollection of playing it, “demonstrating that remote memories can influence the images from recent waking experience”.

Stickgold’s findings were not, however, the first neuroscientific investigations into Tetris. In 1992, the psychologist Richard Haier at the University of California, Irvine, established the “Tetris learning effect”, a process through which the brain uses less energy to play the game the more adept at Tetris a player becomes. As the game grows more taxing, increasing familiarity with its systems shapes the brain such that it becomes more efficient and economical in how it responds. It’s not simply that the player becomes better at Tetris the more they play (although that happens too), but rather that their brain approaches the challenge differently. Haier followed up on this research in 2009 with further findings about the effect of Tetris on the cerebral cortex, which deals with memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought, language and consciousness. “What we found was a change in the brain after playing Tetris,” Haier told the BBC. “The thickness of the cerebral cortex actually increased, by less than half a millimetre.” Playing Tetris, it emerges, can be literally mind-altering.

Mizuguchi’s game is concerned with visualising these neurological effects and, in so doing, providing a commentary on Tetris’s enduring appeal. “One of the first formal studies of the phenomenon was at Harvard Medical School in the year 2000,” intones the game’s trailer, revealed at the E3 trade show in June 2018. As the voice speaks, the black screen fills with tiny lights that sparkle and throb in time to trance music. “Participants played the game for seven hours each, spread over the course of three days. Remarkably, 63 per cent of the participants, almost two thirds, reported seeing imagery from the game hours after they finished playing.” The lights start clustering into physical forms, assembling and disassembling to create glittering humpback whales and manta rays. The music swells and the sea creatures roll across the screen, bursting in and out of resolution as they flip their fins and crash down around the game grid, their bodies exploding to create the waves that swallow up their previous selves. Amidst this stardust and mysticism, geometric shapes appear in the centre of the screen, pulsing in time to the music’s beat. “Blocks. They all saw blocks.”

That trailer broadly sums up Tetris Effect. A traditional game of Tetris runs in the centre of the screen, while graphics around its periphery complement the gameplay. Each level has a different theme. There are stages set underwater, where lights assemble into marine life; levels amongst forests and hot-air balloons; others built around pulsing drums, twirling umbrellas and dancing Chinese lanterns; and yet others that feature horse riders in canyons, bioluminescent mermaids and orbiting space stations. It’s spectacularly beautiful and, as you play, the graphics map to your actions and resolve themselves according to your success. Clear multiple lines in one move and a condor might surge into the air; a prayer circle break into frantic worship; or a desert caravan flip into exploration of a lunar surface. Working in concert with these visuals are sonic elements. Each level is soundtracked with music unique to that stage, with additional notes marking every rotation and movement of the falling blocks. As you progress, you begin to play in time to the beat, dropping pieces to ensure that the sounds harmonise with the backing track, which in turn drags the graphics into alignment with everything else. The result is a sound and light show on a grand scale – a synchronised synaesthesia controlled by the rhythmic falling of blocks. “Our goal was to make the experience of playing Tetris feel better than it ever has before,” Mizuguchi told VentureBeat, “and I think everything – visuals, music, and stage concepts – is firing on all cylinders on that front.”

Mizuguchi’s description of his creation as “introduc[ing] storytelling” to Tetris undersells the experience, however. Tetris Effect is unchained from both linear narrative and in-game progression. Levels speed up and grow harder as the game advances, but most players will likely select stages based upon the experiences they evoke, rather than the challenge they present. Instead of storytelling in any traditional sense, Tetris Effect’s core purpose is inducing a trance-like state in its players, with Mizuguchi’s mesmeric synaesthetics drawing parallels to the pharmatronic qualities of the series’ gameplay. “At its simplest, what we hope is that when you’re playing it, you’re not thinking about anything – you forget about your troubles and your cares and whatever,” said Enhance Games’s Mark MacDonald in an interview with technology website TechRadar. “It’s a cool, magical feeling but normally you’d need to be really good at the game, or you’d have to play the game for a really long time to experience that. We wanted to lower the barrier to entry so that anybody playing it, even if they’re not that good at Tetris, they could have that feeling.”

Tetris Effect, then, is a Tetris-effect generator – a vehicle designed to enable psychological chufties without the need for Goldsmithian devotion. A splendid democratisation of the pharmatronic supply chain this idea may be, but there are downsides. In order to achieve the desired effect, Mizuguchi and his team have had to lean heavily on visuals and music designed to evoke spiritual transcendence – a visual shorthand for psychological ecstasy that is undeniably effective, but which inevitably slips into cliché. The game’s signature track ‘The Deep: Connected (Yours Forever)’, for instance, contains lyrics that gesture towards soaring significance, but which ultimately prove fatuous: “I’m yours forever / There is no end in sight for us / Nothing could measure / The kind of strength inside our hearts / It’s all connected / We’re all together in this life.” That’s a lyric that would make for some seriously vapid holistic woo at the best of times, but which is further undermined by the fact it plays out alongside graphics showing the rear end of a whale flashing alarmingly pink and exploding backwards as if suffering from a diarrhetic krill episode.

Depending on your feelings about hollow bullshit evacuation, this may not be an issue, but other aspects of Tetris Effect prove more troubling. The game seeks to tie itself to its namesake psychological effect by presenting graphics that encourage the player to perceive the entirety of nature and human history in connection to falling blocks. When the visuals stick to realms such as ecosystems, geometric patterning and the abstracted horizons of interstellar exploration, the approach works to a tee, capturing the sense of trance that devotees experience during play. Yet the designer’s decision to supplement this sweeping overview of life on earth with religious iconography (temples, figures in the lotus position, shaman-esque fire worshipers) is uncomfortable. The deployment of visuals that are suggestive of actual belief systems – and, depressingly, belief systems whose representations in-game are largely non-specific other than being vaguely “Eastern” – is not only reductive, but also has the corollary of implying that these religions are somehow “primal” in the same fashion as the game’s other visual source material. It is an exoticising and primitivising trope,6 and one in which Enhance has past form. In Mizuguchi’s 2016 game Rez Infinite, the protagonist changes form in accordance with the quality of your play. Beginning as a prostrate figure, the character becomes a holy man in the lotus position before ultimately achieving “nirvana” and transforming into an orb of disembodied energy. Given that Rez’s story is about purging a computer system of viruses, the link to religious practice seems, at best, forced. The efficacy of Norton Antivirus does not a Buddha make.

And yet this kind of stereotyping and cultural appropriation to evoke a sense of mesmeric dislocation has long been a part of the Tetris story, beginning with the earliest efforts to commercialise the game in the 1980s. When Tetris was introduced to the US, its publisher Spectrum Holobyte bolstered the creation’s pharmatronic effect with reference to the perceived mystique of its having been developed in the USSR. Spectrum soundtracked the game with Russian folk music; backdropped its gameplay with artwork depicting life in the Soviet Union; and packaged the offering in a red box with Moscow’s St Basil’s Cathedral on the cover. “For the Spectrum partners, this seemed like the single greatest marketing gimmick they could ask for,” writes Ackerman in The Tetris Effect. “The game’s rigid logic and sharp-cornered architecture already mirrored the common Western view of the Soviet Union[…] There might be room to position a Russian game as something more like a stolen view of an alien culture than a totem of a political and military enemy.” Unsurprisingly, when the game launched at a 1988 industry event in San Francisco, the city’s Russian consulate complained about Tetris’s imagery. “You have to understand,” Ackerman reports Spectrum director Phil Adam as responding, “most people view communism and the people in Russia as very lacking in personality[…] This gives the American people some sense that there is some kind of personality behind the Soviet citizen.”

Blatant xenophobia aside, Adam’s suggestion founders in its mistaken desire for Tetris to expose or express anything beyond its own rhythmic cascade of blocks. As Goldsmith realised early on, any meaning in Tetris – any profundity or value to be gleaned from it – is not found within its presentation, but rather in its core spatial patterns and the psychological impact they have on the brain that shapes them. Initial test versions – replete with their rudimentary graphics and absence of sound – proved every bit as addictive as their successors, regardless of their lack of symbolism. In the early 1980s, a version of the game was disseminated through the Moscow Medical Institute by clinical psychology researcher Vladimir Pokhilko, a friend of the game’s designer Pajitnov. The centre’s entire workforce quickly became addicted. “I can’t live with your Tetris anymore,” Pokhilko told Pajitnov, before secretly remaining in the office after hours to destroy every copy of the game before his staff could realise the jig was up and take measures to protect their stash.7 Faced with this level of pharmatronic addiction, Mizuguchi’s kaleidoscopic synaesthesia (and, to a lesser extent, Spectrum Holobyte’s commercialised Russophilia-cum-phobia) can only ever be a sideshow: visual metaphors for the sense of rapture already engendered by the game. Pajitnov, of course, knew this from the beginning, as revealed in the interview he gave Goldsmith about realising the extent of the effect his design could have on a player. “You can’t imagine,” said Pajitnov. “I couldn’t finish the prototype! I started to play and never had time to finish the code.” Even today, 25 years on, Goldsmith’s response to this idea remains my personal gold standard for any assessment of the game’s impact: “Tetris enslaved my brain.”

  1. A keen reader may be wondering whether a four-year-old Oli Stratford really could have read ‘This is Your Brain on Tetris’ and been angered by its impact on an essay he would write 25 years in the future. To this reader, I would say, I think I know my own life better than you.

  2. A piece of technology that exerts a similar addictive effect to a drug. Another term Goldsmith coined. Thanks a lot, Goldsmith. 

  3. And, Christ, I hope Jeffrey Goldsmith never reads this, as I suspect he would definitely wonder what my problem is.

  4. I particularly liked Antonelli’s blogpost announcing the acquisition, in which she responded to the inevitable question of “Are video games art?” with a cheery “They sure are” and left it at that.

  5. And “original” is important here. Early versions of the game ranged across multiple platforms, with the nature of 1980s computer hardware meaning that each version had to be more or less coded from scratch. As such, Pajitnov’s Tetris could be interpreted as the theme upon which all subsequent Tetrises have been variations.

  6. Which is little ameliorated by the inclusion of a Jazz-Age New York-inspired level – an outlier amongst the game’s larger visual landscape.

  7. Later versions solved this issue with the introduction of a “boss button”. If, mid-game, an employee were in danger of being caught playing by their employer, they could press the Escape key to switch the computer monitor to a display of a Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet.