Tetris Theory


Imagine  if Alexey Pajitnov were to present his idea for his game called Tetris to a 21st century audience. “So, guys, hear me out on this. I have this brilliant idea for a new game. I think I’m really onto something here. It’s cool. It’s just these blocks that you try to stack in an orderly fashion.” Indeed Tetris looks terrible on paper. Through the lens of the 21st century gaming industry, Tetris looks like the recipe for the worst video game in history: no plot, no characters, no shooting, no chance of ultimate victory. Tetris ends with defeat every time. And yet that seemingly terrible concept turned into the most widely played video game in the world. You can’t find a list of the greatest video games of all time that doesn’t include Tetris. And it’s not just the world’s most popular game of yesteryear. In January 2010, it was announced that Tetris had sold more than 100 million copies for cell phones alone since 2005.


 Ever since its release the game has been the topic of many discussions regarding meaning, and it seems that everybody has a theory as to what the game means, why it exploded the way it did and how it still remains so popular. The staff writers at Gamesradar.com say, “if you had to choose a single game that represents all that videogames are, have been, and can be, there’s only one game you could choose. And that game is Tetris.” Two words stuck out to me when I read that quote: can be. It is accepted that Tetris is one of the most quintessential classic video games, but it is not usually thought of as a game that shows all that video games can be. This got me thinking: what is it about Tetris that makes it so invincible in the video game realm, and will anything ever be able to do the same thing?

Bushnell’s law states: “All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master. They should reward the first quarter and the hundredth.” This law is somewhat true of Tetris, although there is no true way to master Tetris at all. Regardless of that argument, Bushnell’s law does for the most part describe Tetris, however I don’t think that Bushnell’s law alone can explain why Tetris is so popular. In his chapter “Habituation”, Ian Bogust explains that Bushnell’s law falls short in that it speaks only to the learnability of a game and not the familiarity of a game: “Familiarity is thus the primary property of the game, not learnability; it is familiarity that makes something easy to learn.”  He then goes on to claim that the tetrominoes, the blocks that fall in Tetris, are what’s familiar to us because of things like dominoes. While that may be true, I would argue that what is familiar to us about Tetris is not so much the objects in it, but the concept in it.

tetris life

When you take a step back, Tetris really is a brilliant depiction of the life experience. There is no perfect score. You will fail at some point, and if you keep playing you will fail a lot. The blocks represent our tasks, duties, issues, deadlines, jobs, or obligations. Basically the blocks can be seen as anything that provides the conflict to our life story, and we know that all stories have conflict. Sometimes we do well with the “blocks” that life throws at us, and we are rewarded for that, but the blocks keep falling, quicker even. We might get cocky and decide to speed up the pace of the blocks so we can get them in place quicker. Sometimes it works, but other times it leads to a costly mistake. Blocks will continue to fall regardless of how well, or poorly, we place them. As Robert Frost’s over-used quote goes, “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” The endless barrage of blocks will ultimately lead to your failure, but it’s how you maneuver those blocks that makes all the difference.  “[Tetris is] not about blowing things up. It’s about cleaning things up,” says J.C. Herz. Perhaps Tetris is so brilliant because through it we can chase, and sometimes achieve briefly, a very pure form of something that is so elusive in real life:  the perfect management of time and resources.


Many scholars have “read” Tetris as more than merely falling blocks. According to James Paul Gee, Tetris is “an escape into the very desire for order, control, and workable solutions that we have all the time, a desire often frustrated in life, but never in Tetris.” MIT professor Janet Murray claims that Tetris is the “perfect enactment of the overtasked lives of Americans.” It is a game that simulates the everyday workflow of the average American. Tasks pile up on your desk and you complete them only to make way for more tasks. It is the hamster wheel of office work in which true success is merely finishing one task and moving to another. There are no moments in which to rest on your laurels and say, “I have succeeded, I am finished!” So perhaps it is the familiarity with the never-ending busyness of life that makes Tetris so addicting and prevalent in the video game realm even today. It gives people a chance to satisfy their desire for order amid there cluttered life.

Tetris has remained so relevant because it achieved something that I don’t think any other game has achieved before or since. While still remaining utterly simplistic, it managed to emulate the complexity of how life can feel. Is it possible for another game to be so simple and yet so transcendent?

  3 comments for “Tetris Theory

  1. Chelsea
    February 15, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    Who knew Tetris was so complex?

    In your closing question you argued Tetris is effective in its ability to “emulate the complexity of how life can feel” “while still remaining simplistic” and asked the question: “It is possible for another game to be so simple yet so transcendent?” At first I feel inclined to say it would be extremely difficult for another game to accomplish this. I am not aware of any games that are currently out that that meet these requirements, and I don’t think it is likely for another game to be released in the near future. The game industry has obviously changed a lot since Tetris was released, and although Tetris is arguably still popular, it would be hard to present a game this simplistic and be successful today.

    Having said that, although I recognize the simplicity of Tetris has transcended time I feel that this game does not effectively emulate “the complexity of how life can feel.” The idea that “the blocks can be seen as anything that provides the conflict to our life story” is not a strong argument in comparison to video games with clear narratives. Although I could interpret the blocks this way, I could also just as easily see them as just blocks with no further meaning.

    Although Tetris is unique in its design, the supposed life lessons provided by the game can already be seen and will continue to be seen in other games. “No perfect score” and the inevitable failures are characteristics not unique to Tetris. So although this game and its design cannot be easily replaced, the sentiment Tetris provides has already been duplicated.

  2. Isaac Whalen
    February 27, 2013 at 6:06 pm

    I think also that the reason for Tetris’ popularity can also be attributed to it rhythmic and meditative quality. Many times when I play it I find my self zoning out and going into a trance like state. Perhaps its the music, or the repeated action of making a straight line but something about it makes my mind go blank.

    Thus I would argue that maybe it is the game’s ability to distract us from the repetitive nature of our lives that accounts for its popularity. When we can turn our everyday actions into a meditation, it makes us feel better about ourselves.

  3. March 10, 2013 at 11:44 am

    Interesting post. I couldn’t help but notice how you move from the “concept” of Tetris into a mode of interpetation. That is, the idea of how Tetris works is (for you and others you quote) a question of what it means — whereas I take the point of “all games can be” to point to Tetris’s high level of abstraction (that is, the other direction of meaning).

    I point this out not to disagree but to add potentially more to the Tetris picture, but it occurs to me that there’s some affinity between the aesthetics of Tetris and the aesthetics advocated by Die Stijl in the early 20th century. Black Flag’s famously minimal logo is an example of this sort of aesthetic.

    What I can’t decide, though, is whether that similarity is supported with an ideologically affinity or whether its merely coincidence. What do you think?

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