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.
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?