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the tetris effect

20 january 2017

Dan Ackerman's Tetris Effect has an intriguing premise, but ultimately reads like an interesting magazine article padded out to book length.

The "Tetris Effect," a term coined by journalist Jeffrey Goldsmith in 1994, is a psychological dynamic in which, when you play the videogame Tetris – or do any number of similar repetitive, formulaic tasks – your brain effectively rewires itself to perform that task more quickly and efficiently. The game becomes part of the way you see and relate to the world.

The Effect has something to do with the game's addictiveness. Ackerman notes that despite the near featurelessness of Tetris – it's just seven different colored shapes falling randomly down a primitive graphic display ‐ it exerts a powerful hold on its players.

Tetris was the brainchild of Russian computer scientist Alexey Pajitnov, who parlayed a childhood fascination with pentominoes (like Tetris pieces but made up of five squares instead of four) into the most complex game he could program on 1980s-vintage Soviet machines. In fact, Pajitnov's original Tetris wasn't even as high-tech as its minimalist Western versions. It was monochrome; the pieces were made up of ASCII graphics, and there was no music. Pajitnov originally conceived of Tetris as a static puzzle. He added continuous and increasing pace of play and the crucial ability to remove parts of the layout you'd built by completing a line. Even at that early stage, Tetris is visibly the ancestor of every packing-and-clearing game that followed, from Zuma to Candy Crush – all of which seem to share its addictive and brain-rearranging qualities.

But The Tetris Effect isn't about the Tetris Effect, as it turns out; it's about the history of marketing the game outside the Soviet Union. Its heroes are a couple of entrepreneurs named Robert Stein and Henk Rogers, who came along at different junctures and midwifed Pajtinov's simple game into a global phenomenon. Pajtinov himself saw no money till recently, of course, a product of the game's simplicity on the one hand and the crushing effect of Soviet bureaucracy on the other. But he seems to have done OK in the long run.

Ackerman's book tells the story of the emergence of Tetris energetically and even with some suspense. But it quickly starts to repeat itself, and to prolong fine points of marketing negotiations past the point where the narrative is of much interest except to historians of business. Flawed as it is, though, I imagine that The Tetris Effect could be of interest to people studying the economic side of the volatile world of early computer applications.

I've wasted as much time on Tetris as your average procrastinator. I'm not sure I've ever succumbed to the full "effect." I'll say this: Tetris is one of the few videogames that I'm able to play, anything much more advanced taking manual dexterity I've never developed. For that reason I've also been drawn to Minesweeper, an old Windows standby, and a brilliant game from PopCap called Alchemy, which now seems to no longer exist in any accessible form (the eternal persistence of computer applications is something of a myth). But as much time as I've put into puzzle games over the years, I've truly never noticed the cognitive restructuring that some players report. The Tetris Effect is not limited to visual games, of course. I often find myself reading ordinary sentences as if they were cryptic crossword clues.

Ackerman, Dan. The Tetris Effect. New York: PublicAffairs [Hachette], 2016. GV 1469.15 .A35

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