Why Tetris Consumed Your Brain

Spinning a colorful shape before placing it in the perfect position is such a satisfying experience that Tetris has joined chess in the pantheon of universally recognizable games.

Less well known is the true story of how a prototype created in 1984 by a software engineer for the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union eventually reached millions of players around the world. The movie ‘Tetris’ starring Taron Egerton and released on Apple TV+ on Friday explores those humble beginnings.

The addictively simple puzzle game features seven uniquely shaped pieces, each composed of four square blocks. Players move, rotate and position the pieces to form continuous lines, which are then discarded, potentially allowing for endless play. The game’s name — derived from the words “tetra” (Greek for “four”) and “tennis” (the sport enjoyed by the game’s creator, Alexey Pajitnov) — has even entered culture as a verb, like when you “Tetris” your luggage in the overhead compartment of an airplane.

In an interview with The New York Times, Pajitnov described Tetris as “the game that appeals to everyone” and said he hopes the future will include esports and the integration of artificial intelligence. He is also working on making “a very good” two-player version of the game, but said “we’re not there yet”.

Before Tetris established itself as a household name with releases on consoles such as the Nintendo Game Boy, Henk Rogers, the character played by Egerton, had to travel to the Soviet Union and fend off competitors to secure the game’s rights. As the film shows, that was a tough task that paid off immensely.

Here are more details about the game’s creation and why it has resonated with so many for so long:

In the nearly four decades since Pajitnov created Tetris using the Pascal programming language on the Electronika 60, a Soviet-made computer, more than 215 officially licensed versions of Tetris have been released.

Perhaps the most notable variant is the one that came with every copy of the Nintendo Game Boy when the handheld game console was released in 1989. But that incredibly successful pairing – the Game Boy and the Game Boy Color have already sold about 120 million units – almost didn’t happen.

Nintendo of America president Minoru Arakawa initially wanted to bundle Super Mario Land with the Game Boy, following the company’s success packaging Super Mario Bros. with the Nintendo Entertainment System. However, Rogers was able to convince Arakawa that Tetris should be included instead, in part because it would appeal to a wider range of demographics.

Pajitnov described the collaboration as “two creatures made for each other: Game Boy for Tetris and Tetris for Game Boy.”

As anyone who has spent hours playing Tetris knows, it is an incredibly addictive game. Many people who play for extended periods of time have reported seeing Tetris pieces outside of the game, such as in their mind when they close their eyes, or in their dreams. It is a phenomenon known as the Tetris effect.

You may have experienced the Tetris Effect yourself if you’ve ever seen tetrominos, officially known as Tetriminos, when you’re trying to pack your groceries.

In professional studies, the psychologist Richard Haier found that playing Tetris regularly resulted in increased thickness of the cerebral cortex. Haier’s studies also showed how Tetris can affect cortical gray matter plasticity, potentially improving a person’s memory capacity and promoting motor and cognitive development.

A 2017 study by researchers at Oxford University and the Karolinska Institutet showed that Tetris had the potential to provide relief for people with posttraumatic stress disorderif they played the game after an incident while triggering a stressful memory.

Decades after it was invented, Tetris continues to have staying power. Newer versions of the game include Tetris Effect, which builds a Zen experience through music, and Tetris 99, where players try to outlast opponents who meddle with their boards.

In competitive play, new methods of moving the pieces are still being discovered. The standard way to play the Nintendo Entertainment System version of Tetris – yes, the game first released in 1989 is still used in the Classic Tetris World Championships – is to hold the gray rectangular controller so that the left hand controls movement of the pieces, and the right hand controls rotation. But that method, known in the competitive community as “delayed auto shift”, has been taken over by “hypertapping” and “rolling” in recent years.

Hypertapping involves pressing the buttons quickly, which counteracts the traditional feeling of pieces being slowly dragged into position. Rolling allows pieces to be moved even faster by swiping the fingers of one hand along the back of the controller.

The power of hypertapping became clear in 2018, when a 16-year-old named Joseph Saelee used the method to beat Jonas Neubauer, a seven-time world champion. But in the years since, the rolling method has done just that dominated the competition scene. Not only is it incredibly effective, but it also seems less stressful on fingers and hands.