Steven Poole

A puzzling phenomenon

It’s certainly hugely addictive and frustrating — but also poetic and therapeutic. A perfect metaphor for life, in fact

A puzzling phenomenon
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The Tetris Effect: The Cold War Battle for the World’s Most Addictive Game

Dan Ackerman

Oneworld, pp. 128, £

Everyone has played it, or one of its manifold variations and rip-offs. Blocks of different shapes fall from the sky; you have to rotate and shunt them around so they fit perfectly together at the bottom, and then that horizontal line of blocks vanishes. This is Tetris, and it was created in 1984 by a Soviet mathematician called Alexei Pajitnov. But how it came to the West is a remarkably complicated cloak-and-dagger story, here given its first book-length treatment.

The narrative opens with all the bad bravado of a Dan Brown novel, as one of the several businessmen chasing the rights to the game flies into Moscow for a meeting with Elorg, a department of the Soviet trade ministry. Or, if you will, the ‘secretive trade group’ housed in a ‘sparse communist-era workplace’ somewhere in the ‘sprawling city’. Soon, however, the prose settles down, and we are led readably through potted biographies of Pajitnov himself and the other players.

One is an American named Henk Rogers, who moved to Japan and — with the release of his own game The Black Onyx — popularised the Dungeons-and-Dragons-style role-playing game in that country. Another is Robert Stein, a Brit of Hungarian extraction who specialised in software-licensing deals between East and West. There are the big beasts of the Japanese corporation Nintendo. And then there is Robert Maxwell. Cap’n Bob’s software subsidiary, Mirrorsoft, had been sold Tetris rights by Stein before Stein had got a signed contract from the Russians. When Pajitnov’s handlers eventually sold the most lucrative rights to Rogers and Nintendo instead, Maxwell complained personally to his friend Mikhail Gorbachev. But the supreme leader had a few more important things on his mind in 1989, and gave Maxwell the brush-off. Before all these machinations were concluded, various versions of Tetris had appeared on PCs and home consoles, but Tetris’s global breakthrough moment really came when it was bundled with Nintendo’s new handheld console, the Game Boy, selling scores of millions worldwide.

The Tetris Effect is full of fascinating facts — for instance, that the trade negotiators at Elorg invited Nintendo to sponsor the USSR’s space programme. (Imagine the Nintendo logo on the side of a magnificent Soyuz rocket as it launches, they suggested. Nintendo politely demurred.) But it is very much a story about the business, rather than the culture or art, of video games. The Japanese genius Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Donkey Kong, Mario and Zelda, is mentioned in only eight lines. In the book’s most fascinating interlude, Ackerman describes the variety of mathematical papers that have been written about Tetris’s extreme complexity. There is currently no known way to analyse the game fully, even given as many computers and as much time as you like.

Ackerman spends time on suggestions that Tetris is somehow uniquely drug-like, and the interesting recent research that playing video games (including but not uniquely Tetris itself) soon after a traumatic event can alter the way the brain lays down memories, so potentially protecting the subject from PTSD. But the most poetic description of the game in this book comes from its creator, Pajitnov himself: ‘For me,Tetris is some song which you sing and sing inside yourself and can’t stop.’

Is Tetris the most important video game of all time? So Ackermann suggests, though an equal case could be made for Pong, or Space Invaders, or even Tomb Raider, which in the 1990s dragged games into mainstream style-magazine culture. But Tetris does remain special in its austere perfection. Arguably, indeed, it was its very abstraction that made it such a breakout success. Famously, Tetris was one of the first games to appeal to large numbers of women as well as men. There is a tongue-in-cheek hypothesis to the effect that this was because it is basically a game about tidying up; more relevant, doubtless, is that it was one of the few games of its time that was not about spaceships or goblins. To this day it feels inevitable, like a geometrical theorem: more discovered than created. And eventually, of course, the blocks pile up to the top of the screen in a jumble and you lose. So it’s also a perfect metaphor for life.