Who among us has not heard of, or at least once played this fiendishly absorbing game of dropping bricks down a shaft? Or uttered words that would have turned the air purple, every time we dropped a block at the wrong place, or in the wrong orientation? Who among us has not stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, doggedly playing game after game, long after our senses and reflexes have left us, all in the name of achieving another high score?
For the few who are uninformed, Tetris, more commonly known as the Brick Game, is an incredibly simple, yet devastatingly difficult arcade-style game, that involves manipulating a series of blocks as they drop down a pit. The objective of the game is to line up the blocks at the bottom of the pit so that there are no holes in between. Every time a complete row is formed, the row disappears and points are awarded. However, incomplete rows stay until they are eliminated: or until your reflexes fail you and you are left with a pit full of haphazardly-arranged blocks.
Even in today's world, where the electronic gaming market is dominated by high-end, high-calculation computer games and video-quality graphics, Tetris remains as popular and engrossing a game as it was 20 years ago when it first emerged.
Why is Tetris so popular still? How has it withstood the test of time? What is it about this simple little game that has us all glued to the screen, feverishly tapping away at the keys of our computers or the consoles of our video game sets, dropping brick after brick after brick down a bottomless shaft of despair?
The Game of Tetris
Life Before Tetris - the Invention of Video and Arcade Games
When computers were marketed as household items and before Tetris, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong (and a host of other simple two-dimensional games) came into our lives, there were simple mechanical games, pinball, shooting gallery games and fortune-telling machines.
No one knows what the history of video and computer gaming might have been like had William Higginbotham, a scientist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, not decided to build an open house exhibit that would enable visitors to learn even as they were entertained. He built a device1 using a Donner analogue computer hooked up to an oscilloscope, which he programmed to display the trajectory of a moving ball. By attaching a switch to the computer, users were able to control a horizontal line at the bottom of the screen and thus change the direction of the ball's movement. This game, called 'Tennis for Two', was an instant attraction when it made its debut in October, 1958.
However, in contrast to most people's beliefs, it was not Higginbotham who invented the first video game. His machine was strictly a demonstration item, and it was dismantled after the exhibition. No attempts were made to commercialise the game, nor were any patents filed.
It took Steve Russell, Nolan Bushnell and Ralph Baer to bring video gaming to the consumer market. Russell, who deserves the title of Father of Computer Gaming, was the first to program SpaceWar, the first computer game of any sort, on a refrigerator-sized PDP-1 computer at MIT. 20 years later in 1969, Bushnell extended Russell's concept to the arcades, and created Computer Space, which had a raster-scan TV monitor display2. At about the same time, September 1966, Ralph Baer came up with the notion of playing games on a standard TV set. His machine, the 'Brown Box', was built at Sanders Associates in 1967 and licensed to Magnavox in 1970. Just two years later, the machine hit the consumer market as Odyssey 1 TL2003 and sales reached 100,000 units that year alone, thus making Baer the Father of Home Video Games.
The Dawn of Tetris
In the mid-1980s, Dmitry Pavlovsky noticed a high school student named Vadim Gerasimov, when he was writing a directory encryption program for MS DOS. Pavlovsky, a computer game fan, who had himself written a number of games for a mainframe, asked if Gerasimov would be interested to collaborate in converting the games into PC format, and in developing new game ideas. Gerasimov, who was of course very interested, turned one of Pavlovsky's games into PC format overnight - thus securing their collaboration deal. Pavlovsky was undoubtedly impressed, for he soon introduced the 16-year-old student to Alexey Pajitnov4, who had not only written but also sold a couple of his psychology-related games. Eventually, the three decided to team up to develop addictive computer games for sale at a computer funfair.
The Birth of Tetris
Before Pavlovsky and Gerasimov came along, Pajitnov had written a game called Genetic Engineering, in which players assembled figures out of four-square pieces5 (tetraminoes). This time Pajitnov wanted to create a game where tetraminoes fell into a glass. He was convinced it would be addictive. Excited, Pajitnov wrote it for Electronica 60 at the Moscow Academy of Science's Computer Centre, which Gerasimov subsequently converted to IBM PC format. They fiddled with it for another year or so, adding features to it. Simultaneously, Pajitnov and Gerasimov developed a two-player bottomless-glass version of the game where two players (whose pieces fell from opposite ends of the glass) competed for space in the container.
The Pajitnov-Pavlovsky-Gerasimov games failed. Devastated, Pajitnov decided to abandon all the games except for Tetris, a decision that destroyed the team. The upside to this was that Pajitnov also managed to patent Tetris. Eventually, however, all three parted company. Pajitnov then teamed up with Henk Rogers to found the Tetris Company.
The Politics of Tetris
The Struggle for Control
In July 1986, Tetris found its way to Budapest, Hungary, where it was converted to Apple II and Commodore 64 format by local programmers. These versions caught the attention of Robert Stein, President of the British software house Andromeda, who decided to get the rights to the PC version of Tetris from Pajitnov and, simultaneously, the other versions from the Hungarians. Even before the creator or the Moscow Academy were contacted, the rights to Tetris had already been sold behind their backs to Mirrorsoft UK and Spectrum Holobyte6.
In November 1986, a contract was wired to the Academy for the rights to Tetris. Pajitnov never gave the go-ahead; Stein flew to Moscow to sign the contract anyway. However, there was no deal between Stein and the Russians. Obviously disappointed, Stein decided to turn tables around for the obstinate Russians, who knew very little about Tetris, by claiming Tetris was invented by the Hungarians and not Pajitnov.
While Stein was struggling with the Russians, Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte released the IBM PC version of Tetris, thus unleashing the first wave of mass addiction in the history of Tetris7.
In June 1987, partial victory came to Stein. He'd finally managed to obtain the licence to make Tetris for PC and other compatibles; however his triumph was short lived. When Tetris hit the home computer market in January 1988, it created such a sensation that the CBC Evening News was compelled to interview its creator, Alexey Pajitnov. Alexander Alexinko, the director of ELORG (Electronorgtechnica), a new company that had taken over game negotiations with Pajitnov, found out that Stein had been giving out rights that he did not own, and threatened to cut Stein off from all deals.
Stein was obviously furious and threatened to make the bickering an international affair. In the end, ELORG allowed Stein to make Tetris solely for PCs. He was by no means to make or market arcade or handheld versions, or any other mediums to come.
In July 1988, Stein and Alexinko met. Stein wanted rights to arcade versions; Alexinko wanted money from Stein. It is supposed that neither one profited much from the meeting.
More Players in the Game
While Stein and Alexinko were bickering over rights, more companies became ensnared in the Tetris crisis. Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte had gone ahead and sub-licensed their rights, with the effect that Bullet-Proof Software (sub-licensed by Spectrum Holobyte) and Atari Games (sub-licensed by Mirrorsoft) fought over rights to Tetris in Japan. Nintendo of America wanted to make Tetris a pack-in game; BPS president Henk Rogers (who is now CEO of Blue Planet Software, which controls most of the Tetris licence today) was unable to get the rights from Stein. Thus, Stein ran into a bit of a mess with ELORG CEO Evgeni Belikov when he showed the Famicon version to the Russians; Belikov was shocked because he never gave Rogers the licence; Rogers claimed he'd got it from Tengen, whom Belikov had obviously never heard of. Things got stickier when it was revealed that Maxwell was not aware that his own company had given rights to Atari Games.
At the end of the day, Maxwell had the right to bid on any rights remaining on Tetris, Stein had the rights to the arcade version, and ELORG had conclusive evidence that the Famicon cartridges were pirated.
In 1989, Rogers managed to wangle home video game rights for Nintendo. Mirrorsoft, Andromeda and Tengen had their licences revoked. Furious, Tengen filed an application for a copyright of the 'audiovisual work, the underlying computer code and the soundtrack' of Tetris for the NES8, and subsequently sued Nintendo. Robert Maxwell, on the other hand, tried to get both the Soviet and British governments to intervene. This created conflict between the Soviets and ELORG
The Court Confrontation
In June 1989, the court case between Tengen and Nintendo began. Earlier in 1989, Belikov had made Stein sign an alteration to the original contract defining computers as 'PC computers which consist of a processor, monitor, disk drive(s), keyboard and operation system'. Now the court battle was focusing on that one point: was the Nintendo Entertainment System a computer or a video game system?
Atari argued that the NES was meant to be a computer, due to its expansion port and the existence of a computer network for the Famicom (short for 'family computer') in Japan. Nintendo's argument was more to the point: the Russians at ELORG had never had the intention of selling the video game rights to Tetris; the definition of 'computer' in Stein's contract proved it.
With regard to the injunction Tengen and Nintendo had given each other to stop manufacturing and selling their respective versions of Tetris, Judge Fern Smith decided that neither Mirrorsoft nor Spectrum Holobyte had been granted the video game rights, so therefore it could not have legally given those rights to Tengen, and therefore ruled in favour of Nintendo.
So, What's the Score?
Today, Blue Planet Software (with Henk Rogers as CEO) is the largest player in the game, controlling the licence to all PlayStation, PC and Nintendo Gameboy versions of Tetris. It is ironic that the creator of Tetris himself, Alexey Pajitnov, had made nearly no money out of the game itself until recently when, with the financial backing provided by Henk Rogers, he organised the Tetris Company LLC and finally received royalties for his game.
Epilogue - the Tetris Conflict Today
If I were taking the exact Tetris game and selling it, I would understand. But they're trying to say the concept of falling blocks being manoeuvred - and any game that operates similar to that - is copyrighted. They're simply wrong.
- Gary Mace, President, Mace Software
When Tetris hit the game market, it was inevitable that variants of the game would pop up all over the world in the years to follow, especially when the Internet revolution came about. A number of Tetris variant-producing companies have run into trouble with the Tetris Company this way. In 1998, the Tetris Company threatened to take legal action against Mace Software for coming up with a game called Alphatris, which is a Tetris-like game with letters instead of blocks. The company had also sent letters to a number of smaller game developers insisting that they remove their Tetris variants from websites.
Of course, most of these companies were resentful. A large number of developers felt that Tetris should be freely available to all, maintaining that the Internet should be a free, information-sharing environment. Many of them also felt that because concepts and ideas could not be copyrighted, the Tetris copyright should not include variations of manipulating falling blocks.
Alexey Pajitnov made the following argument in defence of his game:
If somebody makes the game that has nothing to do with falling shapes, we don't care about that. But if somebody just repeats the game, with some insignificant feature and calls it Tetris or something close to Tetris, then they're violating our rights to the game.
However, one is just not sure just if Pajitnov and his company entirely understand the copyright law that is protecting their game. To quote United States copyright law:
In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.
- The Copyright Act of 1976
(It is interesting to note at this point that the Tetris Company does not appear anywhere in the US Copyrights Office records.)
In addition, despite the fact that ideas can be patented, the Tetris Company had never applied for one, nor did they ever attempt to defend their trademark (they maintained that since Tetris clones have been around for as long as the original and that the Tetris Company had never done anything, then it could be argued that they had lost any valid trademarks they had). They had however claimed a 'look and feel' copyright. It is worth noting, however, that the last time a game company (Capcom) tried to sue another company on these grounds, they lost the case. Many developers retaliated by asserting that since they were from other countries, US copyright law could not possibly apply to them.
The issue is still unresolved. However, a number of disgruntled developers have united in their stand against the Tetris Company.
The Science of Tetris
I Dream of Tetris - More than just a Game
In September 2002, a newlywed man was jailed for four months for playing Tetris on his mobile phone on board a plane bound for Manchester. He had ignored the warnings of the cabin crew twice to switch off his phone and so had been found guilty by a jury of endangering the safety of an aircraft.
What is it about Tetris that makes it so compelling to gamers and non-gamers alike? Why do we sit in front of the computer hour after hour, rotating tetraminoes as they fall at increasing velocities down a shaft? Why is it that long after we have turned off our PCs or Gameboys, we lie in bed, sleepless at night, thinking, 'if I rotate that block and move it all the way to the left, it will plug up that hole and make another row vanish?' And why is it that even after we have fallen asleep, our brain continues to play the game of Tetris at the backs of our minds?
Recently a number of scientists led by Robert Stickgold at the Harvard Medical School used the game of Tetris to study the purpose and content of dreaming. Out of the 17 subjects they trained to play Tetris, more than 60% dreamt of images associated with the game. Their findings from the experiment fortified the idea that the brain used dreaming to reinforce learning. Moreover, they found that those who improved the most were those who had eight hours of sleep, which allowed for both the slow-wave and rapid-eye movement (REM) periods of sleep.
In a later study, they recruited a number of Tetris novices and experts, and five amnesiacs who had no short-term memory owing to lesions in the hippocampus. The results of the experiment were interesting. All novices (who were initially the worst at playing the game) reported dreaming of falling blocks whereas only five of the ten experts dreamt of the game. But perhaps more surprising was the results of the amnesiac group. Even though they could not remember the game the next day and had to be taught from scratch, all the amnesiacs nevertheless unconsciously placed their fingers on the right keys for playing the game at the start of each new session.
The team is currently using Tetris to study the wake-sleep barrier to understand the underlying connection between the mind and the brain. And you thought Tetris was only for gamers...
Tetris is a Hard, Hard Game
The basic design of Tetris is fairly simple: you get a bunch of differently-shaped pieces. All these pieces have to fit at the bottom of the screen in such a way that they don't leave holes. So why is it that even if you are a Tetris expert, you will, at some point, wind up with a massive pileup of blocks?
In 2002, Erik D Demaine, Susan Hohenberger and David Liben-Nowell of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took the game of Tetris apart to see what made it tick. They concluded that even when a player had knowledge of the 'future' (ie what pieces were coming), there was nevertheless no efficient way of optimising any of the game's objectives, such as maximising the number of rows cleared or maximising the number of 'tetrises' (clearing four rows simultaneously)9. Their paper was called 'Tetris is Hard, Even to Approximate'.
Furthermore, these scientists10 found that Tetris was an NP-hard problem; which essentially meant that it was hard to solve and building an algorithm to play Tetris quickly and efficiently would leave Sisyphus thankful he only had a boulder to roll uphill.
However, Demaine said in Scientific American 'Galled players should not despair unnecessarily. While you're playing Tetris, you're really solving hard problems'. David Eppstein added 'There is no simple strategy; It's mathematical justification for something we had an intuitive feeling for.'
Why Keep on Playing?
The Tetris effect is a biochemical, reductionistic metaphor, if you will, for curiosity, invention, the creative urge. To fit shapes together is to organise, to build, to make deals, to fix, to understand, to fold sheets. All of our mental activities are analogous, each as potentially addictive as the next.
- Jeffrey Goldsmith
We Tetris gamers must be gluttons for punishment. We sit in front of our computers for hours on end, usually in uncomfortable, straight-backed chairs, braving the glare of the screen and the hazards of radiation, our eyes watering and hazing over from the excessive strain as our fingers frenetically tap the up and down and left and right keys in a never-ending quest for achieving the perfect score.
Again the question arises: what compels us to go on playing? Why do most of us find Tetris more addictive than, say, Tomb Raider or Duke Nukem?
At the University of California at Irvine's Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, Richard Haier did something in 1991 that no one had ever done before; he scanned the brains of Tetris gamers.
Haier saw in Tetris a tremendous learning curve. To quote Haier:
The question became: when the stimuli are faster and the decision-making is harder, does the brain require more energy? He probed further and found, to his expectations, that the brain actually required less energy, a phenomenon Haier described as 'counterintuition'. This was consistent with the brain efficiency idea.
To understand this phenomenon better, we must explore the effect of Tetris on the human brain. For first time users, Tetris significantly raises cerebral glucose metabolic rates (GMRs), which means that brain energy consumption soars; however, as the user receives prolonged continuous doses of Tetris, the GMRs returns to normal while on average the performance increases sevenfold. This means that Tetris trains your brain to stop using inefficient gray matter, which is probably a key cognitive strategy for learning, it also explains why one gets elevated GMR highs. In fact, Haier found that it was the players who were best at dealing with Tetris's Daedalian geometry who had the lowest brain GMRs.
Vladimir Pokhilko, who was the one who convinced Pajitnov that Tetris would make a sensational computer game11, had this to say about the game:
The main part is visual insight. You make your visual decision and it happens almost immediately. Insight means emotion: small, but many of them, every two, three seconds. The second mechanism is unfinished action. Tetris has many unfinished actions [that] force you to continue and make it very addictive. The third is automatization: in a couple of hours, the activity becomes automatic, a habit, a motivation to repeat.
And repeat it we will. Over and over again we will play this relentless game, struggling against the vicious pressure of time to beat the machine in a game that we think we will win by persevering against the odds, but has actually triumphed over us from the moment we started because it has succeeded in embedding itself in our thoughts, our dreams and our lives.
The Future of Tetris
A Little Block in a Game of Giants
The computer revolution that began some hundred-odd years ago continues to storm through our world. Today we no longer have 286s and Commodore 64s, we have number crunching Pentium IV 2.4 GHz processors. We no longer have to contend with flat, cheesy blocky, pixel-y black-and-white graphics, we have beautiful n-million-colour, video-quality graphics and 3D animation. It is all too easy for us to say that the computer game market has been taken over by breathtakingly gorgeous and highly interactive games such as Final Fantasy and Myst. The creation of the Internet means that there are no more barriers or boundaries between us, that it is possible for a nine-year-old schoolboy in Japan to engage in a highly competitive game of WarCraft with, say, a 37-year-old businessman in Canada. The limelight has now been focused on number-crunching games. The simple little games of the arcade days have passed their prime, and have now been tucked away in some dark little corner of the toy box along with the spring toys and marionettes.
Or have they?
We have seen classic games like Pac-Man and Frogger and Space Invaders disappear off the shelves and the arcades within years of their creation; we have also seen their return in conjunction with the new wave of video game consoles that have flooded the market; PlayStation and Game Cube, to name but two - in the form of 3D, beautifully-rendered million-coloured graphics games with multiplayer options, music and detailed missions. Generics have hit the Internet, the palmtop market, even our mobile phones.
And Tetris, it seems, has never been out of style. Tetris has always been popular among the handheld battery-operated game fans. Who among us has never before heard of the infamous Brick Game? Originally a simple game of blocks falling down a rectangular frame, we have seen variants of Tetris spawn all over the gaming world; 3D Tetris, colour-stick versions (eg. Tetris 2000), Laser Blocks, Kentris, to name but a few. In addition, Blue Planet Software has licensed 50 million copies of Tetris, making Tetris the most popular computer game in history12.
What is the future of Tetris? Will its reign as the world's leading game continue? Or will it be left in the dust as more advanced, more sophisticated games sweep through the market? Most of the evidence we have seen around us suggest otherwise. Gorgeous, video-quality RPG and action-adventure games may appeal to those of us who seek the brief adrenaline surge and eye candy, and those of us who seek refuge from a world where reality has become unreal. But as long as there is an itch at the back of our heads and an anxious need to exercise our brains and tax our reflexes in an attempt to prove ourselves in this enormous gaming arena called life, there will always be the need for Tetris.
M Beer, J Fries and D Walsh, Pushed past the brink, SFGate.com, 24 September, 1998.
Copyright Law in the United States.
ED Demaine, S Hohenberger and D Liben-Nowell, 2002, 'Tetris is Hard, Even to Approximate', Computer Science (preprint).
J DeMocker, 1998, Tetris Pressures Game Act-Alikes, Wired News, 4 December, 1998.
V Gerasimov, 1998, The Story [of Tetris]
J Goldsmith, 1994, This is your brain on Tetris, Wired, Issue 2.04
S Graham, 2002, 'Mathematicians prove Tetris is hard', Scientific American, 29 October, 2002
William Hunter, 2000, From 'Pong' to Pac-Man
K Leutwyler, 2000, 'Tetris Dreams: How and When People See Pieces From the Computer Game in their Sleep Tells of the Role Dreaming Plays in Learning' Scientific American 16 October, 2000
Man jailed for plane Tetris game. CNN.com/world
H Pearson, 2002, 'Maths Proves Tetris is Hard', Nature Science Update 28 October, 2002
Ralph Baer. Who Did it First?
The Tetris Saga. Itsr's NES Archive.