Sep 30 2016

The Tetris Effect: The Game that Hypnotized the World by Dan Ackerman

Fred Benenson

web exclusive


The Tetris Effect:

The Game that Hypnotized the World

by Dan Ackerman

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$26 List Price

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Before you’re allowed to play Acid Tetris, the screen touts a warning: “This game has been known to cause severe keyboard damage.” Below the message, a deranged face gnaws on a PC keyboard and stares admonishingly at the user with the vacant intensity of a meth addict. I developed a vacation-ruining addiction to this freeware Tetris clone during high school, but it wasn’t my first encounter with the game: I had played the original Tetris obsessively as a seven-year-old on Nintendo’s Game Boy. And because I vaguely understood Acid Tetris’s predecessor as a rare instance of USSR-imported software that was able to achieve mainstream Western success, I wondered about my freeware clone’s connection to the original: Was the creator of Tetris getting paid for this version? How was it possible to make such an obvious clone and distribute it freely? The battle over the licensing rights to Tetris, the resulting reverberations the game caused in the world of video games and popular culture, and even geopolitical relations between the USSR and the West come together in Dan Ackerman’s book The Tetris Effect.

The title refers to a well-studied psychological phenomenon. The phrase was first coined by Jeffrey Goldsmith in a 1994 Wired magazine article describing a six-week Tetris bender he went on in the early ’90s. Seeing Tetris shapes in the world around him after an extended session of play led Goldsmith—and later, psychologists and mathematicians—to study the game’s effects on the brain, a topic Ackerman covers in “Bonus Level” chapters scattered throughout the book.

“Tetris imprints itself as both procedural memory, which guides frequent repetition of action, and as spatial memory, which deals with our understanding of 2D and 3D shapes and how they interact, ” Ackerman writes. Its immersive nature even gives it promise for use as a “cognitive vaccine” to treat PTSD in patients plagued by recurring flashbacks.

In “Bonus Level 2,” Ackerman delves into the mathematical implications of the game, elegantly investigating questions most serious Tetris players have had at some point: Is an infinite game of Tetris possible? Are there some combinations of blocks that are simply unworkable? The answers are exquisitely linked: Infinite games of Tetris are likely impossible because a long-enough string of Z-blocks—the most annoying Tetris block—can effectively end any game, and due to the nature of infinity and Tetris’s finite board design, this is bound to happen eventually.

The fact that Tetris raises mathematical questions is no accident. Bedridden for months with a leg injury at fifteen, Tetris inventor Alexey Pajitnov did math puzzles to ward off boredom. After recovering, he found that his passion for math and puzzles remained, and he eventually discovered a set of pentominoes. The five-unit shapes—similar to both the classic four-unit tetromino of Tetris and the well-known domino—can be combined into a mind-boggling array of configurations and designed into puzzles with thousands of solutions.

A decade later, while working as a computer scientist at the renowned Russian Academy of Sciences, Pajitnov spent his spare time experimenting with a pentomino-inspired game for the computer. Early prototypes were frustratingly banal. It took multiple iterations for Pajitnov to make the game actually fun. Along the way, he reduced the size of the blocks from five units to four, limited the board size to a narrow column, automatically removed “complete” rows, and dropped blocks from above. By constraining the degree of freedom in the game, Pajitnov expanded its immediacy and playability—a process familiar to creators working in all mediums.

Pajitnov’s first stable version of Tetris, reprogrammed for the IBM PC with the help of a local high schooler, was popular among computer scientists but had no immediate potential for financial return inside the Iron Curtain. “For all the unexpected success of the game,” Ackerman writes, “Pajitnov’s primary payoff was in the form of his name, with Vadim Gerasimov’s, on the title screen of the IBM-compatible version. Copies may have been traded for favors between friends or colleagues, but not a single one was sold, officially or otherwise, and not an extra ruble came into his pockets.” This, however, would change when licensors discovered copies of the game moving westward, through Hungary.

My intuition about Tetris’s licensing morass was not incorrect. It would take almost a decade for Pajitnov to be paid for creating what has since become one of the most iconic and beloved video games of all time. Tetris was selling briskly in American retail computer stores within years of his first prototype, but it (and Pajitnov himself) had become pawns in a complex and legal battle over the licensing rights to his game.

The machinations of international software-company negotiations is tricky material for a mass-market technology book, but Ackerman rises to the challenge. In the case of Tetris and its licensees, the stakes were unusually high. Not only were millions of dollars on the line, but the game’s addictive quality made it clear that it wasn’t just going to be successful, it was going to go viral. At the end of The Tetris Effect, Ackerman cites statistics to back this hunch: “Sales of authorized copies have brought in nearly $1 billion to date, with countless millions more pocketed over the years from unofficial versions.”

Pajitnov’s Tetris wasn’t the only brightly colored puzzle game to arrive from the East and achieve massive success. Erno Rubik, a Hungarian architect, had invented his Magic Cube (later renamed by its American licensor, Ideal Toy Corp.) in 1974, 350 million of which have been sold since 1980. And similar to Tetris, the Rubik’s Cube has been subject to countless knockoffs and pirated versions in spite of its legitimate Western licenses. Both puzzles also represented exceptions to currents of cultural appropriation. Instead of Eastern audiences coveting Western products, both the Cube and Pajitnov’s game were marketed to Western audiences not in spite of their origins, but because of them.

Games and intellectual property have a complicated relationship. While the mechanics at play in Tetris (falling blocks, clearing rows, etc.) cannot be copyrighted, the physical mechanisms behind the Rubik’s cube can be patented. This subtlety is what allows Zynga to publish Words with Friends, a mobile version of Scrabble, without licensing from Hasbro. But it is also what allows unscrupulous developers to unapologetically and lucratively reappropriate game formats from independent creators without fear of legal ramifications.

Cloning doesn’t just funnel money away from game inventors—it can also prevent them from being credited as the original author of a particular design. This was what most vexed the creators of Threes, a popular puzzle game released in 2014 designed by indie game developer Asher Vollmer and illustrated by Greg Wohlwend. The pair had spent over a year developing the game and released it with the relatively high price of $1.99 in Apple’s App Store. Vollmer’s decision to release Threes as a premium game with no ads and no in-app purchases represented a kind of righteousness not commonly seen the mobile gaming market: If players wanted to play a high quality puzzle, they should pay for it, not resign themselves to being inundated with ads or nickle-and-dimed for upgrades.

Within six days of its release, Threes was cloned by someone with no license and no intention of paying Vollmer a royalty, and many other clones proliferated. Vollmer’s addictive gameplay was being leveraged to make others rich.

Although the obvious clones were par for the course in the app development world, Vollmer discovered something more surprising: a clone of a clone. The free game 2048, named after another clone of Threes, 1024, was mechanically similar to Threes, but touted an uglier color scheme and fewer rules. 2048 became a massive overnight success, and in an especially unfair twist, people accused Vollmer of plagiarizing the very game mechanic he had created. Intent on setting the record straight, Vollmer released thousands of emails and images detailing the laborious creation of the game over fourteen months.

In the end, Vollmer was sanguine about 2048’s success, acknowledging that clones are an inevitable part of the business.

The branching of all these ideas can happen so fast nowadays that it seems tiny games like Threes are destined to be lost in the underbrush of copycats, me-toos and iterators. This fast, speed-up of technological and creative advances is the lay of the land here. That’s life! That’s how we get to where we’re going. Standing on each others’ shoulders.

That may be true, but it takes informed accounts, such as Ackerman’s book and Vollmer’s post, to properly untangle and reward the authorship of creators like Pajitnov. The Tetris Effect is the narrative Pajitnov and his timeless game deserve.

Fred Benenson has written about technology and games for 2600 and Wired magazine. He works for Y Combinator.

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