Magazine article American Scientist

Soviet Blocks

Magazine article American Scientist

Soviet Blocks

Article excerpt

THE TETRIS EFFECT: The Game that Hypnotized the World. Dan Ackerman. 272 pp. Public Affairs, 2016. $25.99.

TETRIS: THE GAMES PEOPLE PLAY. Box Brown. 256 pp. First Second, 2016. $19.99.

What is it about Tetris? How did this inspired little game, which started out as a piece of freeware designed to run on the Russian DjieKTpoHHKa 60 Microcomputer (Electronika 60 in English), transform into an international bestseller generating billions of dollars? Thereby hangs a tale-and 30 years on, two books have appeared to tell it. The Tetris Effect, by technology journalist Dan Ackerman, and Tetris, by Ignatz Award-winning cartoonist Box Brown, hit bookstore shelves within months of each other. Yet each ushers readers along a distinct and enlightening path.

The story behind the pioneering game Tetris is complex, spanning the worlds of technology, psychology, entertainment, politics, and business. Still, the core narrative is in some ways familiar. A videogame phenomenon emerges maybe once or twice a decade: It appears to come out of nowhere; then all at once everyone seems to be playing it. Pac-Man, Myst, Famrville, The Sims, Angry Birds, and Candy Crush are among a short list of games that became household words, acquired hundreds of millions of players, and generated billions in revenue. When Tetris exploded onto the gaming scene in the late 1980s, it did all these things too. At the same time, its impossible simplicity made it stand apart.

The game of Tetris has no luscious artwork, no characters, no story, no social features, no set of painstakingly hand-crafted puzzle levels. The gameplay is nothing more than this: Seven blocks, arranged in a handful of predetermined shapes, descend one by one onto a 10-block by 20-block grid as a player tries to rotate the shapes neatly into place, making room for more. Gradually the shapes fall faster, then faster yet until the grid fills and the game ends. That's it.

The game was invented in 1984, but there was no technological reason it couldn't have been created years earlier. The Atari 2600, for example, released in 1978, was a powerful enough system to run a game like Tetris-and had Tetris existed, it could easily have been the most addictive and popular game for the 2600. But that didn't happen of course, because no one had thought of a game anything like Tetris.

The one who did think of it was Alexey Pajitnov, a Russian computer scientist who was supposed to be working on artificial intelligence projects. Instead, he kept thinking about how to make a computer version of the beloved pentominoes game he grew up playing. Pentominoes are puzzle pieces, each composed of five squares presented in one of 12 different configurations. But the notion of recreating these classic wooden puzzle pieces within a computer game was a little overwhelming. Then it occurred to Pajitnov that he could simplify the pieces into tetrominoes, which would have only four squares each, for a total of seven unique pieces. He set to work creating the game, but early versions (fashioned under the less appealing title "Genetic Engineering"), which simply allowed a player to arrange the tetrominoes freely in a rectangle, were dull and static. But a moment of inspiration changed the playing experience entirely: Pajitnov added time pressure. Tetrominoes would fall one after another from the top of the screen; whenever tetrominoes were rotated and nudged into place to fill a 10-block row of the grid, that row of blocks would disappear, freeing space for more blocks and enabling the game to continue a little longer. This mixture-a spatial puzzler intensified by time pressure-turned out to be addictive. Pajitnov could hardly stop playing. When he showed the game to his colleagues, they were skeptical at first. Yet one by one, they too found themselves caught in the compulsion loop that Tetris generates in almost everyone who plays it.

What exactly makes Tetris so compelling is a matter of much debate. …

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