BBC Future column: The Psychology Of Tetris

Last week’s BBC Future column. The original is here. There’s a more melancholy and personal version of this column I could have written called ‘I lost years of my life to Sid Meier’s ‘Civiliation’, but since the game is now out on iphone I didn’t have time to write it.

How the secret to the popular game’s success is that it takes advantage of the mind’s basic pleasure in tidying up and uses it against us.

Shapes fall from the sky, all you have to do is to control how they fall and fit within each other. A simple premise, but add an annoyingly addictive electronica soundtrack (based on a Russian folk tune called Korobeiniki, apparently) and you have a revolution in entertainment.

Since Tetris was launched on the world in 1986, millions of hours have been lost through playing this simple game. Since then, we’ve seen games consoles grow in power, and with it the appearance of everything from Call of Duty to World of Warcraft. Yet block and puzzle games like Tetris still have a special place in our hearts. Why are they are so compelling?

The writer Jeffrey Goldsmith was so obsessed with Tetris that he wrote a famous article asking if the game’s creator Alexey Pajitnov had invented “a pharmatronic?” – a video game with the potency of an addictive drug. Some people say that after playing the game for hours they see falling blocks in their dreams or buildings move together in the street – a phenomenon known as the Tetris Effect. Such is its mental pull, there’s even been the suggestion that the game might be able to prevent flashbacks in people with PTSD.

I had my own Tetris phase, when I was a teenager, and spent more hours than I should have trying to align the falling blocks in rows. Recently, I started thinking about why games like Tetris are so compelling. My conclusion? It’s to do with a deep-seated psychological drive to tidy up.

Many human games are basically ritualised tidying up. Snooker, or pool if you are non-British, is a good example. The first person makes a mess (the break) and then the players take turns in potting the balls into the pockets, in a vary particular order. Tetris adds a computer-powered engine to this basic scenario – not only must the player tidy up, but the computer keeps throwing extra blocks from the sky to add to the mess. It looks like a perfect example of a pointless exercise – a game that doesn’t teach us anything useful, has no wider social or physical purpose, but which weirdly keeps us interested.

There’s a textbook psychological phenomenon called the Zeigarnik Effect, named after Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. In the 1930s, Zeigarnik was in a busy cafe and heard that the waiters had fantastic memories for orders – but only up until the orders had been delivered. They could remember the requests of a party of 12, but once the food and drink had hit the table they forgot about it instantly, and were unable to recall what had been so solid moments before. Zeigarnik gave her name to the whole class of problems where incomplete tasks stick in memory.

The Zeigarnik Effect is also part of the reason why quiz shows are so compelling. You might not care about the year the British Broadcasting Corporation was founded or the percentage of the world’s countries that have at least one McDonald’s restaurant, but once someone has asked the question it becomes strangely irritating not to know the answer (1927 and 61%, by the way). The questions stick in the mind, unfinished until it is completed by the answer.

Game theory

Tetris holds our attention by continually creating unfinished tasks. Each action in the game allows us to solve part of the puzzle, filling up a row or rows completely so that they disappear, but is also just as likely to create new, unfinished work. A chain of these partial-solutions and newly triggered unsolved tasks can easily stretch to hours, each moment full of the same kind of satisfaction as scratching an itch.

The other reason why Tetris works so well is that each unfinished task only appears at the same time as its potential solution – those blocks continuously fall from the sky, each one a problem and a potential solution. Tetris is a simple visual world, and solutions can immediately be tried out using the five control keys (move left, move right, rotate left, rotate right and drop – of course). Studies of Tetris players show that people prefer to rotate the blocks to see if they’ll fit, rather than think about if they’ll fit. Either method would work, of course, but Tetris creates a world where action is quicker than thought – and this is part of the key to why it is so absorbing. Unlike so much of life, Tetris makes an immediate connection between our insight into how we might solve a problem and the means to begin acting on it.

The Zeigarnik Effect describes a phenomenon, but it doesn’t really give any reason for why it happens. This is a common trick of psychologists, to pretend they solved a riddle of the human mind by giving it a name, when all they’ve done is invented an agreed upon name for the mystery rather than solved it. A plausible explanation for the existence of the Effect is that the mind is designed to reorganise around the pursuit of goals. If those goals are met, then the mind turns to something else.

Trivia takes advantage of this goal orientation by frustrating us until it is satisfied. Tetris goes one step further, and creates a continual chain of frustration and satisfaction of goals. Like a clever parasite, Tetris takes advantage of the mind’s basic pleasure in getting things done and uses it against us. We can go along with this, enjoying the short-term thrills in tidying up those blocks, even while a wiser, more reflective, part of us knows that the game is basically purposeless. But then all good games are, right?

7 Comments

  1. Posted October 29, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    “My conclusion? It’s to do with a deep-seated psychological drive to tidy up.”

    Making order out of disorder.

    But nature is inherently messy. The storm off the east coast of North America is going to make things messy.

    Things are going to be fixed, insurance claims are going to be filed.

    You could claim it is purposeless to clean up, another storm is going to come next year.
    But people are going to clean up and rebuild.

    You look at the Tetris game like it is an enemy “uses it (the mind’s basic pleasure in tidying up) against us”.

    The game is just an entertainment. The thing you are fighting ( you enjoy pleasure) is yourself.

  2. nancylebovitz
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    I think Tetris combines the pleasure of getting things to fit exactly with the pleasure of dropping things from a great height in a way which isn’t possible in the real world.

    I don’t see tetris in the outside world, but if I play a lot of a game, I can get game sequences (not whole games) appearing when I close my eyes. This applies to Zuma Delux as well as Tetris.

  3. KN
    Posted October 30, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Tetris has also had significant effect on psychological theory, particularly in showing how actions are used for cognition, via the paper “on distinguishing epistemic and pragmatic action”, by Kirsh and Maglio.

  4. Nolly
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    And then there’s this example of how much Tetris has penetrated our psyches:

    Russian history, Tetris-style

    • therealsomini
      Posted November 5, 2012 at 1:08 am | Permalink

      That video is not shared enough. Simply brilliant!

  5. Posted November 1, 2012 at 1:54 am | Permalink

    One explanation of the compelling nature of Tetris is in the statement above that it is constantly creating a question and a quick answer. Wolfram Shulz and others discovered that the brain predicts constantly. The prediction of reward spikes dopamine. When a prediction is wrong it too spikes dopamine and attention and significance. So you are getting constant anticipation, lots of unpredictability and intermitent reinforcement of reward (when the block goes in right). You are in the thralls of a dopamine pump – not too unlike a slot machine.

  6. Bru
    Posted November 4, 2012 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    Nice article, but I have a nitpick

    Snooker is not pool. They use different rules, balls, cues, and tables.

    Sorry, just that “deep-seated psychological drive to tidy up” kicking in.


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