Just why is Tetris so addictive?

The classic game is an exercise in futility. That's the point, says science...

Just why is Tetris so addictive?

[ Mark Lennihan/AP/Press Association Images]

In the history of gaming, Tetris stands apart as not just another brick in the wall.

Developed by Alexey Pajitnov, who in the middle of the 80s was working as a computer programmer at the Soviet Academy of Sciences, the classic game was originally cobbled together as a way for him to test how well an obsolete computer was working. Quickly writing the code, the game involved an endless wave of assorted blocks tumbling down the screen, with gamers required to create a solid line to delete them.

It goes without saying that the game was an immediate hit, spreading quickly across the USSR as bootleg copies were made. It made it past the Iron Curtain to arguably the home of decadent Western capitalism, appearing in 1988 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas as a home PC game.

A pop-culture icon

Smelling a hit, Dutch software designer Henk Rogers, then living in Japan, hopped on a plane to Moscow to secure the handheld rights, taking them back to Tokyo where he presented a unique licensing opportunity to Nintendo. A Tetris cartridge would go on to be included with every sale of the gaming giant’s game-changing Game Boy in 1989, instead of the planned Super Mario launch title. Despite having expectant fans up in arms, this shrewd decision would prove a turning point in pop culture, establishing Tetris as one of the most instantly recognisable games in the world.

A screenshot of how the original Tetris looked [Wiki Commons]

Tetris is a very simple game, but it appeals to many players because it’s both visually and intellectually challenging,” Pajitnov said upon the game’s 30th anniversary in 2014.

“I think that’s what makes the game so addictive. We have an inherent desire to create order out of chaos and Tetris satisfies that desire on a very basic level, while being easy to understand and quick to learn.”

Pajitnov is right, Tetris is addictive, despite it being the gaming equivalent of Sisyphus, its gameplay grounded in the humbling fact that there is no way of winning. It’s about delaying losing for as long as possible. Classic Tetris has no final boss, rather it is a solitary expression of fallibility, with the Tetronimoes, as the blocks are known, guaranteed to stumble you at some point.

Convincing Nintendo to supply Tetris with every purchase of the Game Boy saw it flog more than 40m copies worldwide [Pixabay]

The science of failure

But it’s this futility that keeps us hooked, according to writer Adam Alter, whose book Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked explores the enduring popularity of a pointless game.

“The hardship of the challenge is far more compelling than knowing you are going to succeed,” Alter writes. “The game allows you the brief thrill of seeing your completed lines flash before they disappear, leaving only your mistakes. [...] It is in this sweet spot – where the need to stop crumbles before obsessive goal-setting – that addictive experiences live.”

The addictive qualities of Tetris are well documented by science, with the game a central component in many studies over the last 20 years. As early as 1994, Wired reported that people losing their Tetris virginity, as well as getting its unbearably catching Russian folk song caught in their heads, also see a major boost in their cerebral glucose metabolic rates, with the brain consuming energy at a significantly heightened level.

Over the years, further studies have offered more insight into why this takes place, with research from 2009 finding that playing Tetris can increase neurological efficiency in the parts of the brain governing reasoning and critical thinking. Another study from the same year published in PLOS One, saw Oxford scientists claim that playing Tetris may help reduce the build-up of flashbacks triggered by traumatic events.

Tied, as flashbacks are, to sensory perception and mental imagery, the Oxford experiment asked volunteers to watch a series of videos containing scenes of injury and death. Thirty minutes later, the researchers offered some of the group the chance to play Tetris, with this group seeing a “significant reduction in flashback frequency” over the week-long observation window.

Craving the incomplete

A similar study, published in Appetite in 2014, claimed that playing Tetris could kerb hunger cravings by as much as 24%. The researchers used the game to test Elaborated Intrusion Theory, which hypothesises that visual tasks can decrease cravings and the craving images we call to mind when hungry.

Another reason why Tetris might prove so enduringly popular lies in the textbook psychological phenomenon known as the Zeigarnik Effect. Coined after another Russian, Bluma Zeigarnik, she was a psychologist who observed how the waiting staff in her local cafe in the 1930s showed an incredible capacity to remember orders of large groups right up to the point that they were served, at which point they would instantly fade from memory. Now the Ziegarnik Effect refers to a whole class of problems where incomplete tasks lodge into our memories.

Tetris is the ultimate unfinished task, with each new solution only appearing with each new problem, a never ending conveyor belt of challenges and solutions. Tetris takes hostage the brain’s pleasure in getting things done, with every player finding pleasure in the short-term success. Even if we know it’s going nowhere.

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