If you were one of the lucky few who had a Gameboy in 1990, then you were playing Tetris. Since then, just about anyone who has had access to a games console or computer or smartphone or tablet has played the game. It is reckoned by many to the best game ever, with nearly 500 million copies actually paid for, nearly five times as many as its nearest rival. What is the secret of its phenomenal success?
The Story of Tetris
As is well known, Tetris started as an idea developed in his spare time by Russian mathematician Alexei Pajitnov. It was circulated privately in the USSR for years before coming to the attention of western software developers who then became engaged in a cat-and-mouse war to get hold of the rights, eventually won by Nintendo. The story is the subject of a recent book by Dan Ackerman, called The Tetris Effect.
Although the developers knew they were onto something special, it is unlikely they guessed just how special Tetris would become.
Tetris is an incredibly simple game, which is why it did not require an army of code-writers to produce it. Unlike today’s serious games with their involved storylines and brilliant effects, it does not require super-fast computers or the best gaming monitors to get the optimum rewards.
With no plot or characters to identify with, Tetris is accessible to all. Young and old alike enjoy it and it has been a bonding force between parents who felt left behind in the digital revolution and their children. Just four squares moving in one direction—all you have to do is shift them left, right, or rotate. It sounds boring but it is, as anyone knows, incredibly addictive.
Rewards for the Brain
The reason for the game’s success is probably down to its ability to hit the spot with some very basic pleasure mechanisms in our psyche.
The human brain is stimulated by challenges but doesn’t like to be overwhelmed by them. Every time a shape appears, it presents a new challenge, one that is anticipated in general but not known in detail. The brain seems to lock onto that challenge and enjoy it.
Our brains are also programmed to respond to small rewards. Every time we get a shape to fit into the ‘right’ space it triggers a reward feedback, and every time a line disappears we get a thrill of triumph. When we beat our previous best we get an even greater buzz. Because these rewards are never withheld for long we can keep coming back without getting disheartened.
So strong is the reward mechanism that some psychologists believe it can even help in the treatment of addictions by focusing the mind on the present visual stimuli and blocking out other mental images.
A Worldwide Winner
With books about Tetris and talk of not one film but a whole trilogy, it seems that the fascination with the game will never end. Not bad for a mathematician’s digital doodling.
Jacob Simpson writes about technology and gaming in his articles. A geek at heart, Jacob works for a software company by day, and is a coder and gamer by night.