Day 6

The secret, cold-war history of Tetris and how the game hypnotized the world

In his new book, tech writer Dan Ackerman tells the story of Tetris, the most successful viral video game of all time, of how it escaped the crumbling ruins of the Soviet Union to make it to Game Boys in time for Christmas and why PTSD researchers still find the game so instructive.
(PublicAffairs)
Listen9:44

Dan Ackerman has covered video games and gaming culture for 20 years and says his career is about looking at technology's place in history. So when it came to write a book, he wrote about Tetris.

"It's the ultimate game for non-gamers" says Ackerman, whose book The Tetris Effect, The Game That Hypnotized The World, comes out September 6th. "Your mom played - everybody played it - but they didn't necessarily see themselves as video game people."

But while he says the game's strength is its mass appeal, it's Tetris' cold war roots that attracted him most.

He says the game was copied onto floppy discs and passed from person to person. "They called it 'the sneakernet' because you literally had to walk it over," says Ackerman, who also works as an editor at the U.S. tech website CNET.

Eventually, the game ended up in Hungary where people from the west saw it and realized there could be something behind the iron curtain that was worth importing.


The race to Russia
 

British, American, and Japanese tech moguls raced each other to Russia in hopes of securing the rights.

It was a race Nintendo would win thanks to the gumption of Dutch computer programmer Henk Rogers, who snuck into the country and backchanneled his way to a winning bid.


"It was a big leap of faith for Nintendo to make a handheld game machine that no one had seen before, and instead of Mario, they put an unknown game called Tetris on it," says Ackerman.


The simple act of stacking geometric shapes to create complete lines has captivated millions of game players since 1984.


The Tetris Effect


Over its 32 years of life, Tetris has grown to become more than just a game. It's become part of our language, a common understanding in the way we describe chaos and order and it scientific tool.

"Cognitive scientists around the world use Tetris in experiments because it affects different centres of the brain in a way that few others games do," Ackerman says.

The Tetris Effect, a concept after which Ackerman named his book, afflicts those who repeat a certain action - like playing Tetris - over and over.

A player might dream about falling tetrominos or see images of falling shapes at the edges of their visual fields or when they close their eyes. More recent examples include apps like Candy Crush or Bejeweled.

Neuroscientists also use Tetris as a tool to minimize the effects of PTSD by helping people remember things that happened to them, but do so without debilitating flashbacks.

"When looking at how memories are written in the short-term part of the brain to storage in the long-term part of the brain, they found that certain visuospatial activities can disrupt that process, "says Ackerman.

Dan Ackerman's book, The Tetris Effect, The Game That Hypnotized The World, is out September 6th. It's published by PublicAffairs.


To hear Brent and Dan's full Tetris talk, click the 'Listen' tab at the top of the page.