Modern art arrived as artists moved away from the strict representational qualities of Renaissance-era classicism. With the advent of Impressionism and Expressionism during the 19th century, the art world discovered a newfound emphasis on sensation and experience over strict visual representation, and this concern became all the more prominent during the 20th century. Abstraction was pivotal as artists moved away from literal depiction, rejecting imitation for evocation. Cubists like Picasso, Surrealists like Salvador Dali, and abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock had little interest in replicating the visible world, and it is amongst their works that we'd best understand the impact of Tetris.
Look at Pollock's famed No. 5, 1948. Certainly, we could describe its superficial aesthetics - the densely packed web of haphazard paint strands, the strings of yellow that stand out against the darker hues, the splotch of red in the center right - yet this would hardly capture its significance. To describe the real gravity of the work, we'd have to speak more subjectively of its emotional impact: the frustrated passion, the intoxicated dizziness, or the mixed fury and freedom one feels when viewing the work. It's an experiential piece, created in a whirlwind of booze, jazz, and fervor, and interpreted in any number of divergent ways depending on the individual's reaction. One might undervalue it at first glance; in some respects, No. 5, 1948 is primitive and one-dimensional when compared with the immense skill displayed in photorealistic portraits or landscapes. Yet to make such a comparison is to miss the point entirely.
Likewise, Tetris remains open to interpretation, and its rudimentary aesthetics can be deceiving. It functions not by immersive representation, but by association and impulse, relying on instinctive stimuli much deeper than the visual cortex. Like jazz, it's a work that you "feel" rather than read or interpret. Like Cubism, it models a different way of viewing the world, providing an experience both alien and familiar. Like improvisational theater, it employs unplanned patterns that emerge in real-time. And like all great art, it's a work that must be experienced rather than observed.
The magic of Tetris does not reside in a striking visual design, an ability to weave an intricate story, depict institutions, or speak to moral dilemmas, or in any other aesthetic quality that we associate with other art forms. Instead, much like Welles worked with uniquely cinematic qualities (editing and cinematography) and Pollock worked with uniquely painterly qualities (expressive splashes of color that have no parallel in photography,) the essence of Tetris is its uniquely "videogamic" properties: what you do rather than what you see or hear. It's the simple, compelling act of arranging blocks, of making rows disappear, and of finally succumbing to the increasing barrage that make Tetris one of the first masterpieces of this interactive medium - a work of videogame art, rather than a videogame emulating what art has already done. Tetris employs the semiotics of action, the unique manner by which games speak to the soul. It may defy any straightforward explanation, yet in one way or another, it speaks to each of us.
Robert Buerkle is a visiting professor of videogamery at the University of Pittsburgh (where he also teaches film studies.) When he's not teaching, he writes stuff.