Imagine that I tell you about a particular creative work that has been engaged by millions upon millions of people all over the world. Many people interpret it differently – as emblematic of contemporary existence, as an unachievable fantasy, as political allegory, or as a metaphor for life itself. Yet although inviting a wide variety of interpretations, in truth, there is no singular or “proper” way of comprehending the piece. It is a work that haunts people’s dreams and that changes the way they look at the world, a work that people find themselves coming back to again and again. And though different people have different opinions or reactions to it, there seems some universal quality about this work that speaks to everyone familiar with it in some powerful way. Sounds like we ought to put it in a museum, doesn’t it? I’m talking, of course, about Tetris.
Over the years, a variety of players and critics have offered their own “reading” of Tetris. Literacy scholar James Paul Gee, for example, sees Tetris as an obsessive-compulsive fantasy unattainable in our haphazard lives, offering a satisfying perfection where everything fits together. By creating a smoothly logical world ruled by a comforting sense of order, Tetris allows “an escape into the very desire for order, control, and workable solutions that we have all the time,” according to Gee, “a desire often frustrated in life, but never in Tetris.”
Critic and author J.C. Herz suggests that Tetris is instead about the badly arranged blocks that need to be organized, triggering an anal-retentive desire to tidy up and watch the accumulation disappear. “It’s about detritus raining down on your head, trash falling into messy piles and piling up until it finally suffocates you,” she says, and the challenge is simply to negotiate the refuse and make the mess go away. “It’s not about blowing things up. It’s about cleaning things up.”
And MIT professor Janet Murray suggests that Tetris provides the perfect metaphor for workaday monotony, where every completed task is replaced by a new one and “success means just being able to keep up with the flow.” For Murray, Tetris embodies the unending toil of the desk job, “the constant bombardment of tasks that demand our attention and that we must somehow fit into our overcrowded schedules and clear off our desks in order to make room for the next onslaught.”
But it’s not only critics and academics who offer such thoughtful interpretations of the game.
Political philosophers focus on the game’s emergence from the late days of the Soviet Union, suggesting the game as embodying (or critiquing) communist ideology: the anonymity of a society where all the unique and individual pieces merge together and become indistinguishable from the mass; the governing authority that maintains harmony by organizing and utilizing all the disparate members of society; the inevitable systemic collapse as the societal foundation becomes increasingly weak and fragmented and the powers-that-be can focus only on the most immediate problems.
Cynics read Tetris through its commonly experienced moments of poor luck, whether evincing the cruelty of the universe as life refuses to provide that one simple piece that would make everything come together, or a world in which one unfortunate and irreversible mistake makes all our plans end in ruin.
And existentialists read Tetris as a grand metaphor for life and death. The player works and strives to stay alive, continually struggling to avoid the death that occurs once the blocks reach the top of the screen, yet as time goes by, staying alive only becomes more and more difficult, as the inevitability of death creeps closer and closer, since Tetris offers no win-condition. Playing Tetris, then, is merely a struggle to stave off death for as long as possible, where the point is not winning or losing, but rather the experience that precedes the end.
Of course, none of these readings are the “correct” one, and designer Alexey Pajitnov likely did not intend any particular meaning to his most famous work, yet even those who do not annunciate their own metaphorical reading of Tetris still find that it speaks to them in some powerful way.
Many have had the experience of playing Tetris for hours on end, absorbed in the hypnotic task of maneuvering blocks into place over and over and over again and later wondering where those lost hours went. Even more telling is the phenomenon of “Tetris dreams,” an occurrence with which many of us are likely familiar, and which has been reported by psychologists at Harvard Medical School who found that over 60 percent of those who play significant amounts of Tetris see floating tetraminoes while they sleep. Most striking was that this even occurred in players with severe amnesia who couldn’t remember playing the game (“I see images that are turned on their side,” said one participant. “I don’t know where they are from. I wish I could remember, but they are like blocks”). Other studies have shown Tetris to be so deeply affecting as to help reduce post-traumatic stress disorder and increase brain efficiency, and even popular culture acknowledges the prevalence of waking Tetris moments, as we look at geometrical elements in the world around us and suddenly envision a Tetris landscape that we want to arrange in some orderly, grid-like manner.
Despite its mode of expression seeming incomparable to our traditional notions of art and media, Tetris undoubtedly means something to the people who play it. It is a powerful and deeply affecting work, one that seems timeless and transcendent in its ability to captivate audiences. More than 25 years after its Soviet debut, players still repeatedly come back to Tetris. At once simple and sophisticated, Tetris achieves those varied qualities that we associate with the finest works of art: tension, balance, rhythm, structure, sublimity. It absorbs its player wholly and speaks in a language and logic all its own, creating a fluid experience of assemblage and gravity. It replaces our world of chaos with perfect and simple order, then gradually descends back into turmoil. It creates left-brain rapture. It is enchanting.
Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Alexey Pajitnov’s Tetris. Among the pantheon of great works produced by the 20th century, Tetris fits comfortably. Yet while we frequently hold the cinema as our aesthetic yardstick for evaluating videogames (Can games emulate the photorealism of the camera? Can they emotionally invest us in their fiction?), modern art better supplies the tools with which we can best appreciate Tetris.
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.