Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Addictive Power of Tetris

Sometimes games don't need impressive graphics or storylines to make them addictive.  A game could, for example, entail merely blocks of various shapes and colors falling into a large rectangular screen...slowly at first, then faster, then at a nearly dizzying pace...while players feverishly use their controllers to flip said blocks and find a spot for them to neatly settle.

The first person to be addicted to Tetris was none other than the game's creator, Alexey Pajitnov.  As he confessed in Wired (1994), he was "instantly hooked":

You can't imagine. I couldn't finish the prototype! I started to play and never had time to finish the code. People kept playing, playing, playing. My best friend said, 'I can't live with your Tetris anymore.'
Tetris can be so addictive that the term "Tetris Effect" was created to describe when one dedicates so much time to something that it becomes part of their dreams and thinking patterns, such as when one experiences looking at a set of objects and pictures fitting them together after playing a considerable amount of Tetris. What is it about such a simple game that creates such addiction?

The addiction stems from several phenomena. Ever feel like you're getting a high off of playing a video game? You very well may be. When players begin to play Tetris, there is a great increase in the cerebral glucose metabolic rate (i.e. the brain's energy consumption). This elevation is what leads to players feeling wired and 'high."

For the lovely lady who gracefully crosses her legs and
 gets down with some Tetris.
Compulsive factors are also at play in the addiction to Tetris. Being able to constantly make changes to the blocks until the very last moment that they land can also be a cause for Tetris addiction, according to Vladimir Pokhilko, who assisted with developing and marketing the game. These up-to-the-last-millisecond changes- "unfinished actions" are coupled with repetition- something necessary for addiction. And we own these changes and they are, therefore, visual representations of emotions for us.

Additionally, Tetris has the thrill of organizing, minimizing, and decluttering, evoking pleasure. This is pleasing both to people who love to organize as well as to those who have little organization elsewhere in their lives and can play Tetris to feel as though they have control. Tetris is a game in which a constant stream of new "blocks"- which can be interepreted psychologically as whatever is plaguing the player- are falling into the player's view...and they need to be handled. Don't handle them and they will overwhelm the screen- and the player- causing defeat. Organize them and triumph. In this way, the player can feel control over the blocks- and therefore his or her life- while they are neatly stacked and organized.

Tetris has taught us that combining the brain's energy consumption rate with feelings of compulsion, completion, and organization can create severe addiction to a video game. Google and one will easily find support groups, clubs, and players reaching out for a cure. Tetris leaves important cues for game developers in addicting the public to their creations. The powerful diversion can be seen as noble at times; studies have shown Tetris to be an effective treatment for those with post-traumatic stress disorder because of its distracting capabilities.