Top ten Tetris takeovers

The cult game turns 30 today! From fashion to politics, we count down the addictive block party’s best moments

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Mirador-Building-by-MVRDV-and-Blanca-Lleo-photo-Lu
The Mirador Building by MVRDV and Blanca LLeo Photography by Luis Garcia, GIF by Axel de Stampa

Isn’t it nice when things just fall into place? That’s how Russian programmer Alexey Pajitnov must have felt when his video game idea proved a huge hit – and not just with his fellow office workers. Tetris, the simple game about stacking shapes and clearing lines, turns the big 3-0 today – but did you know it started out as a tool for Russian propaganda? Or that it has the power to erase traumatic memories? Here’s ten ways that Tetris has tidied up the competition in the last three decades.

INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS TETRIS

Ah, to be Russian in the 80s. You’ve got a solid day job in the USSR, a keen interest in psychology and enjoy the occassional puzzle. And then you get a brilliant idea – except it’s not yours, really. Alexey Pajitnov, credited with inventing Tetris, didn’t get the rights to the game until 1996. When Gorbachev rose to prominence as General Secretary in 1985, it marked the beginning of Perestroika and a more 'open' era for the USSR. It's in the spirit of this period that Tetris became a key political player: it was the first ever game exported to the West from the USSR.

The early versions are true Soviet kitsch: all 8-bit onion domes and Russians-in-space. And Tetris has remained a symbol of shaky American-Russian relations from those first inklings of Cold War recovery in the mid-80s right up to the present day. At this year’s Sochi Olympics, the closing ceremony featured giant Tetris blocks that spelled out the word “impossible” – an unwitting reflection of the instability that marks today's East/West relationship. With the American view of Putin's actions at their least favourable ever, true friendship between the two countries is proving as impossible a fit as a square tetris block.

Tetris 1987 SpectrumHolobyte
Soviet kitsch: 1987 edition

“I KNOW THIS TUNE" TETRIS

The impossibly catchy Tetris tunes originate in Tchaikovsky, Bach, and, most notably, a 19th century Russian folk song. The real stars, however, are the decades worth of weird and wonderful cover versions they have spawned. One crooner who can put his success down to his game-playing habit is Smooth McGroove, whose a capella version of “Type A” – the most recognisable theme – has got over two million views.

HUMAN TETRIS

The Japanese have a knack for taking modern pastimes and multiplying their intensity by a thousand. I’d give a well-deserved high score to whoever came up with Human Tetris, or Hole in the Wall, in which contestants have to contort their body to fit through different shapes in a wall that is rapidly moving towards them. I mean, have you ever tried to make a tetronimo with your body?

FASHION TETRIS

Tetris has been doing colour-blocking since 1984. Flash forward to AW 14, though, and we find dresses, tops and skirts carefully cut like jigsaw puzzles. Proenza Schouler, Topshop Unique and Thakoon were all feeling the patchwork effect – a sure-fire high score combo for the new season. 

Proenza Schouler AW 14
Backstage at Proenza Schouler AW 14 Kathy Lo

HACKER TETRIS

Tetris works because it’s simple, but that hasn’t stopped hackers from trying their hand at a little customisation over the years. Enter the Tetris printer algorithm: created by Michael Birken, it creates pixel art of other video game characters – Mario, Link, Ms. Pac-Man et al – within an actual game of Tetris.

tetris-art-algorithm
An algorithm as ultimately pointless as the game itself Michael Birken

SKY-HIGH TETRIS

For a game with a downwards trajectory, fans have increasingly looked skywards for their Tetris fix in recent years.  The tallest takeover yet came to Philadelphia last month – to launch the city’s tech week, fans on the ground could play their favourite game on the side of the 29-storey Cira Centre. From Soviet pastime to Skyscrapers: a wonderful symbol of the American appropriation of a Russian icon, wouldn’t you say?

Tetris Philadelphia Skyscraper
Gamers used joysticks to control Tetris LED panels on the skyscraper Still via YouTube

SELF-IMPROVEMENT TETRIS 

Contrary to popular belief, it turns out that playing a video game like Tetris might actually be good for you. Research has shown that playing Tetris can lead to a thicker cortex and may also increase brain efficiency. What is more, addiction to Tetris could reduce the strength of your other cravings – you can ward off desire for food, cigarette and alcohol by playing Tetris for just three minutes. Tetris uses the brain’s perceptual channel, as opposed to its contextual one. In other words, it’s mindless, and this very mindlessness not only distracts us from unpleasant or harmful memories, but also has a beneficial effect.

Tetris Brain efficiency
Red areas show where practice led to a thicker cortex; the blue shows more efficient brain function after practice Biomed Central Ltd

ARCHITECTURAL TETRIS

With its stacked, self-contained blocks that fit together just so, Tetris provides endless inspiration for efficient modular living spaces in cities. Pixelated projects have ranged from Socialist block-style living to the current trend for container cities. But, more than static blocks, Tetris is about movement – enter French architect Axel de Stampa, who wants to reveal the truly "alive" nature of buildings through his series of playful gifs.

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The New Museum by Sanaa Photo James-Ewing, gif Axel de Stampa

LITERALLY INFINITE TETRIS

Could you keep playing Tetris forever? The question was first asked by John Brzustowski in his 1992 thesis. His formula concluded that the game will always come to an end, and it’s to do with those pesky S and Z shapes. Simply put, the occurrence of those shapes will eventually force players to leave holes in corners, ultimately ending the game. Avoiding Game Over is possible, however, in more modern versions of the game – all you need is a random generator of pieces, a hold feature and at least 3 piece previews. And to really not be busy.

Game Over Tetris
via girls-of-gaming.tumblr.com

THE TETRIS EFFECT 

You know something’s up when you see Tetris shapes everywhere you look: on buildings, in your cereal, on TV. Coined by Jeremy Goldsmith in 1994 and extensively researched since, the Tetris Effect describes the mental state by which devotion to any given activity will begin to pattern thoughts, mental imagery and dreams. The unfinished business of a perpetually uncompleted task will emerge IRL: players see falling blocks in their peripheral vision, and feel a need to organise things into neat lines. Your brain on Tetris is like your brain on an electronic drug – and yep, there’s the grim comedown to match.

Office Space Tetris
Cult film procrastination in Office Space (1999)
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