At 35, Buzz Aldrin had rocketed to the moon, Robert Louis Stephenson had written The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, while astronomer Frederic William Herschel had invented the contact lens. On World Tetris Day, 6 June 2019, the block rotating computer game will celebrate its 35th birthday. But, just what is the enduring attraction of this iconic computer game?

So, what is the enduring appeal of blocky graphics, block turning and row falling? According to Dr Tom Stafford from the University of Sheffield, the game appeals to our human compulsion to tidy up. It is also a pure game, says Dr Stafford. ‘There’s no benefit, there’s nothing to learn, there’s no social or political consequences.

In fact, it’s almost completely pointless, but keeps us coming back for more.’ Dr Stafford goes on to say: ‘Tetris is so moreish that one writer once described it as a pharmatronic - an electronic with all the mind-altering properties of a drug - with the Tetris Effect leaving players seeing falling shapes in their mind’s eye even after they’ve finished playing.’

Immersed in the process 

Researchers have identified that Tetris uses epistemic action, which means players become immersed by thinking with the game rather than about the game. It’s not about the graphics, or the visual experience necessarily. Adam Alter, writer of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked says: ‘The hardship of the challenge is far more compelling than knowing you are going to succeed. The game allows you the brief thrill of seeing your completed lines flash before they disappear, leaving only your mistake.’

The Zeigarnik effect

However, Dr Tom Stafford believes the Zeigarnik effect is what makes the game so compelling. Bluma Zeigarnik, a Russian psychologist, studied waiting staff at her local café and observed the waiters were able to remember huge orders, which were instantly forgotten the moment they were paid for. She surmised, in her paper published in 1927, that the brain is able to remember unfinished tasks much more easily that completed tasks, which is why the brain is so attracted to Tetris - a challenge that, until game over, is always unfinished.

Blocks are continually falling from the sky, the terrain is continually changing and the task of rotating the blocks to fit them together continues and gets faster and faster. Dr Stafford believes that the ‘genius of Tetris’ is that it takes advantage of this memory hook for uncompleted tasks that involves us in a compulsive loop of completing and generating new tasks that keeps us endlessly playing, wanting to do the next thing.’

A favourite childhood puzzle

Tetris was originally created in 1984 by Alexey Pajitnov, an artificial intelligence researcher, based at the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow, in order to test hardware. Based on a favourite puzzle board game he played as a child, Pajitnov’s original Tetris was created using seven shapes, all made up of four squares called Tetriminos. As he developed the game, he realised that completed lines filled up his computer screen too quickly, thus the disappearing bottom row was born. The game was named after tetra the Greek for four and tennis, the creator’s favourite sport.

The Russian games designer and programmer, originally created Tetris for an Electronika 60. However, after positive feedback from his colleagues, the game was ported to the IBM PC and went viral across the Soviet Union in the following year. Two years later, the game arrived on PCs in Europe and the US. And by 1988, Henk Rogers, who discovered the game at a Las Vegas trade show, took it on licence, worldwide. In the years that follow, Tetris spawned popular games such as Candy Crush, it was monetised, received a Mensa award, formed part of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Tetris even became the first computer game to make it into space.

A very modern therapy

Since its creation, the therapeutic use of Tetris has been explored by gamers and scientists alike. Indeed, Alexey Pajitnov, the game’s creator said: ‘We have an inherent desire to create order out of chaos, and Tetris satisfies that desire on a very basic level, while being easy to understand and quick to learn.’

Tetris has been used in over 30 scientific studies, including research into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, right through to the treatment of lazy eyes and the control of diet. Through extensive tests, scientists found that playing Tetris actually increased neurological efficiency in the part of the brain that controls critical thinking and reasoning.

Dr Rex Jung said: ‘One of the most surprising findings of brain research in the last five years was that juggling practice increased grey matter in the motor areas of the brain.’ The neuropsychologist continued: ‘We did our Tetris study to see if mental practice increased cortical thickness, a sign of more grey matter. If it did, it could be an explanation for why previous studies have shown that mental practice increases brain efficiency. More grey matter in an area could mean that the area would not need to work as hard during Tetris play.’

Improves spatial awareness 

The Tetris website also credits the game with helping people judge spatial awareness, making them more efficient at real life tasks such as packing the boot of their car, loading a dishwasher or even organising shelves.

Pajitnov says of his creation: ‘Tetris is a very simple game, but it appeals to many players because it's both visually and intellectually challenging.’ The Tetris strapline - we all fit together - reflects the universal attraction of the game to players across the globe of all ages, genders and from every background.

Tetris is the most played electronic game in the world with literally billions of games being played each month. To celebrate its 35th birthday, Tetris is set to evolve its brand appeal with a whole host of new games, fashion, toys and more across a huge global network thanks to partners in the United States, Israel, France and Mexico.

A truly global brand

Maya Rogers, President and CEO of Blue Planet Software, the sole agent for the Tetris brand, said: ‘The Tetris brand has reached an amazing 35 years as one of the most renowned video game brands of all time, and is today as popular, if not more so, than ever before among fans worldwide. We’ve been hard at work to make this an incredible celebratory year, and I’m excited about the many new Tetris-branded merchandise products and experiences that we’ll be revealing throughout the months ahead.’