Extended Comments from Tetris Interview

Bill Loguidice's picture

As mentioned last week, my commentary as part of the Vilcek Foundation's article on Tetris and its creator, Alexey Pajitnov, was published. As also mentioned - and something that I typically like to do anyway - I said I would publish the extended commentary that did not fit in the article. Check it out below, where the questioner is Joyce Li and the answers were supplied by me, Bill Loguidice:

QUESTION: Why is Tetris considered to be the start of casual gaming? What was the video game market like before Tetris became available?

ANSWER: Casual gaming actually started well before Tetris. In fact, it was a casual arcade game, Atari's Pong, way back in 1972, that was the first big videogame hit. What happened was was that as the videogame industry matured and technology advanced, developers started to move away from the more casual experiences that first brought them success and began to introduce games with increasing levels of complexity. This delighted those who were really into videogames as there were some amazing creations, but it also began to alienate those who either didn't have or didn't want to invest the time needed to learn or get into them.

When Tetris finally came along in the mid-80's and really hit it big on the GameBoy in 1989, it became the poster child for what came to be referred to as casual gaming because it epitomized all of the concepts. Anyone can figure out how to play Tetris in a matter of moments, it can be played in either short bursts or marathon sessions, and, thanks to how it was originally conceived and developed, it didn't need powerful hardware or sophisticated controls to fully enjoy the experience. What also didn't hurt Tetris's amazing success was that it was simply a fast moving puzzle game with no trimmings, so there was never an issue with violence or any other type of controversial content that might turn someone sensitive to such things off. It was truly an international hit with every age and gender, and either officially or unofficially appeared on nearly every platform possible.

QUESTION: There are a lot of recent studies that attempt to show both harmful and positive effects of gaming. Given that Tetris is one of the most cerebral, and yet addictive games, do you believe that video games can be either psychologically harmful or helpful?

ANSWER: Videogames have a unique place amongst the various forms of media in that it's the only one that requires active participation. Instead of sitting back and watching, listening to, or reading a predetermined outcome, the player is the one who determines what happens next. This is incredibly empowering and as a result can trigger an addictive response in those susceptible. Think of this as the equivalent of someone taking their first drink of beer. Some can then go their whole lives drinking in moderation, while others soon become raging alcoholics. It's the same thing with videogames. Most are able to incorporate videogame play as part of a balanced lifestyle, while a select few overdo it and let it take over a disproportionate amount of their existence. In this way, videogames are no different than countless other things that have the potential for abuse.

QUESTION: Did Tetris have any lasting influence over later video game design or programming?

ANSWER: I think as videogames were moving on an upwards trajectory towards valuing sophistication and technology over gameplay, Tetris came along and proved that you could have as much or greater commercial success with the inverse. In this regard, Tetris remains the best example of how innovation and clever ideas can trump big budgets and a business-as-usual approach to game design. As such, Tetris's influence continues to be felt each time a single developer or small team of creative people create a hit game because they were able to take a page from Pajitnov's playbook. It doesn't hurt that Tetris is like the Rocky of videogames, becoming a huge success against all possible odds, from its genesis in Soviet Russia to myriad of legal battles. If that's not inspiring for other underdogs who believe in their own abilities and hard work, I don't know what is.

QUESTION: Given the advances in design, graphics, storylines and other aspects of video games, why is Tetris still as popular as it remains today?

ANSWER: Simply put, a classic is a classic for a reason. Tetris is just about as close as you can get to a perfect videogame, with just the right mix of approachability and depth to keep people coming back for more. It's like The Beatles music catalog being re-released for every new form of media since their initial release as record albums. People have their favorites, Tetris being one of them, and they want to keep experiencing it when they move on to the latest technology, be it a new game console, a new cell phone, or anything in-between. Since Tetris's engaging gameplay was never dependent upon any particular type of graphics, sound or control requirement, the experience remains extremely portable. You're all but assured that as long as any new technology has some type of display and the simplest of controls available, Tetris in one form or another will be on it, and people will buy it.