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Tetris's tumultuous history pulls all the pieces together

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/9/2016 (861 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Tetris: the colours are bright, the music is instantly recognizable and the game is intensely addictive.

In case you’re one of the few people who’s never played the video game, red, green, yellow, blue and orange blocks in different configurations fall from the top of the screen to the tune of faux-folksy Russian music.

The blocks keep coming and coming and coming, and your job is to create solid lines from these seemingly-random shapes. Eventually, they start falling so fast you can’t keep up, and the screen fills up, bringing the game to an end. Once it does, most people just start all over again.

Now, the history behind this more than 30-year-old video game reveals a story almost as fascinating as the game itself. In The Tetris Effect: The Game That Hypnotized the World, New York technology writer and editor Dan Ackerman has crafted a detailed look at the complex negotiations for the rights to this seemingly simple game.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/9/2016 (861 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Tetris: the colours are bright, the music is instantly recognizable and the game is intensely addictive.

In case you’re one of the few people who’s never played the video game, red, green, yellow, blue and orange blocks in different configurations fall from the top of the screen to the tune of faux-folksy Russian music.

The Canadian Press files</p><p>Russian programmer Alexey Pajitnovinvented Tetris in 1984.</p>

The Canadian Press files

Russian programmer Alexey Pajitnovinvented Tetris in 1984.

The blocks keep coming and coming and coming, and your job is to create solid lines from these seemingly-random shapes. Eventually, they start falling so fast you can’t keep up, and the screen fills up, bringing the game to an end. Once it does, most people just start all over again.

Now, the history behind this more than 30-year-old video game reveals a story almost as fascinating as the game itself. In The Tetris Effect: The Game That Hypnotized the World, New York technology writer and editor Dan Ackerman has crafted a detailed look at the complex negotiations for the rights to this seemingly simple game.

"Tetris is bringing order to disorder. It’s the internal struggle against the non-stop onslaught of daily life, in all its colourful randomness, seeming to fall on you from the sky," he writes.

Ackerman’s approach is to start the story in the middle, then move back to the beginning, building curiosity and tension as he goes. He obviously did his research, particularly with first-person interviews, but uses a more narrative flow, without citations and quoted interviews to slow things down.

The original Tetris file was only 27 kilobytes, about half the size of most Word document files. Created as a side project by Russian programmer Alexy Pajitnov, it went through several iterations before being shared widely throughout the country and the Eastern Bloc, after which it was noticed by commercial distributors in the West.

Once the West became interested in the game, the Soviet bureaucracy got involved.

Eventually, the Soviet-state computer programmer had to waive his rights to the game and sign ownership over to the state.

Soviet bureaucrats had never dealt with a negotiation like this before, and struggled to understand the concepts of capitalism and intellectual property.

The behind-the-scenes drama of the licensing rights should be made into a movie. A Hungarian-born software licenser, a Czech-born media mogul, representatives from Nintendo and American software distributors were all involved in some of the first commercial deals for the project.

Ackerman deftly puts the pieces of the story together, from the chronological history of events to the personal and technical aspects of this convoluted tale. He peppers the story with interesting Tetris facts, such as the rarest artifact or different world records.

For a non-gamer or someone who started gaming after the 1980s, it can be a bit technical, but the history of technology is important, and the story of Tetris lays the groundwork for better understanding the roots of computing and gaming today.

"Tetris is a unique example of an idea, a product and an era coming together at exactly the right moment," Ackerman says.

He also talks about the game’s addictive qualities and how it affects the brain, a phenomenon actually known as the Tetris effect. If you’ve ended up imagining the shapes and playing the game in your mind’s eye, well, you’re not alone.

He notes, "Tetris can change your mental state and can literally rewire memory or perception, sometimes permanently." There’s even new research that shows Tetris might be able to help reduce cravings and aid with addictions treatment.

The back and forth between the various interested parties dealing with the game was vastly complicated, but Ackerman manages to make it accessible and easy to read. He includes an epilogue and updates the outcomes for everyone involved in the story.

In The Tetris Effect, Ackerman has put the right pieces in the right places to create a well-written history of a game that still fascinates the world.

Julie Kentner is a Winnipeg writer that pretty much minored in Tetris at university, and only occasionally dreams of where she should put that pesky red z-piece.

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