Q+A: The Legacy of Tetris

Tetris blocks flying

Nine years ago this month, thousands of people gathered at Eakins Oval in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art to play Tetris on the LED array on the 29-story Cira Centre skyscraper more than a mile away. The event, which set a Guinness World Record for being the largest architectural video game display, was a reminder of the lasting popularity of a game that was celebrating the 30th anniversary of its premier in America after an odyssey that began in Russia. The amazing story of the game’s journey is experiencing another cultural moment, thanks to the release of Apple TV+’s “Tetris” film.

Drexel University Professor Frank Lee, PhD, a professor in the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design and founding director of Drexel’s Entrepreneurial Gaming Studio in the ExCITe Center, brought the Giant Tetris event together in honor of the game’s anniversary and as part of Philly Tech Week, the city’s weeklong celebration of technology. Lee, who is a scholar of game design and an avowed Tetris enthusiast, has had some time to reflect on the event and the game’s legacy among gamers and game designers —after nearly four decades of block stacking. He recently shared his thoughts with the Drexel News Blog.

Why do you think Tetris was so successful when it was released? 

In terms of game design, Tetris is as close to the perfect version of the “easy to play, hard to master” game design philosophy. The game is super “easy to play” in that it requires no prior knowledge to play and the rules of the game are so simple that it can be taught in less than a minute. Anyone, regardless of age, can pick up and play the game in a few minutes. However, the game is “hard to master” in that it will always be challenging regardless of how long you have been playing Tetris.

In addition, there is high replay value to Tetris. Unlike games where you are presented with the same level repeatedly, to a point where playing it becomes rote, each game of Tetris is a new game, unlike any previous games of Tetris. This is because of the randomization of pieces, as well as the variable nature of micro decisions you make with those pieces. It is unlikely you will be faced with exact same configuration. Hence, each game feels new, and each game requires constant and meaningful decisions that will affect all future decisions. Unlike games that rely on memory-based decisions, you must be constantly vigilant and there is no time for your brain to get bored.

How has its popularity endured in a world where myriad new games are released each year?

I think it has endured because of its simplicity and its abstractness — the game appeals to a wide range of ages and is timeless.

To give an extreme example, if the game was about fighting monsters on Mars, like “Doom,” for example, it would appeal to a certain demographic; if the game was about following the life of Kim Kardashian, like “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood,” it would likely appeal to a different demographic.

But Tetris is just simple geometry, and it doesn’t bring with it any cultural context or baggage. That is the reason Tetris is still being remade — even now, almost 40 years later. It should come as no surprise that Tetris has the Guinness World Record for being the most ported video game, meaning whenever a new system comes out, Tetris will likely have been and will continue to be made for it.

In 2014 as part of a giant Tetris celebration at Philly Tech Week and in honor of the game’s 30th anniversary, you had the opportunity to meet Henk Rogers, who co-founded The Tetris Company with Alexey Pajitnov, and Maya Rogers, Henk’s daughter and current CEO of The Tetris Company — all of whom are portrayed in the recent Apple TV+ movie about Tetris. What were you able to reflect on about that moment of celebration, and how Tetris has affected your lives?

Although I had the privilege to meet and chat with Henk, the person I probably talked with the most was Maya. As she was the new CEO of the Tetris Company, I had to work closely with her and her colleagues to work out the details of the event. I remember having dinner when they were here for the event and was able to share with them about my love of Tetris and how the event was a love letter to my younger self — remembering the time in the late ’80s and early ’90s when I was totally absorbed with Tetris on my Mac. 

Reflecting on the Cira Tetris event itself almost 10 years later, how do you think it affected folks in attendance, who participated, or who saw it across the city? 

Now, I wouldn’t dare to compare Cira Tetris to “Rocky,” but just as the “Rocky” movie has done, Cira Tetris has become part of the cultural fabric of Philadelphia. After almost 10 years, it is still talked about by people who were there, who saw it across the city, and even people who saw it on the news. 

What do you see as the lasting cultural impact of Tetris? 

Tetris will always be an icon among game players and game designers. It’s not surprising that Tetris was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2015. But even among many superb and groundbreaking games recognized by the Hall of Fame, I think it is unique among them, because of its timelessness.

A lot of games are about someone or something. “Tomb Raider” is about a character called Lara Croft raiding tombs. Pacman is about a character eating dots and chasing, or being chased, by ghosts. Tetris is about geometry and geometry is timeless. And therefore Tetris is timeless.

Media interested in talking to Lee should contact Britt Faulstick, executive director, News and Media Relations, at bef29@drexel.edu or 215.895.2617

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