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The curious Cold War origins of Tetris


At the Bookforum website, Fred Benenson reviews The Tetris Effect: The Game That Hypnotized the World by Dan Ackerman, which tells the surprising origin story of the first truly addictive video game. As Benenson writes, Tetris was invented in the mid-1980s by a Russian mathematician, but it failed to find a significant consumer market in the USSR. It then followed a circuitous underground route to the West, where it became a huge hit in the US, despite the Cold War tensions between the two countries. Here’s an excerpt from Benenson’s review:

The fact that Tetris raises mathematical questions is no accident. Bedridden for months with a leg injury at fifteen, Tetris inventor Alexey Pajitnov did math puzzles to ward off boredom. After recovering, he found that his passion for math and puzzles remained, and he eventually discovered a set of pentominoes. The five-unit shapes—similar to both the classic four-unit tetromino of Tetris and the well-known domino—can be combined into a mind-boggling array of configurations and designed into puzzles with thousands of solutions.

A decade later, while working as a computer scientist at the renowned Russian Academy of Sciences, Pajitnov spent his spare time experimenting with a pentomino-inspired game for the computer. Early prototypes were frustratingly banal. It took multiple iterations for Pajitnov to make the game actually fun. Along the way, he reduced the size of the blocks from five units to four, limited the board size to a narrow column, automatically removed “complete” rows, and dropped blocks from above. By constraining the degree of freedom in the game, Pajitnov expanded its immediacy and playability—a process familiar to creators working in all mediums.

Pajitnov’s first stable version of Tetris, reprogrammed for the IBM PC with the help of a local high schooler, was popular among computer scientists but had no immediate potential for financial return inside the Iron Curtain. “For all the unexpected success of the game,” Ackerman writes, “Pajitnov’s primary payoff was in the form of his name, with Vadim Gerasimov’s, on the title screen of the IBM-compatible version. Copies may have been traded for favors between friends or colleagues, but not a single one was sold, officially or otherwise, and not an extra ruble came into his pockets.” This, however, would change when licensors discovered copies of the game moving westward, through Hungary.