The Tetris effect: the power of video games

While one writer talks about the ‘dark side of video games’, Kim explains their power and why research into Tetris and post-traumatic stress disorder is a good thing.


Title overview

Name: Tetris
Developer: Alexey Pajitnov
Publisher: Various
Release date: June 1984
PEGI rating: 3
Platforms: Game Boy, Game Boy Colour, Mac, Mega Drive, NES, PC
More information: Official website

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Kim says…

I recently came across an article in The Telegraph which opened with the line: “Games can help heal from trauma, and might even be used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” The newspaper had picked up on research completed by Doctor Emily Holmes and her team at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Cognition and Brain Services Unit (CBU), which found that a dose of Tetris after being exposed to a traumatic experience reduced the number of subsequent flashbacks. It’s all too common for journalists to claim that video games are the cause of violence, sexism and exclusion, so this piece came as a refreshing change and I decided to read on.

Unfortunately however, author Laurence Dodds’ tone changed in his final paragraphs. He states that there’s a ‘dark side to all of this’: “In [certain] circumstances, games actually become tools of self-harm – a way to endlessly discipline yourself, and mess up your life as surely as starving.” For every person open to viewing video games as a positive medium, you can almost certainly guarantee that there’s one right behind them ready to declare that they’re the root of all evil and surely mean impending doom. It’s a message we’ve all heard countless times before whether from the media, politicians, or event our own parents – and one I’m sure most of us are tired of hearing.

Holmes’ research is a good thing: if games are shown to have a positive effect on either an individual or a group as a whole, then shouldn’t that be promoted? It may be indirect but consider SpecialEffect, a UK-based organisation which uses technology to kickstart rehabilitation and enhance the quality of life of people with all kinds of needs. Think about MinecraftEdu, created to enable teachers to use Minecraft as an education tool in schools across the country. And it’s extremely likely you’ve bought a Humble Bundle at some point in your gaming years, selecting how much of your purchase price you’d like to ring-fence as a donation to a number of worthy charities.

So many benefits – psychological, educational and charitable, not to mention social – can come out of gaming, and a little more focus needs to be placed on this side of the story.

Tetris: pharmatonic?

“Because Tetris, like the real world, challenges players to make order out of chaos using a specific organisation system the game components translate easily into lifestyle interpretations.”

When computer programmer Alexey Pajitnov created Tetris in his spare time whilst working at the Moscow Academy of Sciences in 1984, it turned out to be so addictive that he kept playing instead of finishing it. And his friend Vladimir Pokhilko ended up having to delete the program from all computers in another lab after taking a sample there as nobody was doing any work. Alexey Pajitnov’s creation revolutionised the puzzle genre and the official website explains the reason for its popularity: “Because Tetris, like the real world, challenges players to make order out of chaos using a specific organisation system the game components translate easily into lifestyle interpretations. Whether you’re packing the trunk of your car, loading a dishwasher, or organising your shelves, you’re likely thinking about how each object will fit together strategically with minimal empty space. This is the Tetris effect!”

As well as being popular, the game has been linked to a number of benefits. Research by Doctor Richard Haier and his team in 2009 showed that when first playing Tetris, brain function and activity increases; and moderate playing boosts general cognitive functions such as critical thinking, reasoning, language and processing. Professors Jackie Andrade and John May, along with PhD student Jessica Skorka-Brown conducted research in 2014 that showed the game could give a ‘quick and manageable’ fix for people struggling to stick to diets or quitting smoking. It’s no wonder that Jeffrey Goldsmith wrote in an article for Wired over ten years ago: “I wondered if Tetris wasn’t really some sort of electronic drug – a pharmatronic.”

The article mentioned in the opening paragraph above references Holmes’ research completed back in 2009. Her team had fifty-two participants view films containing scenes of traumatic content including clips from public safety videos. They returned to the lab a day later where they were split into two random groups, with the first being asked to look at selected stills from the footage in order to reactive their memories of the video before completing a ten-minute ‘filler’ task and then playing Tetris for twelve minutes. The second group were given the filler task only and then told to take a break for the remainder of the time.

The results showed that over the following week, the participants who had their memories reactivated and played the game experienced 51% fewer intrusive memories of the video that those who didn’t. They also scored lower on the intrusive memory section of a questionnaire designed to diagnose PTSD. Holmes said in an article on the MRC’s website: “Currently, there are recommended treatments for PTSD once it has become established, that is, at least one month after the traumatic event, but we lack preventative treatments that can be given earlier. If this experimental work continues to show promise, it could inform new clinical interventions for consolidated memories that could be given a day or so after trauma to prevent or lessen the intrusive memories over time.”

‘A dark side to all of this’

It’s optimistic news and Dodds seems (almost) positive in the initial paragraphs of his article. He goes on to say that there’s a wider sense in which Tetris and games like it are good for the mind: they’re work, and we hear a lot about the psychological benefits of hard work, exercise or volunteering. There are plenty of mobile apps around that focus on time management or budgeting skills and cast the player in the role of chefs, hairdressers and wedding planners. The writer says: “Even the games where you’re a supernatural assassin in the midst of the French Revolution make you feel like a shelf-stacker with their incessant, overbearing busywork.”

Dodds continues: “But games are different from most jobs in a crucial way: they are fair. In the real economy, ego, human error, bureaucratic empire building, bad regulation and pure chance conspire to frustrate and sometimes terrify.” He believes that hard work is always rewarded and the goals are clear in video games, even if the system they use is obscure to begin with: “They give us little hardships, little victories, and with them a little more belief in ourselves.” The article even contains a reference to a scheme in France reported on by The New York Times, whereby business simulations help the long-term unemployed to regain professionalism and confidence.

Tetris, video game, puzzle, lines, score, square, Tetrinos, shapes

However, there’s a ‘dark side to all of this’ and ‘pre-existing issues can turn coping into obsessing’. The writer states that video games can provide comfort for people with depression or anxiety but it’s easy to get hooked there; they offer clear rewards for distinct goals, when the rest of the world seems uncertain and possibly even overwhelming. In such instances games can actually become tools of self-harm: “A way to endlessly discipline yourself, and mess up your life as surely as starving.”

The power of video games

I understand Dodds’ point and even Holmes said herself about her research: “We are keen to emphasise that the research is still in the early stages and careful development is needed,” But as mentioned earlier, so many benefits can come out of gaming and perhaps this is the side we should be focussing on.

They offer a wide range of experiences.

The writer states that ‘games offer clear rewards for clear goals’ and this may have been true a number of years ago, but with the rise in independent development this no longer has to be the case. There are many creative titles out there that either have no goals as such or whose obscurity makes them special – such as Proteus or Flower – and they don’t always have a happy ending – for example, Limbo or Braid. It seems to me that Dodds’ belief that rewards are given for hard work in games is in direct contrast with the internet proverb he quotes at the beginning of his article: “If Tetris has taught me anything in life, it’s that errors pile up and accomplishments disappear.”

They enhance problem-solving skills.

At the end of Holmes’ paper, the question is asked: “Could computer gaming be affecting intrusions of everyday events?” In a lot of the material I read as research for this piece, many claimed that games distract us from actually solving problems in the real world. But they seemed to have enhanced my problem-solving skills; playing adventure titles as a child has definitely helped me to see patterns and links between items, whether physical or mental. My day-job is one where I’m responsible for finding trends, weaknesses and holes in processes, and then fixing them in order to proceed. Who knows, maybe cracking Monkey Island’s grog-and-mug puzzle when I was nine had something to do with that.

They give our minds a holiday.

Following on from above, video games also can also give our minds a break when it’s most needed – and I speak from personal experience here. Last year was one of upheaval following on from what could be considered a major life change, and there were times when it all got a bit overwhelming. Gaming was there to take me away from it for a short time and provide some peace. But it didn’t distract me from focusing on what was going on in the real-world; it simply gave my head the holiday it needed for a couple of hours, so I could get back to solving problems with renewed strength and energy.

They provide opportunities to meet new people.

The other thing that helped me through last year was my friends, and many of these I’ve met through playing games. I’ve become closer to people after realising we’re gamers; connected with developers through their blogs, YouTube channels and Twitter streams; have made new friends as expos and conventions; and even met my other half through a shared love of video games. Gaming gives the opportunity to meet people with whom we may never have come into contact with otherwise, from all over the world and from different backgrounds. If video games are to thank for bringing these people into my life then I’m extremely grateful to them.

They teach us to multi-task.

As mentioned earlier, there are many mobile apps on the market that simulate work situations and focus on time management. As more and more people arrive in your restaurant, salon or office, it gets harder to balance the workload; and failure to satisfy their demands can lead to a long line of angry customers. But that’s the point: such games teach us to multi-task, prioritise jobs and manage the expectations of others, and that we’re able to manage an amount of stress effectively. All of which are extremely useful skills, particularly when it comes to the real world of employment.

They encourage us to persevere and see things through to completion.

No gamer likes seeing a title go unfinished, regardless of how bad it is. And we all joke about never being able to work our way through our Steam libraries but diligently pick away at them whenever we have the opportunity. It’s not so different in real life. There are things we’re not experts at but we keep trying until we succeed – just like a hard jump in a platformer or a particular move in a fighting game. And in the world of work, difficult projects can pile up but we see them through to completion as best we can, trying to hit the highest score possible along the way. Achievement unlocked: made it through another day at work.

The future of pharmatronics

There’s still a way to go before Tetris and other games like it can become an established treatment for PTSD, and future research needs to look into the ‘dose’ of gameplay required and how long the effect lasts. But even if this is small or short-term, Holmes says that it’s still worthwhile: “Think of it like hand-washing. Hand-washing is not a fancy intervention, but it can reduce all sorts of illness. This is similar – if the experimental result translates, it could be a cheap preventative measure informed by science.”

Dodds wrote himself that it’s not wrong to ‘hide from an unpredictable and occasionally hostile world by training yourself on a miniature, more predictable version’. But I don’t see it as that we’re hiding away from the real world in video games. If they can enhance our skills and provide us with new opportunities, and are shown to have a positive effect on either an individual or a group as a whole, then let’s make that what we focus on.

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One thought on “The Tetris effect: the power of video games”

  1. This Tetris study reminds me a 2012 study published in the Computers in Human Behaviour journal. In it, a group of researchers made elderly people play World of Warcraft and discovered their motor skills improved considerably after the experience. The multi-tasking experience that is WoW increased their cognitive response. It’s actually fascinating, and much like Tetris and of course, Special Effect, show that games and gaming can have a positive impact on people’s lives.

    Sadly, it seems as though positive uplifting pieces don’t sell and thus all must have a negative side to them. I apologise is that sounds too cynical.

    I agree with you on what games did, do and have done for me in the past. They’ve brought special people into my life and helped me through bad times, giving my head the holiday it needed for a time, as you describe it.

    Hopefully we see more of these studies in the future and we can help move the media away from vilifying gaming.

    Liked by 1 person

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