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A new book on one of the former Soviet Union's most long-lasting exports

By Jonathan Vanian
September 2, 2016

The Tetris Effect: The Game That Hypnotized The World, Dan Ackerman (2016)

In the 1980s, one of the most addicting products the world has ever seen was born in the former Soviet Union. This creation would cause people to lose sleep, skip work, and—in some cases—even alter the way they perceive the world.

Although this product could create a sense of euphoria, which would lead to people getting hooked, this creation was no drug. Instead, it was a relatively simple game that’s so ubiquitous, it’s likely to cause flashbacks for those who have ever been caught in its digital spell.

This game is Tetris, and it’s the subject of a new book by noted video game journalist Dan Ackerman to be released on September 6.

Ackerman’s account of the rise of Tetris is as captivating as watching the game’s multi-colored, four-squared objects (known as “tetrominoes”) vanish before your eyes with the right move.

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The author’s enthusiasm for the game as well as its significance is apparent. In the first few pages, he describes Tetris as the Soviet Union’s “most important technology” since the Sputnik satellite that was key to launching the Space Race as well as “perhaps the greatest cultural export in the history of the USSR.”

Strong words indeed, but Ackerman’s retelling of how Tetris became a worldwide viral hit long before the Internet and social media age helps support his statements. Something about this game seems to have universal appeal that has lasted several decades while most video games tend to come and go out of fashion. (Even the explosive rise of Pokémon Go appears to be fading, for example.)

As Ackerman explains, Tetris has managed to stay relevant in today’s society, has hundreds of variants, influenced many new puzzle games like Candy Crush, and can be found on nearly every platform that can play video games. Flappy Birds, this game is not.

But while Ackerman does dig into the game’s cultural relevance, The Tetris Effect is at its core a book about business during a time in which the Soviet Union was just getting used to opening itself economically to the world.

Ackerman tells the story how a Russian artificial intelligence researcher named Alexey Pajitnov created the game out of both a love of computers and a beloved puzzle game based on a geometric figure called pentominoes, which anyone who has played Tetris will recognize.

Pajitnov’s creation was so captivating, its appeal would eventually spread from his government research agency to the outside world. But unlike today’s age in which a mobile game like Candy Crush can become a worldwide hit seemingly overnight, Tetris’s rise was a bit more complicated. There were no app stores back in the 1980’s, no standardized way to play games like on a smartphone, and no tech blogs or social media to pump up the hype.

It was indeed the Wild West, both in terms of the technology (home personal computers were still just going mainstream) and the messy licensing agreements required to make the game legally playable on multiple different computers, video game consoles, and arcade machines worldwide.

In fact, much of the book’s excitement centers on the often-mundane world of software licensing. Multiple individuals and companies recognized the potential financial value in the game and all wanted a piece of the Tetris pie.

Some of these characters include a Dutch-born video game producer who helped create Japan’s first big role-playing game that would inspire future megahits like Final Fantasy and a U.S. software executive who would hired Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan impersonators to accompany his Tetris sales teams at trade shows.

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And while the Soviet Union import and export group Elektronorgtechnica, or ELORG, that dealt with Tetris’s licensing may have been new to dealing with foreign groups, they would not be pushed around by those they felt were giving them a raw deal.

Ackerman describes tense meetings between company representatives—including those from gaming giant Nintendo—and Soviet representatives who recall the aggressive company bidding wars from Barbarians at the Gate. When the web of companies that created the game’s convoluted licensing schemes meet in Russia, the book’s pace picks up.

Much like Tetris’s late stages in which blocks drop so fast, one can’t help but tremble under pressure.

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