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Concept to Console: a history of ‘Tetris’

It’s one of the most famous games in the world. If you’re a gamer, you’re bound to have played Tetris – if you’re not, you’ll definitely be familiar with it. Part of the joy of Tetris is in its simplicity – you rotate puzzle pieces to fit together and create solid lines, which then disappear. Nice and simple.

But the story of how Tetris became a worldwide phenomenon is far from simple, taking us into the heart of Cold War politics and the Soviet Union. Here’s the history of Tetris.

On 6 June 1984, Alexey Pajitnov started the journey that would lead to Tetris. He was a software engineer at the Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow, and he was tasked with testing a new type of computer, the Electronika 60. In order to test its power, he wrote a simple game based on a puzzle from his childhood (board games were one of the few forms of entertainment available to children in the Soviet Union). It was inspired by pentominoes, in which different wooden shapes made of five equal squares are assembled in a box. Pajitnov adapted the shapes to four squares each, and named his game Tetris – from the Latin for four, ‘tetra’, and ‘tennis’, Pajitnov’s favourite game.

Pajitnov’s original concept saw the player attempt to arrange the tetrominoes to complete a box, but he quickly realised that this was boring – once the player completed the game, there was no reason to go back to it. So, he reduced the playing field to the middle of the screen and had pieces fall constantly. The last significant modification was to eliminate completed rows, or else the game would end too quickly. The programmer said: “I couldn’t stop myself from playing this prototype version, because it was very addictive to put the shapes together.” He even played during work hours, claiming that he was debugging the software.

The game only worked on the Electronika 60, and gained a small cult following at the Academy, but Pajitnov wanted to expand its audience. He was pressed with requests to create a version of the game for the IBM PC – a more widespread computer with better graphics – a job he assigned to Vadim Gerasimov, a 16-year-old student intern. Gerasimov succeeded, and the game spread through the Soviet Union.

[Tetris] was a marker of the thawing relations between the US and Soviet Russia, and the battle over Tetris was a driving factor behind the policy of glasnost (openness)

Tetris was ported to the Commodore 64 and the Apple II, and it eventually crossed borders, landing in Hungary – the closest country with a Western way of life. In 1986, a Hungarian software salesman called Robert Stein learned about Tetris and wanted to secure the rights to sell it as a computer game in the West. He tracked down Pajitnov, but ultimately the game was considered Soviet government property and its fate lay in the hands of a new Soviet agency, Elektronorgtechnica (Elorg). If Pajitnov negotiated the Western rights independently, he could be arrested.

An error in communication meant Stein thought he had the rights, but Elorg insisted that the rights were only there for the IBM version of Tetris and that the sale was illegal. By 1987, there was no hint that the Russians would sign, although these legal barriers were eventually overcome by May 1988. Tetris sold well in the UK and the US on the PC, helped by a marketing campaign that hyped up its Russian origin and framed it as a look behind the mysterious Iron Curtain. At trade shows, it was advertised by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev impersonators.

The big money in the games sector was now being made elsewhere – on consoles. Henk Rogers, a Dutch video game developer, realised that Tetris would be a perfect match for the new Nintendo Game Boy. He encouraged Nintendo to include a copy of the game with every console and then set about obtaining the necessary permissions.

There were a dozen companies claiming that they had the rights, so Rogers flew to Russia to speak with Elorg. After a tense interrogation with Elorg, and then a prolonged legal battle with Atari back home, Rogers secured the rights for Nintendo. The Game Boy version of Tetris (with the tagline ‘from Russia with fun’) sold 35 million units and helped the console quickly become a success.

At this time, Pajitnov was not part of any negotiations over Tetris and saw no profits at all, missing out on approximately $40 million. However, he and Rogers had become friends, and Rogers helped him emigrate to America in 1991, creating games for his own company and later for Microsoft. When deals over the rights expired in 1995, he finally started receiving royalties. Pajitnov and Rogers founded the Tetris Company in 1996 to handle licensing for Tetris, and the company bought Elorg in 2005, gaining total control of all Tetris rights worldwide.

The game is available on over 65 platforms, setting a Guinness world record for the most ported video game title, and has been studied by neuroscientists specialising in addiction. It led to the so-called ‘Tetris effect’, whereby people spend so much time on an activity, it begins to pattern their thoughts, mental images and dreams. It has featured in tons of popular media, from The Simpsons to the Adam Sandler film Pixels, and an adaptation of the Tetris theme by Andrew Lloyd Webber came sixth in the charts in 1992. The story of the game will also be told in an upcoming film, which will star Taron Egerton as Henk Rogers.

Tetris is an undisputed phenomenon in the world of gaming – it was an unprecedented title that rewrote how we played and continues to be addictive to this day. But it was also a marker of the thawing relations between the US and Soviet Russia, and the battle over Tetris was a driving factor behind the policy of glasnost (openness). Few games are significant as being both games and political symbols – but then again, few games have ever been as significant as Tetris.

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