In college, I took a class on video game criticism, which was not something that I knew existed before I enrolled in it. I spent the entire course listening to my classmates discuss abstract concepts in complex video games and pretending that I also did all the readings. When the professor assigned essays, he often used Tetris as an example because it was a simple game that everyone had heard of. No one actually wrote a paper about Tetris until the class final, when I decided that I was going to be the first. In place of a final exam, we were supposed to choose a video game and make an argument about it. The vagueness of the prompt made the opportunity too good to pass up. I downloaded the Tetris app onto my phone, breezed through a couple hundred levels, and called it “research.” Hey, I wanted to gain a better understanding of the game for my paper. The motive was education.
The Tetris Company claims that Tetris satiates the basic human drive to create order from chaos. Falling pieces—Tetriminos—are randomly generated one at a time, and their placement occurs shortly after their generation. A “Line Clear” occurs when a horizontal row is completely filled with blocks. The row disappears, and all pieces above the Line Clear shift down to fill the space. Bonus points are rewarded for clearing multiple lines at once. Clearing four lines at once, the maximum, is called “Tetris” and gives the same type of satisfaction as watching a scene in a movie where a character says the movie’s title. The Line Clear makes the game addictive and theoretically endless.
In the middle of my Tetris adventure, the game got personal. I went through a pretty bad breakup, and by “pretty bad,” I mean that it absolutely destroyed me. While the relationship lasted, it was the best thing to ever happen to me, but all of a sudden, it was over. I felt like the best part of my life was also over. Things are never going to be good again, my mental illness liked to tell me. I’ll never recover from this. No one is ever going to want me again. I’m worthless and unwanted and broken and unlovable. I don’t have the capacity to get to know another person like that. I don’t have it in me to keep trying. I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t, I don’t.
The truth is, I was in terrible shape long before the relationship ever started, and the relationship was a tool to cover up all my problems. The breakup wasn’t anyone’s fault, and neither was the aftermath; it just exposed all the shit that was already there. I fixated on the tragedy as a concrete explanation for my poor mental health.
Naturally, I began playing more Tetris. Life was majorly sucking, and the game was a good distraction. Playing didn’t cost too much brainpower, and succeeding made me feel better for a moment. The only thing I wanted to think about was colorful falling blocks because every other thought hurt too much. I threw myself a pity party in which the only activities were crying and playing Tetris through bleary eyes. For a few weeks, my life looked like this:
- Position the blocks.
- Place the blocks.
- Complete the lines.
- Clear the lines.
I developed a bit of an addiction, and I honestly shouldn’t have been as shocked as I was to discover that I had Pavloved myself to associate Tetris with heartbreak. I didn’t forget that I had a paper to write, but I procrastinated so much that I had to whip up the whole thing in less than a day. I played more Tetris during my writing breaks. I submitted my essay with twenty minutes to spare, and I proceeded to delete the game off of my phone. I decided that I could never play Tetris again. But I still think about it. Clearly.
Lila Wu was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota and grew up in Houston, Texas. She’s finishing her final year at Northwestern University, where she studies Radio/Television/Film and Creative Writing. Her go-to icebreaker fun fact rotates between her favorite ice cream flavor (chocolate chip cookie dough), having five younger siblings, and having attended clown school.