What is the Tetris Effect?

Tetris Effect is more than the name of the latest Tetris sensation. It’s an actual psychological phenomenon, and it has very little to do with synthetic experiences. Rather, it is primarily concerned with how gameplay affects our methods of thinking outside of a game context. Tetris Effect popularized this phenomenon in one of its trailers, but it only gave us the most cursory glances at what has been studied for quite a few years. While we here at Gamecrate are not professional psychologists by any means, we thought it would be interesting to give you a deeper look into what the Tetris Effect really is.

An overview of the effect

As the trailer suggests, the Tetris Effect occurs when people who have been exposed to prolonged periods of Tetris play in their normal day to day lives, they started looking at their surroundings as Tetris blocks. In fact, the very first mention of the Tetris Effect, comes from an article by Jeffrey Goldsmith who writes:

No home was sweet without a Game Boy in 1990. That year, I stayed "for a week" with a friend in Tokyo, and Tetris enslaved my brain. At night, geometric shapes fell in the darkness as I lay on loaned tatami floor space. Days, I sat on a lavender suede sofa and played Tetris furiously. During rare jaunts from the house, I visually fit cars and trees and people together.

Patients would begin to notice patterns in real-world objects and would begin imagining how they would fit in and interlock with each other. They would also dream of falling blocks, replicating their Tetris play sessions and showing improvement in those play sessions over time.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Tetris Effect came about when researchers had people with anterograde amnesia play the game. These people had no capability to form new memories, however, they too began to dream of falling blocks. This pointed toward the skills that were being used for Tetris play being stored in an area of memory separate from long-term memory.

Gamers are very familiar with this type of procedural memory, as it is the same memory that allows us to improve in our games of choice. This is the sort of memory that allows us to perform sets of actions rapidly without even necessarily thinking of them. For example, you never remember the exact moment when you learned how to block in a fighting game or ADS in a shooter every time you do it. You just integrate the skill itself into your memory.

Going deeper into the effect

It goes without saying that the Tetris Effect is not wholly contained to Tetris. In fact, there is nothing special about Tetris at all; it was just a convenient way to test the effect. Similar effects have been seen in professional Rubik’s Cubers, who begin to see things in terms of twists, turns, and other cube solving algorithms. Computer programmers also have reported a similar effect, in which they dream about code or begin to look at the world around them in terms of code.

In addition, the Tetris Effect is not just a study of dreams and perception. Rather, it’s an examination on how game playing and puzzle solving can create skill transfer to other tasks. One of the original 1994 studies of the Tetris Effect had two groups of people, one who had been playing Tetris and another that hadn’t, participate in spatial skills test and the Tetris playing group ended up doing much better.

A 2009 study looked deeper by using an MRI to study the brains of subjects who had been playing Tetris as opposed to subjects who had not been playing at all. It was found that there was an increase in the thickness of the grey matter of subjects in the Tetris playing group. It was theorized that playing Tetris (or other puzzle type games) can be linked with physical cognitive development and a general increase in brain plasticity. Though studies showing exactly what concrete effects Tetris can have on the brain are not yet available, it is currently assumed that Tetris, along with other puzzle games, generally acts to keep the brain healthy.

Another study in the same year used Tetris to help prevent the formation of traumatic memories. Two groups were shown traumatic scenes. One group was tasked with playing Tetris immediately after the scene was shown was the other went on as normal. The groups were asked to recount their traumatic flashbacks and the Tetris playing group had fewer flashbacks in general. It was theorized that Tetris acted as a sort of “cognitive vaccine.” In particular, the parts of the brain that would normally form traumatic memories were occupied with the spatial puzzle of Tetris. When the Tetris Effect kicked in, subjects would remember Tetris patterns rather than the trauma, thus lessening the effect of PTSD.

Game Transfer Phenomena

The Tetris Effect as we know is had recently become known under another, broader term: Game Transfer Phenomena. This refers to the altered senses and mental patterns that playing games causes. People who play certain types of games may start to associate certain events in reality with not just game shapes and mechanics, but game sounds and even game feel. Fighting gamers may experience increased reaction time, FPS gamers may find that their ability to pick out details in faraway targets may increase, and players of all game types start to think of their world in terms that mean something to their game of choice.

In a way, the game Tetris Effect has a lot more in common with Game Transfer Phenomena than the original Tetris Effect as we knew it. It attempts to link audio, visual, and tactile information into one cohesive whole. The player begins to associate their movements and block flips with the sounds of the background music, and the sound slowly become associated not just with the movement of the blocks but the movement of the figures in the background. This effect becomes even more pronounced when the user is in VR, as the game world overtakes their perceptions of the real world.

Then again, “Game Transfer Phenomena” isn’t as catchy a title for a Tetris game.