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Why is Tetris So Addictive?

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Today, on the 30th birthday of the finest puzzle game to ever grace our planet, someone has an answer. That someone is Dr. Tom Stafford of Sheffield University, and he has some thoughts on why Tetris has enraptured so many people for decades.

Well, first off, maybe it’s because Tetris is like a drug! A mind-altering drug. Dr. Stafford references the fact that Tetris has been called a pharmatronic – an electronic stimulus that has some of the properties of a mind-altering drug. How does that manifest? That’s what’s happening when you play Tetris in bed for five hours straight, nod off, and have falling blocks invade your dreams. It’s when you look at your horrendous mess of a desk and start thinking about cleaning it in terms of Tetris – when you absolutely can’t get Tetris off your mind.

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What else is going on? It helps that Tetris is so easy to pick up and play – you might not be any good at it, but it’s awfully easy to keep pressing keys and repeating the same action, over and over. There are no complex goals – in fact, there are no goals but one, which leads to the one thing that might best explain Tetris’ addictiveness.

Dr. Stafford thinks the Zeigarnik Effect is, more than anything, what locks people in. Bluma Zeigarnik, who spent much of her life as a psychology researcher in the USSR (everything Tetris has to come back to the USSR), came up with her eponymous effect in the 1920s, when she observed that after shifts, waiters had nearly perfect memories of orders they had forgotten and needed to be reminded of, but had completely forgotten the orders they had successfully delivered. The effect is described as unfinished tasks weighing more on the mind than completed ones. Well, Tetris is just one incomplete task after another – and unlike a lot of other games, there’s no clear point where you can take a break.

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Of course, then there’s the question of why we keep starting new games over and over again. Maybe because we never completed the task of actually beating Tetris, and there’s the explanation – there’s no beating Tetris, really. The work is never done.