You’ve played Tetris. So have all your friends. And not only is this weird shape-arranging game still around, but it has spawned a thousand über-popular copycats like Candy Crush Saga. Scientists have even coined a term—“the Tetris effect”—that refers to the way your mind keeps visualizing shapes falling and settling onto one another.
So why hasn’t Tetris gone the way of the Slinky, Chia Pets, and other pointless diversions from decades past? Because it's just so addicting. No really, it is! Tetris scratches a basic psychological itch in our brains, argues Tom Stafford, Ph.D., a cognitive scientist at the University of Sheffield.
What he means: “Our minds are organized around goals,” Stafford explains. And past research has shown that the human brain is particularly obsessed with completing goals. (Stafford mentions a study that found experienced food servers have an almost perfect memory for unfilled orders, but can’t recall items they served even a minute or two earlier.)
This fixation on incomplete tasks focuses your attention on things that matter—for your survival, for your success—while sidestepping distractions from old information or items that are no longer relevant. And Tetris—and that never-ending cascade of falling shapes, each of which has to be organized into neat rows—activates those built-in brain circuits connected to task completion.
“It’s pure game. There’s nothing to learn. It’s almost completely pointless,” he says. (Sad!) But we all lose ourselves playing it because, like a mind-altering drug, the game creates a chore that we’re all programmed to get off on, he adds. “Every line you complete, more blocks fall from the sky. It’s endlessly generating simple tasks for you.”
So a big happy 30th birthday to Tetris—thanks for keeping us (and continuing to keep us) oh-so entertained.