The Tetris effect (also known as Tetris Syndrome) occurs when people devote so much time and attention to an activity that it begins to pattern their thoughts, mental images, and dreams. It is named after the video game Tetris.
People who play Tetris for a prolonged amount of time may then find themselves thinking about ways different shapes in the real world can fit together, such as the boxes on a supermarket shelf, the buildings on a street, or hallucinating pieces being generated and falling into place on an invisible layout. In this sense, the Tetris effect is a form of habit. They might also dream about falling tetrominos when drifting off to sleep or see images of falling tetrominos at the edges of their visual fields or when they close their eyes. In this sense, the Tetris effect is a form of hypnagogic imagery.
The Tetris effect can occur with other video games. It has also been known to occur with non-video games, such as the illusion of curved lines after doing a jigsaw puzzle, or the involuntary mental visualisation of Rubik's Cube algorithms common amongst speedcubers.
On a perceptual level, sea legs are a kind of Tetris effect. A person newly on land after spending long periods at sea may sense illusory rocking motion, having become accustomed to the constant work of adjusting to the boat making such movements. See Illusions of self-motion and Mal de debarquement. The poem "Boots" by Rudyard Kipling describes the effect, resulting from repetitive visual experience during a route march:
’Tain’t—so—bad—by—day because o’ company,
But—night—brings—long—strings—o’ forty thousand millionThere’s no discharge in the war!
Boots—boots—boots—boots—movin’ up an’ down again.—Rudyard Kipling, Boots
On the mental level, computer programming has resulted in dreams about coding. Mathematicians have reported dreaming of numbers or equations, for example Srinivasa Ramanujan, or Friedrich Engels who remarked "last week in a dream I gave a chap my shirt-buttons to differentiate, and he ran off with them".
Place in cognition
Stickgold et al. (2000) have proposed that Tetris imagery is a separate form of memory, likely related to procedural memory. This is from their research in which they showed that people with anterograde amnesia, unable to form new declarative memories, reported dreaming of falling shapes after playing Tetris during the day, despite not being able to remember playing the game at all.
A study, conducted by Lynn Okagaki and Peter Frensch in 1994, showed that participants who played Tetris for twelve 30-minute sessions (with no previous experience of the game) did much better than the control group in both the paper-pencil test version of spatial skills as well as the computerized version. The conclusions drawn from this experiments were that video games such as Tetris had a positive effect on three areas of spatial skills including mental rotation, spatial perception and spatial visualization in those who played for a prolonged period continuously.
Another 2009 Oxford study suggests that playing Tetris-like video games may help prevent the development of traumatic memories. If the video game treatment is played soon after the traumatic event, the preoccupation with Tetris shapes is enough to prevent the mental recitation of traumatic images, thereby decreasing the accuracy, intensity, and frequency of traumatic reminders. "We suggest it specifically interferes with the way sensory memories are laid down in the period after trauma and thus reduces the number of flashbacks that are experienced afterwards," summarizes Dr. Emily Holmes, who led the study.
History of the term
The earliest known reference to the term appears in Jeffrey Goldsmith's article, "This is Your Brain on Tetris", published in Wired in May 1994:
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. [...]
The Tetris effect is a biochemical, reductionistic metaphor, if you will, for curiosity, invention, the creative urge. To fit shapes together is to organize, to build, to make deals, to fix, to understand, to fold sheets. All of our mental activities are analogous, each as potentially addictive as the next.
The term was rediscovered by Earling (1996), citing a use of the term by Garth Kidd in February, 1996. Kidd described "after-images of the game for up to days afterwards" and "a tendency to identify everything in the world as being made of four squares and attempt to determine 'where it fits in'". Kidd attributed the origin of the term to computer-game players from Adelaide, Australia. An early description of the general phenomenon appears in Neil Gaiman's science fiction poem "Virus" (1987) in Digital Dreams.
L'effet Tetris (French: the Tetris effect) is a similarly named, but quite different phenomenon found in evolutionary AI systems related to the concept of bounded rationality. L'effet Tetris then, is the effect whereby a hasty, but imprecise course of action is better than calculating an optimal move where such a calculation would not be completed in time; in short, evolutionary systems often find local rather than global optima.
- Domino effect
- Fixation (psychology)
- Highway hypnosis
- Video game addiction
- Earling, A. (1996, March 21–28). The Tetris Effect: Do computer games fry your brain? Philadelphia City Paper
- Daniel Terdiman (January 11, 2005). "Real World Doesn't Use a Joystick". Wired.
- "14-Year-Old Prodigy Programmer Dreams In Code". THNKR. @radical.media.
- Engels, Friedrich (August 10, 1881). "Marx-Engels Correspondence 1881" (Letter to Karl Marx). Retrieved July 31, 2014.
- Stickgold, Robert; Malia, April; Maguire, Denise; Roddenberry, David; O'Connor, Margaret (2000). "Replaying the Game: Hypnagogic Images in Normals and Amnesics". Science 290 (5490): 350–353. doi:10.1126/science.290.5490.350. PMID 11030656.
- Okagaki, L., Frensch,P. (1994). Effects of video game playing on measures of spatial performance: Gender effects in late adolescence. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 15(1) 33-58.
- Holmes EA, James EL, Coode-Bate T, Deeprose C, (2009). Bell, Vaughan, ed. "Can Playing the Computer Game "Tetris" Reduce the Build-Up of Flashbacks for Trauma? A Proposal from Cognitive Science". PLoS ONE 4 (1): e4153. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004153. PMC 2607539. PMID 19127289
- "Tetris 'helps to reduce trauma'". BBC News. January 7, 2009.
- Goldsmith, Jeffrey (May 1994). "This is Your Brain on Tetris". Wired Issue 2.05. Retrieved 20 December 2012.
- Kidd, G. (1996). Possible future risk of virtual reality. The RISKS Digest: Forum on Risks to the Public in Computers and Related Systems 17(78)
- Tetris dreams - Scientific American magazine, October 2000