In an official photo from April 6, 1993, Hillary Clinton smirks slightly while playing a Nintendo Game Boy aboard a flight back to Washington, DC. The record doesn’t note what game she was playing, but surely it was Tetris, the cartridge that shipped with the popular Nintendo handheld upon release in 1989.
When the photo was released last year, Clinton was already favored to become the Democratic presidential nominee. Now that she has achieved that historic feat, the photograph becomes newly meaningful. In 1993, the Soviet Union’s dissolution was a recent memory. Its reverberations were still being felt. Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Divorce” had just split that country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. At home in the United States, the recession of 1990–1991 had ended, and unemployment in its wake had finally fallen. At the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, a team led by Marc Andreessen had just released Mosaic, the web browser that would become Netscape and launch the dot-com boom.
New challenges loomed, witnessed but unseen. In February of that year, a van bomb was exploded in a parking garage under the World Trade Center. It seemed like a freak incident at the time, not the precursor to our present forever war; two days after, Americans became more distracted by the ATF raid of David Koresh’s Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. The Cold War couldn’t have been a more recent or a more distant memory.
Today, suddenly, a hostile Russia is back. From military and diplomatic campaigns to destabilize Europe to cyberwarfare attacks against the United States, Russia has renewed its potential as a potent, if ambiguous, enemy. In navigating that potential, it’s worth revisiting lessons in cultural and political influence from the Cold War. That goal in mind, there couldn’t be a better time for Dan Ackerman’s book The Tetris Effect. It’s an industrial history of the creation, discovery, and improbable global spread of the simple, abstract computer puzzle game, one of a very few such titles that everyone has likely played.
The book follows the improbable stories of two programmers turned businessmen, each of whom birthed computer games that took on lives far beyond what they could ever have imagined — and who then joined forces.
The first is Alexey Pajitnov, a programmer at the Soviet Academy of Sciences. In his spare time, Pajitnov reinterpreted the pentomino puzzles that had fascinated him as a child for the real-time display and interaction of the personal computer. By 1984, that process resulted in Tetris — or at least, the core of the game we know by that name — running on an underpowered Soviet computer called the Electronika 60.
The second is Henk Rogers, son of a Dutch gem magnate who emigrated to New York as a boy, and then continued east: first Hawaii, and then to Japan. An avid player of Dungeons & Dragonsin his college years, Rogers grew weary of the family business and made a go at computer software in his adopted Japan, where he had also met his wife. Rogers adapted the role-playing play of D&D, not yet popular in Japan, into an elaborate adventure game called The Black Onyx, also released in 1984. The result would popularize the RPG in Japan, helping found the genre known as the JRPG.
Rogers and Pajitnov are the underdogs in Ackerman’s tale. Pajitnov became embroiled in a confused, lost-in-translation negotiation with hawkish prospects abroad, who wanted to license and market Tetris in the West. At this time, a Soviet bureaucracy called Electronorgtechnica, or ELORG, had the task of licensing government technology to outsiders; Pajitnov was pushed to the sidelines, even while rogue Hungarian programmers working on modern, popular computers unavailable in the USSR were translating Tetris from Soviet curiosity into marketable product.
As for Rogers, The Black Onyx had sold well, but not nearly as well as the games it later inspired, like Dragon Age and Final Fantasy. Struggling to support his family and his pride, Rogers hustled his way into the good graces of Nintendo, where he eventually got the go-ahead to pursue the rights to Tetris for the secretive Game Boy project.
The Tetris Effect tells the bizarre story of these and other machinations, all of which eventually led, as we know well, to the successful release of Tetris on Game Boy and its concomitant cultural canonization. While tales of ineffectual bureaucracy, contractual confusion, and commercial hoodwinking over computerized configurations of squares stuck together may not sound like a page-turner, Ackerman doles out intrigue worthy of Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy. It’s a behind-the-Iron Curtain nail-biter. The bumbling ELORG, the simple Soviet programmer, the haphazard Dutch-American-Japanese businessman — the whole of it feels like a delightful milkshake of Jason Bourne and Mr. Bean.
Ackerman’s book follows in the footfalls of Blake Harris’s 2015 title Console Wars, about the early ’90s battle between Nintendo and Sega for dominance in the home video game market. That book was also billed as a cloak-and-dagger affair; Kirkus called it an “entertaining behind-the-scenes thriller.” Both Harris and Ackerman deploy narrative reconstruction, speaking for and sometimes through the real figures they chronicle. Both books were well researched, but largely sourced through interviews with the actors who are also the books’ subjects. As in Console Wars, there are moments in The Tetris Effect when the certainty of the author’s knowledge seems suspect. These are not histories, exactly, but dramatized recreations of history. Ackerman’s writing is serviceable if occasionally crude (“It was a proud day…”; “It was a rare feeling…”), but the simplicity of the prose only makes the book read even more like a supermarket thriller, which suits it. Mercifully, The Tetris Effect is about half the length of Console Wars, a book whose nearly 600-page girth was unwarranted.
The price Ackerman pays for narrative progression is a lack of depth in detail. There were numerous asides that remain superficial — how Pajitnov and his colleagues built libraries of pseudographics routines for the text-only Electronika, or a sufficient explanation for why Pajitnov had a “palpable sense that Tetris was meant for greater things.” Still, interlude chapters (cloyingly marked as “bonus levels”) do cover more typical nonfictional fare, such as the compulsive draw of Tetris that can result in seeing the game’s pieces, known as tetrominoes, when idle or sleeping — this is the phenomenon from which the book borrows its title.
The Tetris Effect is really a book about industrial deal-making, even if between a set of unusual actors. The whole of the intrigue surrounding Tetris’s rise comes down to the licensure of intellectual property. And here two big questions arise, one of which the book answers, and one it forgoes.
The first question: Why would the Hungarians or the British or the Americans or the Japanese even care about properly licensing a simple, rudimentary game like Tetris? One of the most unusual features of games is that their design is not subject to copyright protection in the way that written or audiovisual works are. You can’t copy the appearance of a character or a scene in another game, but the game’s behavior — what game developers call the “mechanics” — are deemed functional, and therefore exempt from copyright protection. Given that Tetris relies on the mathematical concept of the tetromino, not on the appearance of a character like Super Mario, it probably would have been possible to recreate the game’s addictive behavior and to release it under a different name.
The answer is as obvious as it is startling: such a barebones game, no matter how compelling, still needed a rationale to drive its sales. In the case of Tetris, the name and the provenance were critical to its reception. All of the orientalist Russian imagery, scenes, and folk songs that players remember from early versions of the game in the 1980s and ’90s were added after the fact, upon adaptation in the West. Eventually the sarafan dress was no longer needed; Tetris has long since shed its babushka headscarves and onion domes in favor of the edible minimalism popular in casual games. In short, it was an economic and cultural necessity that Tetris be an authentic and legal Soviet export — even as the Soviet Union itself was crumbling around the game as it fled the border.
The second question: How did this cultural cradle for Tetris relate to its later life as the sole product of The Tetris Company LLC, founded in 1996? Years after the fall of the Soviet Union and the expiration of other licensing deals, Pajitnov finally got to enjoy a piece of the profits from Tetris. Founded with Rogers (and an ELORG operative who managed to hold onto a piece of the proverbial tetromino in exchange for extracting it from the USSR), The Tetris Company licenses and produces versions of Tetris for every new computer and gaming system that enters the marketplace.
And protects its right to do so, too. The Tetris Company is legendary for aggressively policing its intellectual property against unauthorized freeware, shareware, and commercial renditions of the game, even under different names and appearances. (Disclosure: I have served as an expert witness on behalf of the Tetris Company in one such case.) While Tetris and its creators once suffered from considerable blowback among game developers and players for its litigiousness, the rise of independent gaming, and the ease with which popular games by one or two people can be copied or “cloned,” the tide seems to have turned in favor of deploying the intellectual property rights available to game developers in order to protect their creators’ rights and livelihoods. The story of Tetris is and will always be a story about intellectual property. About the power of abstractions — sets of four squares arranged, and falling; the visual appearance of those squares; the code; the name; and the cultural contexts that make such a ritual meaningful.
Ackerman calls the game “the most important technology to come out of [the Soviet Union] since Sputnik.” It sounds like an overstatement. But maybe not: Tetris sold the idea of pre-Soviet Russia to the West, just before the USSR dismantled, transforming into the strange, hypercapitalist oligarchy it became two decades ago.
The game’s role continues to change. Rogers handed over the reins of his part of the Tetris business to his daughter, Maya. Among her first feats was selling the rights to make a Tetris movie. Movies, actually: A trilogy is reportedly in the works. Not much is known about the adaptation yet, except that True Lies and Mortal Kombat producer Larry Kasanoff is attached; he’s called the production “a big science-fiction movie,” which probably rules out a dramatic, Bourne-style staging of the game’s origin story. As ghastly as the whole thing sounds, a trilogy might be appropriate: before Tetris is a moving puzzle of interconnected blocks, it is an exploded grenade of intellectual property shrapnel scattered across the globe.
Tetris was an alien puzzle game expatriated from the Soviet Union, which had become a marketing hook for a Japanese toy company whose most popular product found its way into the hands of an American First Lady, who might yet become president. How appropriate, then, that Ackerman’s book about the world’s accidental Russophilia would arrive just as her opponent, Donald Trump, has made gestures suggesting that he might be in cahoots with Vladimir Putin — or that he might be willing to conspire with him should he win the office. Missives have replaced earlier, more concrete tools of hostility, like missiles and McDonald’s: the lost emails of Secretary Clinton’s server fiasco or the embarrassing records revealed in the Democratic National Committee hack. Now it’s the United States’s turn to become cultural fodder, our immaterial goods expatriated only to be sold back to us again, weaponized.
So don’t read Dan Ackerman’s book just for the history, or just for the nostalgia. It might offer an allegory for the near future, in which Russia and the West become intertwined once more in a precipitous game of blocks falling and rising.