Introductions; The Tetris Effect

My name is Sarah, I enjoy explaining things, and right now I’m seeing the world in Tetris-shaped blocks. NES cover of Tetris

I don’t even like Tetris all that much—I’ve been playing it as research for this, my very first post. Part of why I am writing this blog is so I can do things like play games for research. The other part is that I like sharing interesting information, want to hone my skills therein, and want to have a reason to keep up on science news. Hence this blog, which will cover 1) interesting concepts in science/math/technology, 2) science news, 3) observations about life, and 4) random fun facts on a rotating basis. Anyway, back to Tetris. (Do you think if I mention Tetris enough this will get pegged as a blog about Tetris? Tetris.) Tetris is famous as one of the most addicting games around, even over 20 years after it was released. It somehow distills control, difficulty, and memory of past mistakes into one small streamlined frustration machine. Or fun machine, depending on your point of view. But the upshot is, people play Tetris for hours. And after it came out, people started noticing some strange effects. Tetris specifically and video games in general are really good at getting on the brain. Good, addictive video games just seem to “fit” into the brain, like certain songs that get stuck in the head. We like these games because they exercise our minds in novel but understandable ways. Controls on a good video game become extensions of our bodies, and we stop noticing the physical actions necessary to control what we see on the screen. Then we play for hours. And then the Tetris effect happens. The effect—referred to as game transfer phenomena in a recent paper—describes the odd sensations you sometimes experience after playing a game for a long time. You might start thinking that what you see in the real world somehow fits into the game space—that the furniture over there would fit together if you only flipped the couch, that you should mine that stone over there and just move it forward a block or two, that the dropdown menu on your cat isn’t showing up… It doesn’t always make sense because a lot of these ideas aren’t fully understandable to the rational mind. They’re just your brain trying to use the framework it’s been stuck in for hours to view the outside world. The effect can also manifest in the form of being stuck seeing or imagining the elements of the game in your peripheral vision or as you try to sleep. Luckily, it’ll dissipate after time spent away from the game. Believe it or not, variations on this effect have been studied academically. And although the results don’t point out specific mechanisms that cause it, they do hint at possible reasons for the Tetris effect’s occurrence. People who sleep after playing a video game improve in the game after waking up (as compared to people who play after the same amount of time without sleep), implying that the brain is processing the game in their sleep—could this connect to the propensity for video game imagery to pop up when people are trying to sleep? That would suggest that the effect is related to the procedural memory: the memory used to learn skills. As strange as it sounds, there’s even stronger support for this view. Anterograde amnesiacs—people who can’t form new memories—experience this effect, seeing Tetris phantoms after playing for long stretches of time even though they can’t remember the time spent. In the past, anterograde amnesiacs have been demonstrated to retain procedural memory that they gain learning new skills—so while it’s unsurprising that they should keep Tetris skills, the fact that they see phantoms from the game implies that they’re a part of the brain’s learning experience. There are plenty of alarmist articles about the Tetris effect, warning that we’ll all be stuck playing video games behind our eyelids soon, that we’ll lose track of the real world, that we’ll swerve cars into bushes just because they’re smaller than us (à la Katamari Damacy). But the brain is plastic; it’s just adapting to what we do often. And it’s not all bad: scientists have found that playing Tetris immediately after trauma reduces harmful memory formation and that spatial relations and other specialized skills can increase dramatically from playing certain video games. All that training your brain gets doesn’t go completely unused in the real world. So next time you find yourself trying to “save” after you successfully get through a rough day at work, or you swerve strangely around the corner after playing Mario Kart, don’t be too alarmed—it’s just your brain trying to optimize how it sees the world. And don’t be alarmed if you find yourself checking this blog next week, same time / same place—it’s just your brain eager to learn something cool. Want to know more? Game Transfer Phenomena Reducing Trauma through Tetris Amnesiacs and Recall

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About sarahexplains

I explain things! Hopefully things that people want to know. I'm working on that part.
This entry was posted in What/How and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Introductions; The Tetris Effect

  1. Eric says:

    Nice. Fun to read, to the point, informative. I will be back for more.

  2. Holly Hunt says:

    Sarah Explains, Holly Entertained

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