The Insight: The Many Life Lessons Learned From Tetris

As we move into the next generations of consoles and play their graphically intense games, one old school offering still stands strong, not only for its landmark gameplay, but perhaps for inspiring life itself.

By Sarah Awad

It always surprised me how effortlessly Tetris came to my friend. As I watched in the midst of play one August evening on a clunky HP, her jumpy and clumsy nature just dissipated as she seemed to become one with the game’s flow. Her focus centered, she was like Martha Graham with movements rhythmic and efficient, properly placing each block until it fell into its kinetic cascade.  I have never seen my indecisive buddy so coordinated and confident in her choices than when I see her dance through Tetris. Everything just falls into place.

Inspired, I asked for a round, thinking I was ready to tango.  But as I took my turn in front of the screen, each dropping block created an all-too-familiar uneasiness in my chest.  As the blocks fell slowly, the gears in my brain begin to turn – too quickly. A block I don’t need emerges and my plan of attack is foiled.  I jump the gun and flip the piece incorrectly. My mind races as I try for a fix. The colors pour down.  Nothing fits.  Nothing ever fits. Something is always missing. Overcome with frustration, the pressure pwn’d me.
So I let the pieces pile up into a nice rubble peak as if they are on top of me. I willingly accept defeat.  They continue to build even after the Game Over screen flashes.

I was partially shocked, but not necessarily surprised at what just happened; I was just supposed to leisurely play Tetris on my couch.  But what had just been pulled to the surface – the complex emotions – was something I have encountered many a time before. I knew its feeling all too well. It was not a good feeling, not at all.

Starting in my early teens, Anxiety began to slither through the gears of my subconscious, looking to play a game. I still remember how we first met, Anxiety rattling me from my sleep with convulsive shakes and a heavy chest, just a number of days before my first day of high school. This was the start of a long rivalry between us. The game: a Tug-of-war infused Diplomacy. Back and forth, we showed our cards, mashed our buttons, and just when I thought the upper hand was mine, that cheater would steal a base, reveal a trap card, and snatch it from my control.

It would come and go in waves, and when it did pop in on the playground, it always looked a bit different. But it was nonetheless my same old rival; and once again, it was back to play with me and my senses.

August never was my ally, especially this past one. It is a time of lasts, and especially for all rising college seniors like myself, it means lots of them.

Welcome to your early twenties: constant change, big decisions, conflated time, “the real world,” your world, your head. It’s an open world game we have no choice but to play, a game with hefty boss battles. You play hard and fight for a chance just to be OK, not even the champ, and even then you can never be guaranteed security.

Just like Tetris, the blocks are falling, and your anxiety builds alongside them as different shades of confidence or lack thereof. You try to make it all fit inside that small space, to make sense of it all. But there is no stopping time, and it just gets faster and the blocks fall faster, and you lose yourself in the flow.

It makes me wonder: Will it all ever really falls into place?

My round of Tetris smacked me in the face with the realization of what my anxiety was truly about, and what it was doing to my ability to work properly, and also enjoy this time in my young life. As one who loves to create and to write, I have high expectations for myself. But my dream nevertheless remains simple: If I was at a social gathering and someone asks me how things were with me, I could look them in the eye and confidently say, “Things are good.” That’s it. Things are solid in life. Things are solid with me.

***

In our games of Tetris: Allegory Remix, we have a choice to be a power-up or a critical hit to our performance. Here are some things I found most pertinent from the game that I am now always mindful of in my quest for solidity:

1. You can only plan so far in advance: Tetris only allows you to see one move ahead, showing you the next block that will fall into your hands. It’s the same in this world, minus the blocks; we can’t see the endgame, and we can’t see how each block will be placed leading up that point. Be ambitious, but also be mindful of realistic timelines and goals. Certain persons can just simply handle more than others. Only compare yourself to yourself. Being organized and realizing how you work best will help you decipher what you think you can do, what you actually can do, and what you just simply cannot do.

2. If you don’t like surprises, get over it. Maybe that next block was not the blue L block you desperately needed, but you cannot let it throw off your game. You keep rolling with what pieces come at you, making them fit as best you can, until you delete a line and get back on rhythm. If you let the fears of the ominous what-ifs saturate your brain, you’re only exhausting yourself with unnecessary anxiety that will throw you off in most of the other areas of your life. Pace yourself and adjust accordingly. You stay focused, work through it, and come out feeling lighter. It’s easier said than done (trust me), but to let the anxiety within you win is the ultimate Game Over.

3. Be efficient and productive, but don’t forget to have fun. Why does Tetris appeal to so many? Yes, it’s addicting in the sense of mastering a technique and coming out on top of the score chart. But many will just say that they have fun playing it.

We can easily get caught in two completely different flows: there’s the 9-to-5 Flow, where we go through our routine and slowly develop an indifference that can whittle away at our self discovery and confidence, and then there is the Ludo Flow, where you strikingly fuse with the algorithm and fall into the rhythm of gameplay. Never forget why you picked up the game in the first place. Never stop doing what you like. I believe you can have both worlds, and if you truly want to, you will find a way to harmoniously fit them together.

4. Don’t overthink. Probably the biggest HP drainer of them all. What is nice about Tetris is that, at least for me, is that you receive immediate feedback when you overthink; the rhythm of the game is suddenly thrown off.

To the average user, Tetris is a fairly straightforward game with clear mechanics and objectives. Yet it is so easy to sew our thoughts and winning strategies into a surrender flag. To overthink is your worst enemy; it is physically exhausting, mentally blinding, and an anxiety precursor. That kind of thinking snowballs rapidly, so do your best to identify it early. Don’t assume that you are constantly missing a piece of the puzzle; and most importantly, don’t beat yourself up thinking you’re too dumb to figure it out. When you feel smoke coming out of your ears, it is a sign that your confidence is melting. Don’t shut yourself down. You do not have to be shiningly confident. But treat yourself well, and use your knowledge healthfully and happily.

***

I just completed yet another round of Tetris. I still am not the best (far from it!). But my experience is satisfying for other reasons. I place the pieces together, work through my mistakes and conquer them through precision, and by the end, look forward to the next round. With my last fall semester halfway through, I put my new game face on, and prepare for the next round, and all the firsts that await.

Alexei Pajitnov may be quite surprised at how I see his game, but what I have discovered through Tetris is something that affects me daily, and it is in these moments that I see a different type of spirit from games. Whether it was mercilessly weeping at the end of Final Fantasy X, feeling the warmth of gathering with buddies to play cards, or dancing with satisfaction at finally beating a level, we have all experienced a moment within gameplay where something falls into place within us. It is hard to explain and is different for each individual, but you know it when you feel it, and you never forget it. For some reason, you never forget it, and you are inspired to figure out why. Where that leads you can surprise you, but can pull you out of the pile of blocks so you can sit atop them. We are in a game where the pieces keep falling faster than we can comprehend them, but we can never forget ourselves in the mix. We can never forget our own pieces.

My friend continuously updates me on her Tetris doings, with shots of screens in which her scores continue to rise, and winks at competition. I nod in reply, but my game is a completely different one. While I do not have all the moves down just yet, my present Tetris experience is satisfying. I hold onto that August evening we shared with a learned inspiration. I now place the pieces together, work through my mistakes with more precision, and by the end, look forward to the next round.

There is a lot to come with that next round for both of us, as May graduation day will arrive seemingly in a matter of seconds. The pieces will fall faster than we can comprehend them, and the challenge will test us, and we will have no choice but to play on. But as I watch my friend play over and over in my mind, her elegant dance reminds me to never forget ourselves in the mix, and how our gathering pieces of the puzzle can bring forth our rise. We can never forget to learn as we play any game, and maintain a calm and solidity as we adjust our pieces accordingly. The game may smack us in the face, but we will never forget to look at why.

Moving forward, game face on, be mindful, and keep playing, keep losing, keep clicking restart. And look around, closely. See how the pieces fall.

Sarah Awad is the host of our Full Circle program, a student at New York University and part of the Laser Girls collaborative.

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