The Circle Interview: Dan Ackerman on The Tetris Effect

By Harold Goldberg

CNET’s Dan Ackerman has been a loyal New York Videogame Critics Circle member pretty much from Day One. This week, Ackerman’s first tome hits bookshelves, and there’s reason for celebration. The Tetris Effect: The Game That Hypnotized The World delves deeply into the stunning narrative surrounding the creation of Tetris, one of the games that continues to fascinate after more than 30 years since it’s 1984 release. Dan’s tale reads as a carefully crafted page turner, something you can’t put down and he’ll read from the book at BookCourt next Tuesday at 7 p.m. Dan was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book and the process of writing it during a busy week doing media.

© Sarah Tew Photography

© Sarah Tew Photography

What made you choose to write a book about Tetris and what is your angle?

It’s a story a lot of people know a little bit about. Maybe they know Tetris has some kind of Russian background, or that it was the subject of a lot of lawsuits. But, once I dug into it just a little, I realized there was so much to it that felt very relevant today.

The story of Tetris is basically a start-up story, like any you’d read about in Silicon Valley, expect that it happened in Moscow during the height of the Cold War. I felt it was a great way to explore the dynamic of start-ups and creators and ideas like intellectual property ownership and viral technology, but as part of a very different world at a different time.

What was your writing process like?

As someone with a full-time job, and a family, I had to very careful about budgeting my time. Once I knew I was definitely doing this book, I worked out the math of how long I had to turn in my manuscript, how many words it needed to be, and how often during the week I could work on it. I ended up figuring out that I’d need to write about 1,000 words every Saturday and every Sunday for about a year. It sounds daunting, but once you work what the pace it, it’s just a matter of putting in the work.

How did you choose your agent and what was the proposal-writing process like?

One of the unsavory truths I’ve learned about the book publishing industry is that a proposal is basically a business plan for your book. It’s about who the target audience is, what similar books have come before, and how have they sold, and how you plan to use whatever personal “platform” you have to promote the finished work. And that’s before you even get to a sample chapter or outline.

What was the most difficult chapter of the book to write?

Probably the long coda at the end. The vast majority of The Tetris Effect really covers just the years 1984-1989. So much interesting stuff happened to the main players after that, it was really tough to boil it down to a chapter of quick updates.

In October, there’s a graphic novel coming out about Tetris. Is there room for both? Why or why not?

I haven’t read it yet, but it looks fun. I like the art style, it’s got an indie/underground vibe. Clearly there’s something about this story that hits home with people, and in fact Box Brown, the guy who’s doing the graphic novel, and I are supposed to do a New york Comic Con panel together.

Do you think Tetris would have thrived without Henk Rogers, who was the business genius to Alexei’s programming genius?

A really good nonfiction story is really about the people involved, not the events. And you could not ask for a better protagonist than Henk Rogers, who is a such a unique, brilliant character that he really makes the story, more so even than Alexey Pajitnov. Everything about Henk, from coming to America as a kid and learning English from cartoons, to creating the first Japanese RPG, to sneaking into Russia to talk his way into a meeting with ELORG, the Russian trade group holding the rights to Tetris, is just so interesting and brilliant. Getting to talk to him for this book project was a real highlight.

What was the U.S.S.R like at the time and how did that help or hinder the release of Tetris?

It’s a real testament to the strength of Tetris that it ever made its way out of Moscow. There was no internet to speak of, no way to easily share a computer program. Not only did people have to physically put a copy on a disk and walk it over to someone else’s computer to share the game, but if you had a different kind of computer, you literally had to look at the game and its source code, and just rewrite the game from scratch, getting it as close as possible to the original.

And, of course, working in a society that not only lacked any entrepreneurial role models, but also actively discouraged the idea of intellectual property ownership, the fact that Tetris eventually became a billion-dollar business is even more incredible.

When I wrote about Tetris in my book, I wrote that Nintendo was partially responsible for its popularity since Tetris came with the Game Boy. Do you feel that way? Do you think Tetris would have been the phenomenon it was without Nintendo?

So true. The Game Boy and Tetris formed a perfect symbiotic relationship. One was a stripped-down handheld game console with a monochromatic screen and just two buttons and a d-pad, while the other was a stripped-down version of an already minimalist game, but perfectly suited for that small, low-resolution Game Boy screen. Without Nintendo, and the Game Boy and NES/Famicom versions of Tetris, it never would have moved beyond being a cult favorite on PCs, and eventually just another cold war curio.

Why do you think Tetris survives to this day?

It’s the perfect game for non-gamers, and it appeals to plenty of people who would never be caught dead playing a video game or calling themselves “gamers.” Tetris also exists in such a perfect state that every new version is still very close to the original, yet it doesn’t feel dated, which is amazing when you consider how even brand-new games can feel horribly dated within a year or two.

You also can’t discount the unintentionally perfect cognitive triggers built into this simple but brilliant design. There’s something special about the visuospatial activity in Tetris that engages the brain at a very high level, but without using our language centers. That’s what makes it so addictive, and also so universally understandable, even without a single word of instruction.

And, of course, you can’t deny the basic appeal of stacking blocks neatly together. It’s the most basic of human impulses, to create order out of chaos.


Harold Goldberg, the Circle’s founder, is the author of All Your Base Are Belong to Us: How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture.

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