Tetris: An Electronic Ambassador of Benevolence

In the 1990s, psychologists started noticing the mental effects of a popular video game. people spent so much time playing the game that it began to affect how they would think and even dream. the psychologist coined a term for this new behavior named for the game itself. they called it the Tetris effect.

Tetris is one of the most popular computer programs ever, having sold more than 200 million copies. it holds the Guinness world record for the most ported video game in history, being available on over 65 different platforms.

Yet despite this massive popularity, the soviet creator of the game received no royalties from his invention until he moved to the west 12 years later. his name was Alexey Pajitnov.

Pajitnov was born in the Soviet Union in 1955. after graduating in applied mathematics from the Moscow aviation institute in 1979, he started working in the computer center at the soviet academy of sciences as a speech recognition researcher. when the computer center received new equipment researchers were asked to write small programs to test its capabilities. Pajitnov used these tests as opportunities to write games because his goal was to use computers to make people happy.

In 1984 the center received an electronica 60 which despite having only eight kilobytes of ram was a state-of-the-art computer in the Soviet Union at that time and quite rare. but Pajitnov used the electronica 60 to create Tetris, little knowing that his small program would become one of the most popular of all time.

He based his game on childhood memories of playing Pentominoes — game where you create pictures using shapes. he remembered how difficult it was to put the various shapes back in their box, and this was his inspiration for Tetris.

He thought that the number of shapes possible using Pentominoes — shapes made up of five blocks — was too many so for his game he used tetrominoes — shapes made up of four blocks. Pajitnov named the game by combining the word tetra meaning four with the name of his favorite sport, tennis. thus, on June 6, 1984, Tetris was born.

The game Pajitnov came up with was deceptively simple. the players simply had to arrange falling shapes in order to fill the rows on the screen. but as the game went on, the shapes fell faster. if the player failed to fill a row, the screen began to fill, and when the fill reached the top, the game was over.

Adding to its addictive quality, the game never ended with a victory. the player could only attempt to complete as many lines as possible before she inevitably lost and reset the screen to start again.

The addictive nature of Pajitnov ‘s creation became obvious as Tetris spread throughout the academy of sciences and then to every Moscow institute with a computer.

The electronica 60 had no graphics capabilities so in the original version of Tetris the blocks of the shapes had to be formed by text. Pajitnov decided he should adapt his game for the then popular IBM PC which had greater graphics capabilities. so, he asked Vadim Gerasimov, a 16-year-old high school student known for his programming skills, to help him. Gerasimov completed a version of the game for the PC in just three weeks, adding color scoring and sound effects and creating Tetris as it came to be known around the world.


Pajitnov knew he had created something special but intellectual property rights didn’t exist in the Soviet Union, and he wasn’t allowed to sell his creation. he transferred the rights to Tetris to the soviet academy in hopes that they would be able to find distribution for it outside the USSR. the head of the academy sent the game to a software publisher in Hungary where Robert Stein, an English software salesman, first saw the game in 1986.

seeing its potential, stein licensed the rights to the game to an American software company called Spectrum HoloByte. Spectrum HoloByte decided to overhaul the look of the game, but they maintained its Russian heritage by using imagery such as soviet cosmonauts and Red Square as well as adding a soundtrack of Russian folk songs. because of the game’s popularity one of the songs called “Korobeiniki” would become world famous.

“Korobeiniki” is based on a poem of the same name by Nikolay Nekrasov, published in 1861. Korobeiniki were street peddlers in pre-revolutionary Russia and the song tells of such a peddler seducing a young girl. the song was wildly popular in the 19th century but thanks to the success of Tetris it’s now better known as the game’s theme than by its original title. in 1992, at the peak of the game’s popularity a British recording artist named Doctor Spin actually had a hit single in England with Tetris, an electronic dance version of “Korobeiniki”. Doctor Spin was actually a pseudonym for none other than world-renowned theater composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

In its first year of distribution, Spectrum Holobyte sold over 100,000 copies of Tetris and the game won numerous awards. but there was a problem. because the USSR didn’t recognize intellectual property rights, Robert Stein didn’t legally own the game that he had licensed so successfully. Stein eventually signed an agreement with ELORG, the soviet central organization for computer software import and export giving him a 10-year license to distribute Tetris on all computer systems. Pajitnov didn’t receive any royalties from this deal but he said publicly that he was happy that so many people were enjoying his creation.

And when Tetris was selected by Nintendo to be the game bundled with its new portable game boy system, Tetris exploded throughout the world. sales of the game boy, and thus of Tetris, went off the charts exceeding projections three times, and the runaway success of the game caused a series of legal battles between Nintendo and Atari, all trying to take advantage of its incredible success.

In January 1990, Spectrum Holobyte invited Pajitnov to participate in the annual consumer electronics show in Las Vegas. it was Pajitnov ‘s first trip to America and he fell in love with the freedoms available in the west., realizing there was no market in Russia for computer game creation, Pajitnov moved to the U.S for good in 1991. Alexey Pajitnov now receives a royalty for every copy of Tetris sold around the world. 

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