'Tetris' Creators Detail KGB Involvement on Game's 30th Birthday

Programmer Alexey Pajitnov talks about the legendary game for World Tetris Day

Tetris
Karl Gehring/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Tetris
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Nobody needs an excuse to play Tetris, but since Friday, June 6th is "World Tetris Day" (and also the game's 30th birthday), it's the perfect time to assemble some colored bricks into neat little rows. It's also the perfect time to reflect on how this seminal game came into existence. In a new feature with The Guardian, programmer Alexey Pajitnov and video game licenser Henk Rogers discuss the game's origins – which include negotiations with the KGB.

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Pajitnov worked in a Soviet computing lab for the Academy of Science of the USSR during the early Eighties, the same time he started experimenting with video game programming. "I've loved puzzles ever since I was a child, especially pentominoes," he says. "In June 1984, it occurred to me that they might be a good basis for a computer game."

The original design hit a snag once Pajitnov realized how quickly the screen filled up with tiles. "The playfield filled up in 20 seconds flat. Also, once you'd filled a line, it was kind of dead, so why keep it on the screen? So I made each full line disappear, which was key."

Elsewhere, he reflects on Nintendo's "embarrassing" choice to use Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker theme for the game's music. "When kids of the world hear these pieces of music, they start screaming: 'Tetris! Tetris!' That's not very good for Russian culture."

Rogers' story of acquiring the game involves a trip to Moscow, where he made a nerve-wracking deal with Elorg ("the bureau handling the export of software"), assisted by the KGB. 

"The director of Elorg, a Mr. Belikov, told me they had never given rights to anybody," he says. "I was in deep kimchi, because I had 200,000 game cartridges at $10 apiece being manufactured in Japan, and I'd put up all of my in-laws' property up as collateral. We reconvened the following day and they had a lineup of 10 people – KGB, business guys, lawyers, Alexey – who grilled me for two hours."

The game eventually became an addictive classic on the hand-held Game Boy platform and its modern version remains popular on mobile phones. Thirty years later, people are still getting pleasure from this mind-numbing game – and according to Dr. Tom Stafford in a new interview with The Daily Mail, there's a scientific basis behind the game's obsessive appeal.

Tetris works because of the "Zeigarnik effect," which suggests that "people more easily remember uncompleted tasks than those that they have finished." 

"Tetris does this wonderfully," he says. "It presents a world of perpetual uncompleted tasks. . . It involves us in a compulsive loop of completing and generating new tasks and that keeps us endlessly playing."