From there, things happened fast. In 1985, the same puzzle game was ported onto the IBM PC, gaining popularity with users around the Soviet Union; it soon wormed its way out of Soviet borders, ending up at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where it caught the attention of a software designer. The designer promptly flew to Moscow, secured the handheld rights, and licensed them to Nintendo, which included a cartridge with the puzzle in all sales of its 1989 Game Boy. Today, that creation born behind the Berlin Wall has made its way around the world as one of gaming’s most famous and ingenious time sucks: Tetris. And the story of this humble puzzle game, with its enduring popularity, is also the story of what makes us tick as human beings.
“Tetris fulfills a very simple need,” says Pajitnov, who now lives in Washington state. “We all have a natural desire to create order out of chaos. The game of Tetris satisfies that desire on a very basic level.”
He’s not wrong, but that satisfaction is rooted in another deeply unsatisfying reality: To play Tetris is to knowingly opt in to something that has no end and no way of winning. The game is “simple to learn, but very hard to master,” Pajitnov says, but that’s not quite right — it’s impossible to master. Despite the laserlike focus it generates, Tetris has no clear endpoint and no easily defined opponents. Unlike with most other video games, you’re playing only against yourself, without any concrete goals other than to keep on fitting blocks into other blocks. The focus is on the process, rather than the result.