Tetris vs. Pong: A question of creativity?

Mal | Art Process and Creativity | Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

 Tetris
 photo credit: mat.teo 

While listening to NPR radio the other day, I learned that the ubiquitous video game Tetris turns 25 this year.

The game’s original programmer, Alexey Pajitnov, was interviewed and mostly ended up talking about the experience of trying to own the rights to his creative work, which was conceived during the 1980’s in communist Russia (and which probably explains that awesome theme music). Well, while that raises all kinds of interesting questions about who owns creative output, what really caught my attention was a throw-away question toward the end of the interview.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, I have to go back to the ’70s, actually, and I remember playing one of the early video games called Pong, which was developed by Atari. And when I think back to how ridiculous I was, to be putting quarters into machines in video arcades, to play that game, you know, I feel like an idiot. But I don’t feel like an idiot, going back to my first experience, more than two decades ago, with Tetris. Why does this game have such legs?

ALEXEY PAJITNOV: Well, many people have different opinion about that. But I still like Pong, and I wouldn’t mind to put couple of quarters to enjoy it. I don’t see anything wrong with it, by the way. But as far as Tetris is concerned, the game is very simple and it has very natural user interface. It has some kind of creative style. In most of the game you just shoot and destroy. In Tetris you try to build something, to put the order in the scales of random pieces. And probably that’s what make you feel a little bit better about what you’re doing with your quarters.

(You can hear the entire interview or read a transcript at the On the Media website. I recommend you do so, because Alexey’s Russian accent really adds to the experience.)

Tetris is a simple video game, yes. It can be addictive and a tremendous waste of time. It does, however, require some creative problem solving. There are a multitude of ways to solve the problem of tetris. It is, as Pajitnov notes, more about building something stable than tearing something down.

Pong is not about destruction, but is a game requiring some skill and minimal creative problem solving. Playing it  can quickly turn into a boring, repetitive tasks. It has had very little staying power in terms of popularity and perpetuation — and why would it? Who needs more boring repetitive tasks in their world?

As an interesting note, if you search for “tetris” on flickr, you’ll find all kinds of crazy creations — tetris halloween costumes, cupcakes, even jewelry! Searching for “pong,” on the other hand, returns mostly images of the original game, its packaging, and other retro-philic stuff. Does tetris itself encourage more creativity? More building and making? There is a recent study that suggests tetris may help to ameliorate the effects and memories of trauma. Is it the videogame that does it? Or is there something inherently healing about using that creative part of our brains? We may never know, but I think you know where my bias lies.

To me, this building something — this making order of my world through creativity — pays great dividends. Like Pajitnov, I do feel better when I spend my “quarters” on pursuits that build rather than destroy. It’s a privilege to spend these coins of time, effort, energy, and other resources which are in short supply on building a creative life.

What about you? Where do you spend your “quarters?”

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