Tetris is not just about pieces falling down, it is about much more happening in our minds.

Description and History of the video game

In XBadges research that we are conducting from Compartia & Gecon on how video games influence and modify soft skills, one of the three games we are investigation about is Tetris, a video game already well known by all gamers and non-gamers. At this point it is necessary to review the current bibliography and research to discover what has already been studied about Tetris. So we have an empirical scientific basis with which to operate and interpret possible new results.

Programmed by Alekséi Pázhitnov and launched in 1984, Tetris is an arcade video game that has revolutionized the industry. Indeed, remastered by several companies and played in a lot of platforms (Sega, Atari, Game Boy and a long etcetera), Tetris is a video game with multiple versions that has changed many times its mechanics. For example, a variant called Quirks in wich you have to create blocks of 3 squares of the same color.

However, for this bibliographic review, we kept in mind the traditional version of the video game. In detail, the mechanics of the classic version are the following: seven randomly rendered tetrominoes or tetrads shapes composed of four blocks each falling down on the playing field.

The very first version of Tetris, released in 1984, run on an emulator of the Soviet DVK-2 computer by Wikipedia

The object of the game is to manipulate these tetrominoes to create a horizontal line of blocks without gaps. Consequently, when such a line is created, it disappears, and the blocks above (if any) fall. As the game progresses, the pieces fall faster, and the game ends when the tetrominoes reaches the top on the field. Although Tetris has not a final objective within the game (compared with other games in which you have to achieve some specific goals) it offers the players a virtual space where they can spend some time and have fun.

But definitely there are more secrets behind these tetrominoes. Let´s see how Tetris goes from being a playful game to unleashing its potential as a tool for cognitive training.

The psychology behind Tetris

First of all, we should say that Tetris mechanics and elements invite the users to enter in a mental state called “Flow”. Flow is an optimal psychological state said to occur when people meet the challenges of a given task or activity with appropriate skills and accordingly feel a sense of well-being, mastery, and heightened self-esteem (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; cited in Belchior et al., 2012). Most of all, flow is also characterized by a deep sense of enjoyment. That is, not simply the result of satisfying a need, but a deeper sense of having achieve something novel and unexpected.

We can observe how the players play in a Flow state while their skills improve and the difficulty of the video game is adjusted in every moment thanks to the raising falling speed of the pieces. Besides Belchior et al., (2012) concluded (according with Csikszentmihalyi research, 1990) that the mechanics and game strategy of Tetris were likely learned faster facilitating the Flow.

Flow by Csikszentmihalyi 1990

In a Flow state where the user is totally focused in the game, there are perfect opportunities to empower skills since the user is not bored or distracted. In fact it is the most optimal environment for learning and training. But what skills are improving the players while they play Tetris?

Improving skills with Tetris

The design of Tetris can already place us in the range of abilities that can be enhance, or in another way, the skills that are necessary to have a good performance in the video game. It is clear that Tetris differs a lot from other video games that exist today and therefore. For example, it is very difficult for Tetris to improve the reflexes and visual system, as shooter video games or action video games do (Achtman et al., 2008, among many other studies). It is also very difficult to say that Tetris teaches us history such as video games as Age of Empire saga do (Ensemble Studios, 1997).

However what we can infer in a first state is that Tetris has something to do with space, with the ability to assimilate the information on a 2d plane and how to move and rotate the pieces and make them fit. We could say in general that Tetris is related to spatial abilities or spatial cognition.

Spatial ability

Specificly, spatial cognition involves multiple components. Broadly speaking refers to the skill in representing, transforming, generating and recalling symbolic, nonlinguistic information (Linn and Petersen, 1985; cited in Oei & Patterson, 2014).

In fact, many scientific investigations studied Tetris, relating it with the spatial cognition. Some of the results link Tetris with mental rotation, specifically, faster and more accurate mental rotation was found in experienced and trained Tetris players (Okagaki and Frensch, 1994; Sims and Mayer, 2002; Boot et al., 2008; all 3 cited in Oei & Patterson, 2014). These results have sense since Tetris players must stack falling shapes efficiently using mental rotation and planning to complete lines and get points without dying. In addition, Sims and Mayer (2002; cited in Oei & Patterson, 2014), concluded that Tetris trainees were more likely to use a Tetris-like mental rotation for Tetris shapes, showing that transfer effects are quite specific to skills that are common to the trained game and transfer task.

Quiroga et al. (2009) also saw this effect in their experiments, where skilled Tetris players outperformed non-Tetris players on mental rotation of shapes that were either identical or very similar to Tetris shapes, but not on other tests of spatial ability (Tetris players used the same mental rotation procedures as non-Tetris players, but when Tetris shapes were used, they executed them more quickly). Although, Okagaki and Frensch (1994) proved the generalization to different shapes of that skills acquired playing Tetris. Thus, visualization skill developed in Tetris could be transferred to the visualization and mental manipulation of different (non-Tetris) stimuli. So it is not clear if the skill improvement transference is possible.

Mental rotation task by Psychlopedia

Speaking about abilities improvements, Okagaki and Frensch (1994) found that practicing on Tetris positively affects closely related spatial skills too, replicating the study of Subrahmanyam and Greenfield (1994; cited In Okagaki and Frensch, 1994). Numerous training studies (e.g., Connor, Schackman, & Serbin, 1978; cited in Okagaki and Frensch, 1994) also have found that practice can improve spatial performance.

General intelligence & brain efficiency

Tetris was also related to general intelligence and brain efficiency (Haier, et al., 1992), proving that girls who practiced with Tetris showed greater brain efficiency. Compared to controls, the girls that practiced also had a thicker cortex, but not in the same brain areas where efficiency occurred (increased cortical thickness is a sign of more gray matter, more neurons, more efficiency). The areas of the brain that showed relatively thicker cortex were the Brodmann Area (BA) 6 in the left frontal lobe and BA 22 and BA 38 in the left temporal lobe. Scientists believe BA 6 plays a role in the planning of complex, coordinated movements and BA 22 and BA 38 are part of the brain active in multisensory integration.

Functional MRI (fMRI) showed also greater efficiency after practice mostly in the right frontal and parietal lobes including BAs 32, 6, 8, 9, 46 and BA 40. These areas are associated with critical thinking, reasoning, and language and processing, and they are also active when mental rotation tasks are performed (Cohen et al., 1996; cited in Oei & Patterson, 2014). Even the authors commented the results saying: “Tetris requires many cognitive processes like attention, hand/eye coordination, memory and visual spatial problem solving all working together very quickly. Therefore it’s not surprising that we see changes throughout the brain”.

Other abilities

We have seen the research about how Tetris affects and boosts spatial abilities and brain efficiency, but there are more studies that relate Tetris with other topics. For example a study declaring that playing Tetris after viewing traumatic material reduces unwanted and involuntary memory flashbacks to that traumatic film (Holmes, James, Coode-Bate, & Deeprose, 2009; Holmes, James, Kilford, & Deeprose, 2010; both cited in Skorka-Brown et al., 2015) and weakens naturally occurring cravings in a laboratory setting too (Skorka-Brown et al., 2014; cited in Skorka-Brown et al., 2015). This implies that visual cognitive interference can be used repeatedly to reduce cravings for a range of substances and activities.

These finding extends the results of Skorka-Brown et al. research (2014), who reported that craving strength was reduced when participants played Tetris, but not when they watched a fake loading-screen. As a support tool, Tetris, could help people manage their cravings in naturalistic settings and over extended time periods. This findings are consistent with theories such as EI Theory (Kavanagh et al., 2005) that view cravings as conscious states supported by limited capacity cognitive processes.

Extracted from Hobbyronconcola


As we have seen Tetris is much more than a simple video game that can be used to spend some time. In fact, multiple investigations prove that it is a tool to enhance certain cognitive abilities within the range of spatial abilities. In addition to all of these studies, the results of XBadges research (as a replica of Trousselle et al., 2016) point to a significant improvement in spatial reasoning in Tetris players, . Concluding once again the effectiveness of this classic video game as a training tool as well as being a funny entertainment tool.

Bibliographic references

  • Achtman, R. L., Green, C. S. and Bavelier, D. (2008). Video games as a toll to train visual skills. Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience, 26, 435-446.
  • Belchior, P., Marsiske, M., Sisco, S., Yam, A. and Mann, W. (2012). Older adults’ engagement with a video game training program. Act Adapt Aging, 36 (4).
  • Boot, W. R., Kramer, A. F., Simons, D. J., Fabiani, M. and Gratton, G. (2008). The effects of video game playing on attention, memory and executive control. Acta Psychol (Amst), 129, 387–398.
  • Cohen, M. S., Kosslyn, S. M., Breiter, H. C., Digirolamo, G. J., Thompson, W. L., Anderson, A. K. (1996). Changes in cortical activity during mental rotation. A mapping study using functional MRI. Brain, 119, 89–100.
  • Connor, J. M., Schackman, M. & Serbin, L. A. (1978). Sex related differences in response to practice on a visual spatial test and generalization to a related test. Child Development, 49, 24-29.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of the optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.
  • Haier, R. J., Siegel, B., Tang, C., Abel, L. and Buchsbaum, M. S. (1992). Intelligence and changes in regional cerebral glucose metabolic rate following learning. Intelligence, 16, 415–426.
  • Holmes, E.A., James, E.L., Coode-Bate, T. and Deeprose, C. (2009). Can playing the computer game ‘Tetris’ reduce the build-up of flashbacks for trauma? A proposal from cognitive science. PLoS ONE, 4, 1.
  • Holmes, E.A., James, E.L., Kilford, E.J. and Deeprose, C. (2010). Key steps in developing a cognitive vaccine against traumatic flashbacks: Visuospatial Tetris versus verbal Pub Quiz. PLoS One, 5 (11).
  • Kavanagh, D.J., Andrade, J. and May, J. (2005). Imaginary relish and exquisite torture: the elaborated intrusion theory of desire. Psychological Review, 112, 446–467.
  • Linn, M.C., and Petersen, A. C. (1985). Emergence and characterization of sex differences in spatial ability: a meta-analysis. Child Dev, 56, 1479–1498.
  • Oei, A. and Patterson, M. (2014). Are videogame training gains specific or general?. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, 8 (54).
  • Okagaki, L. and Frensch, P. (1994). Effects of video game playing on measures of spatial performance: Gender effects in late adolescence. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 15 (1), 33-58.
  • Quiroga, M., Herranz, M., Gómez-Abad, M., Kebir, M., Ruiz, J. and Colom, R. (2009). Video games: Do they require general intelligence?. Computers & Education, 53 (2), 414-418.
  • Sims, V. and Mayer, R. (2002). Domain specificity of spatial expertise: the case of video game players. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 16 (1), 97-115.
  • Skorka-Brown, J., Andrade, J. and May, J. (2014). Playing ‘Tetris’ reduces the strength, frequency and vividness of naturally occurring cravings. Appetite, 76, 161–165.
  • Skorka-Brown J., Andrade, J., Whalley, B. and May, J. (2015). Playing Tetris decreases drug and other cravings in real world settings. Addictive Behaviors, 51, 165–170.
  • Subrahmanyam, K. and Greenfield, P.M. (1994). Effect of video game practice on spatial skills in girls and boys. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 5, 13-32.
  • Trousselle, R., García, N., Alcántara, E. and Gutiérrez, A., (2016). Tetris y el Razonamiento Espacial. [Prezi] Available at: https://prezi.com/g11n_a4nqetm/tetris-y-el-razonamiento-espacial/ [Accessed 10 Mar. 2017].

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  1. Toby Beresford - June 26, 2017 at 10:58 am Reply

    I wonder if Ikea could use some of this research to create a game that would train us in spatial recognition and manipulation of Ikea components? That would make assembling their flat pack furniture easier!

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