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How a Tetris clone on the front of a tape-player led to spiritual enlightenment

"I'd taken a job in a factory feeling tomatoes..."

It would be safe to say that I am not a proper gamer. So it was with absolutely no shame that in the mid-'90s my main games console was actually a crappy white plastic Walkman-alike with a black and white knock-off version of Tetris called The Wall on the front. Even though Game Boys and Super Nintendos existed, I felt no strong urge to own one. Nope, just a great big chunky ersatz Walkman with four bright coloured buttons on it for me.

I don't remember ever actually using the thing to listen to music. I'm not sure if it even worked for that purpose, and I have some sense that it might have been secondhand and from a charity shop when it came to me. But I carried that thing around with me everywhere and played it obsessively and endlessly, until I developed a severe case of what I then liked to call "Tetrishead". This was the sensation that Tetris had infiltrated my brain on an unconscious level. When I closed my eyes I'd see a cascade of blocks pouring down in a relentless and vaguely anxiety-making stream. The real world became one giant Tetris game, my mind fitting benches into bins, trees into architecture. Once when I was sick I had a sort of fever dream where my duvet was made of Tetris and I had to fit the shapes together before it slowly crushed me to death. Harrowing.

But it turns out "Tetrishead" is not only a fairly well-known phenomenon but also might actually be good for you. The 'official' term is the Tetris Effect or Tetris Syndrome, and psychologists have found that it can improve spatial awareness. Give a bunch of subjects Tetris to play for repeated sessions and they'll kick the butts of the control group when it comes to shape rotation and spatial perception.

Way ahead of the Nintendo Switch.

Interesting too was a study I found that suggested Tetrishead occupies a separate form of memory to your conscious thoughts, and has more in common with things like muscle memory than conscious learning. It turns out that after a certain amount of Walkman Tetris, there's basically a special part of your brain that's just playing Tetris all the time without you having to think about it anymore.

This particular study involved people with anterograde amnesia - people who couldn't make new conscious memories - who played Tetris and then at night dreamed of Tetris blocks falling down the screen in their heads, despite having no memory of ever having played the game in the first place, which to me is mind blowing.

The phenomenon of "sea legs" - where you've been on a boat for ages and feel like you're still rocking when you're back on dry land, is apparently an example of Tetrishead. Or Tetris-legs, if you like.

Which brings me to my next major experience of Tetrishead, which occurred during the summer vacation of my first year at university. I'd taken a job in a factory essentially 'feeling' tomatoes. I'd stand by a conveyor belt for an insane number of hours a day giving a cheeky squeeze to endless rows of toms. Too squishy - no sir you're not getting in. Too hard - it's a no from me. To say it was relentlessly boring is an understatement; it gave me 'tomato head' and also 'tomato legs' whereby every time the conveyor belt stopped I'd fall over because my brain was so used to the motion. But on the other hand, though, it was the purest form of meditation I'd ever experienced. One part of my brain was in Tomatoland automatically prodding the fruit, leaving the other more conscious part of my brain to think slowly through all my issues. There was literally nothing else to do. I was the most well balanced tomato squeezer in the South Kent region.


Tetrishead 3.0 occurred during my first job. I worked at Teletext - which itself is basically Tetris on your telly - and a desktop game called Dope Wars was our office obsession, filling all of our lunch hours and occasionally a tiny bit of our working hours. In it you play a drug dealer buying and selling drugs in different districts of New York. It's entirely text-based, incredibly boring to look at and made me obsessed with the price of cocaine and heroine. It infiltrated my brain, left me dreaming of Peyote (I don't even know what Peyote is) but it also filled my head with numbers and strategies and left me absentmindedly musing over calculated risk and cost efficiencies.

My Tetris, tomatoes and drug dealing days are over for now. I've supplanted them with a card game called Exploding Kittens (my husband dreamed he had to shuffle the alarm clock to the bottom of the deck the other morning) and a board game called Lost Cities which is sharpening my mental arithmetic.

But I still think there's something beautiful about Tetrishead. An instinctive, single-minded and relentless need to make sense of things and order them, that's going on in the background at all times. I can only imagine what Tetrishead would have made of my plastic Walkman.