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If you haven’t heard of it, the Tetris effect occurs when one devotes an excessive amount of time to an activity or game, and it begins to overtake the sufferer’s thoughts and dreams. It’s named for the classic block-stacking puzzler Tetris. At its release, Tetris took the world by storm and people began to devote massive amounts of time to it. Players began to see the title's abstract shapes in everyday life, trying to visualize how pieces of furniture and other objects would fit together to form perfect rows, for example. Even dreams of falling blocks became common.
Though Tetris’ heyday is long behind us, the Tetris effect lives on. It can emerge as a consequence from mundane hobbies, tasks, or playing other games. I've talked to countless people who think about picking up abandoned bobby pins because they've played Fallout 3. Computer programmers and mathematicians are often assaulted by lines of code and complex equations as they try to fall asleep at night.
A port of Super Mario Bros. on the Game Boy Color drove me insane. I imagined the levels rolling by — the identical bushes and clouds, the infinite bricks, the bottomless pits. But I could never imagine a level in its entirety. Instead, a world would form in front of me, and it would never end. I’d often be faced with never-ending stairs, jumping and jumping and jumping to nothing. If I made it past those, I would have to avoid pits that seemed to go on forever. No matter how I timed my jump in those sleepless nights, I would fall in due to some omnipresent and unyielding force.
I finally buried the Game Boy in the couch cushions because I could no longer play. While the term “stress” was beyond my vocabulary at the time, I was certainly getting stressed out…over Mario. My brother mourned the loss of the handheld. Oh well….
Eventually, the Game Boy would emerge, Mario Bros. would be conquered, and peace would be brought to the world. But I can’t say that I’ve gotten over the Tetris effect. I recall attempting to destroy every structure in Electronic Arts' recent open-world adventure, The Saboteur. The dots indicating the structures on the map seemed to go on forever, and every time I closed my eyes at night, I could only think about setting custom waypoints. Would I be able to navigate everyday life without placing a marker first? Could I find sleep without setting a place on the map? But where the hell is sleep on a map!? Finishing The Saboteur proved to be much less difficult an accomplishment than beating Mario, but its conclusion allowed me to shrug off a massive weight and return to life once more.
And now…Catherine. Oh, Catherine. The block puzzle to rule them all. If you haven’t played Catherine, the object behind most of the gameplay is to ascend an intimidating pyramid of blocks. You have to push them, pull them, and crawl around them to drive onward, all while staying ahead of the blocks falling below you. Every pile of coins I collect on the way up is like a frozen body on the trail to Mount Everest's summit. I’m still in the early stages, and on normal difficulty, but Catherine is proving to be one of the most trying puzzles I’ve ever faced.
On the brink of falling sleep, I can only visualize blocks. An infinite staircase…. But now I’m building it in front of me. Pull a block out, climb down, pull out another, and climb down again…until the staircase is complete, only to find another stack just waiting to be adjusted to my needs.
But I will not be defeated. I will conquer Catherine like I conquered the rest, but I’ve learned to budget my time by playing other games, reading books, and watching TV. I refuse to succumb to the Tetris effect because I have bigger problems.
While the horror, no, the beauty of the Tetris effect is that it maximizes your smallest struggles, I can’t lose any more sleep over a video game.
Disclaimer: This post is, in many ways, a dramatization. While the stories are real, I have a life, a girlfriend, a job, and bigger problems.