The first game console I ever got was a handheld – a Gameboy Color. While that puts me a bit behind many other gamers, I got off on the right foot on the software end, as my first game was the port of Super Mario Bros. This was a great game, but at the time was still a little difficult for me. I spent a lot of time moving from world to world, slowly but surely advancing. Each level was more difficult than the last. Each day became more strenuous. The Gameboy followed me everywhere that sufficient lighting existed – the bus, the couch and awkward family reunions alike. I ate up double-A batteries like whatever was eating Gilbert Grape. Homework could wait. I was an eight-bit plumber with an oddly non-plumbing-related job to do. Each toad assured me that somewhere, in some castle that wasn’t this one, there was an eight-bit princess waiting on me.
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 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 shapes in everyday life, trying to visualize how pieces of furniture and other objects would fit together to form perfect rows in line with the game’s goal. Dreams of falling blocks were also common.
Though Tetris’s heyday is long behind us, the term is not. The Tetris effect can be seen as a result of any number of mundane hobbies, tasks or other games. I can’t count the people I’ve talked to who stop in the middle of hallways to consider picking up an abandoned bobby pin after playing Fallout. Computer programmers and mathematicians are often assaulted by lines of code and complex equations as they try to fall asleep at night. A nagging thought, an obscure concept, a carrot on a stick dangling in front of our eyelids even at the precipice of consciousness.
Mario began to drive 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 level would form in front of me. The level 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, it became a matter of avoiding pits that seemed to go on forever. No matter how I timed my jump in those sleepless nights, I would fall in by some omnipresent and unyielding force.
Mario in Super Mario Bros., one of the first games he starred in. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I finally buried the Gameboy in the couch cushions. I could no longer play at the risk of losing more sleep. While the term “stress” was beyond my vocabulary for the time, I was certainly getting stressed out – over Mario. My brother mourned the loss of the Gameboy. I had no idea where it had gone! Oh well…
Eventually the Gameboy would be found, Mario conquered, and peace 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 The Saboteur. Marked on the map by white dots, they seemed to go on forever, and every time I closed my eyes at night I could only think about setting custom waypoints. Was I capable of moving through my 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!? The Saboteur proved to be much less difficult an accomplishment than Mario, but its finish allowed me to shrug off a massive weight and return to life my own person once more.
And now…Catherine. Oh Catherine. The block puzzle to rule them all. If you haven’t played Catherine, the object of the majority of the gameplay is to ascend an awry pyramid of blocks. You have to push them, pull them and crawl around them to drive onward, all the while racing the blocks falling below you. Every pile of coins I collect on the way up is like a frozen body on the trail up Mt. Everest. I’m still in the early stages and on the normal difficulty, but Catherine is proving to be one of the most trying puzzles I’ve ever faced.
And on the brink of sleep, if I’ve spent enough time playing, 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 at the top another stack of two just waiting to be yanked out and adjusted to my needs. It’s worse than the Mario staircases as I have to double back on all my own work each time as I build them in front of me!
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 How I Met Your Mother (I’m on season 5 – no spoilers!). I refuse to succumb to the Tetris effect. 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 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.