Q&A: The Titan of Tetris Talks Video Games

Back in 1988, Dutch video game publisher Henk Rogers discovered Tetris at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Rogers secured the rights to distribute the Russian puzzle challenge on game consoles and later agreed to bundle it with every Nintendo Game Boy purchase. Twenty-two years later, Tetris remains not only a household name, but a staple on platforms ranging from mobile apps to PlayStation 3 (as of just this morning) and Wii.

Rogers – the 57-year-old CEO of Blue Planet Software, which manages the licensing rights to Tetris – spoke with TechNewsDaily about the most exciting innovations in the games world today, how Tetris could become the first-ever virtual professional sport, and how it could soon be customized to work with Microsoft's new Kinect body gaming system.

Tetris has certainly stood the test of time. How would you say it's evolved?

To start, we have a lot more colors now. The original game was black and white, and the graphics and interface have really improved over the years. Before, there was no such thing as a mouse – it then went to a mouse game and now it’s an even better touch-screen game. On the software side, Tetris was at first just about survival. Now we try to reward players more throughout the game. For example, if they are able to clear more than just one line at the same time, we'll give them extra points. And if a player accomplishes something that looks neat from a graphic standpoint, we'll reward them for that, too. Each time a new platform comes out – whether it’s Nintendo Wii or the iPhone – we match the game to it. The quality may not be as great on a mobile app, but it's about the game, not the dots on the screen. If you're entertained, it doesn't matter if it's on a big screen in your living room or on a small one during your commute to work. The fact that you can play anytime, anywhere is a huge advancement that we didn’t have in the beginning.

Is Tetris' following still pretty big after all these years?

Oh, definitely. In fact, Tetris is showing signs of becoming the first virtual sport. If a major activity sticks around for more than 25 years, it can become professional – this happened with surfing. There’s been a lot of talk among the die-hard players to make it one within the next five years. We would probably start by having the top 10,000 players in the world play, and after a series of games, the crème of the crème would compete on TV for the championships. We’re working on it.

Wow, that would be pretty cool. So what other games are catching your attention right now?

Well, the last game I really got into was the World of Warcraft. It’s probably reached its plateau at this point, but I just loved it. Every once in a while a new game comes out that really attracts new people. When the CD-ROM first hit, there was just so much more room for graphics in a game than ever before. You could take a simple adventure game and make them appeal to a new audience. Now the latest big thing is social gaming, from Mafia Wars to FarmVille. People who swear they don’t play games play games now. And you can play them through so many different platforms. My young granddaughter loves to play games on my iPad. But it’s the hard-core gamers that are always on the lookout for the most sophisticated software and hardware out there. Expectations are always up when it comes to new technology.

What do you think of the new xBox Kinect system?

Oh, it's incredible. It's just amazing to see where the gaming industry is headed; how it encourages interactivity and gets you off of the couch like never before. I also love playing Rock Band with my wife on the Wii. This is the future of gaming. It's such an exciting time to be a part of the industry.

Tetris is already available on Wii and PlayStation 3. What's in store now for the Kinect world?

We definitely have something in the works. Think Tetris meets "Minority Report." I can't wait to see people dancing in front of the screen to control the game.

It's no secret that Tetris is super-addicting. Are there any other games out there that even come close to being as addictive?

I always try to keep an eye on the other games out there. Puyo Puyo got a lot of media attention in Japan for about a year and even had more sales than Tetris. But now it’s gone and Tetris is still there. Bejeweled Blitz also has a big following. But at the end of the day, like you said, it’s about standing the test of time, too.

What else is catching your eye overseas?

A gaming site called Hangame in Korea has a good amount of the population playing it, which is amazing. Actually, when you sign up, you have to give the Korean equivalent of your Social Security number, which means you are also giving away your birth date and gender. That is a lot of information collected on half of the entire population. Broadband is so prevalent there, and as it continues to expand in the United States, we'll try to catch up. We’re behind, though.

I heard Tetris isn't just used for fun these days. Is it true it can be played to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder flashbacks?

Yes! A new study at Oxford University recently found playing Tetris after a traumatic event may indeed reduce PTSD flashbacks. Tetris keeps part of your brain busy and puts the other part to rest so it can be free to relax. This means that your conscious is playing Tetris and your subconscious is taking a break. It's like meditating. The theory is that Tetris has color, sound and shapes that interfere with the short-term memory that makes its way into long-term. Because there is no language, it helps the victim verbalize what happened. It also requires concentration, strategic thinking, spatial reasoning and eye-hand coordination. And after you play, you usually feel better, like you accomplished something. Soldiers also play Tetris to help get their minds off of what they are doing out in the field. It’s a better addiction for people than, say, taking drugs.

So is it safe to say that Tetris is going to stick around for a while, maybe for another 22 years?

Absolutely. Tetris is also good mental exercise that is constructive, intelligent and clean fun. You can be young or old to play. And you don't have to shoot people or blow them up. That's just not necessary. Or maybe I'm just getting old. So yes, Tetris is definitely not going anywhere anytime soon.

Samantha Murphy
Samantha Murphy was a contributor to Live Science, covering the tech industry. She holds a degree in journalism and cinema studies from New York University.