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What Tetris taught me about life

6-TetrisTime spent commuting on the Tube is my least favourite. In order to cope, I sometimes revert to a childhood obsession – playing Tetris. Recently, I read a research paper claiming that even moderate playing (let’s say half an hour a day for three months) boosts cognitive brain functions such as critical thinking, reasoning and information processing speed. And I credit all of these for the inspiration of the present article!

But let’s start from the basics.

What is Tetris?

The beauty of Tetris – like most beautiful things in this life – lies in its simplicity. I imagine many readers are familiar with the game but for those who aren’t, here’s a quick run through. Seven one-sided geometric shapes composed of four square blocks each fall down the screen, known as the “matrix”, which consists of a rectangular vertical shaft. The objective is to manipulate the falling shape by moving it sideways and rotating it by 90 degrees before placing it at the bottom of the matrix in such a way so that a horizontal line of ten blocks without gaps will be created. When such a line is produced, it disappears and any block above the deleted line will fall. This earns points. As the game progresses, the shapes fall faster and the game ends when the stack of the shapes reaches the top of the matrix and no new shapes can enter. This is known as “topping out”.

My style – avoiding “mistakes” by sticking to the same decisions

I realised that over the course of time, I’ve developed a particular strategy when playing Tetris. I was methodical and thorough, building my lines accurately (i.e. I was avoiding “mistakes” by repeating my decision to keep placing the pieces in such a way that would leave no gaps). But unless the right shape fell, I would just keep on building on the top of others, which created a big gap somewhere on my matrix. This strategy usually achieved a decent, but moderate, score and occasionally a high score making a new record. But my rare high score depended mainly on luck (that the right shape would fall at the right time) and less on my methodical strategy. For a long time, I was content and stuck to what I knew. My playing style ensured long games (and kept my mind off commuting), whilst the occasional high score was rewarding my dutiful building style. I decided that I had peaked and as long as I kept at it, it would pay off (at least when the right shapes come along!). What more was there to learn anyway?

Until the day the penny dropped…

Then I came to notice that at times I’d have this odd game where I’d be more adventurous and make different decisions when building, leaving block spaces in my lines. This led me to think of a new way of playing the game (or solving the problem). I now took advantage of every single shape that fell and placed it across the line as it best suited my building pattern. And then, hey! When I was less thorough but more daring, when I made “mistakes” by deciding/choosing to leaving gaps in between blocks, I was more often achieving new record scores! Let alone that it was more fun! So, by making “mistakes” (i.e. different choices to my ordinary ones) I was actually creating opportunities to score more points and raise my game! Ahhh!

Playing Tetris style and life attitude

Being a psychologist, my mind naturally started drawing parallels between Tetris and people’s attitude in life.

The Methodical

I first thought of people who approach life with a careful and dutiful style. Those who try to avoid “mistakes” by repeating what they know. Living – most likely subconsciously – supressed in their effort to follow “the rules” and, by not making a different choice and taking up a novel challenge, missing out on the chance to learn something new. Such as one middle-aged lady I saw when working in a Greek hospital, who had been “loyal to her job” for years. She had sacrificed the chances of a life of her own, outside of work, but was now deeply sad at having been made redundant by her “dear boss”, after being diagnosed with cancer. She had not dared to make different choices in her life by placing the shapes falling in her matrix differently and unfortunately the right shape… it never came.

The Reckless

I then thought of other people who live a careless life making random decisions with no building plan, making one mistake after another without learning from them, despite having to pay with detrimental consequences. For example, a patient I saw at the hospital was admitted because of a head injury after having consumed a large amount of alcohol and Class A drugs. He had developed an unhealthy lifestyle whilst attempting to maintain his substance abuse habit, resulting in significant brain damage, debt, a divorce and a son who wished for no contact with him any longer. The shapes in his matrix were all over the place.

The Quitter

Then I got uneasy. What about people who decide not to exercise this choice? The people who, for whatever reason, choose prematurely that their game is over, when really it is not. The people who allow the pieces to accumulate one above the other without actively intervening to move them or build anything at all. The people who just stand there and stare, who let go their own game cease right in front of them. The people who exist like the living dead. What cruel, needless misunderstanding might have led them to quit before even topping out?

You are not topped out until you are.. but there are many ways to get there

Considering the above examples this seems to be true. Yet, there must be a better way. Indeed, Tetris has taught me that we are all blessed with two things in this life and I will share them with you: “Mistakes” (Decisions) and Time. Here is how you can make the best of them.

The Player

  • Participate in your life (Don’t be a quitter: keep playing);
  • Create, achieve (Build methodically);
  • Make “mistakes” (Decisions outside your ordinary ones);
  • Contain their consequences (Keep cool! It’s not over until it’s over);
  • Learn from your “mistakes” / decisions (Look out for the opportunities they have created for you);
  • Challenge yourself and grow (Find creative solutions to the issues you are facing);
  • Persevere (Try again!);
  • But importantly, enjoy the process (Have fun).
  • This could potentially lead you to a new career, a new love, a new life.

So, if you are here reading this, no matter what style you have used so far… there is still time. You are alive. And so you can still change your game.

Why not seize your chance, starting from your very next decision?


Dr Patapia Tzotzoli

Dr Patapia Tzotzoli founded My Psychology Clinic where she gained her reputation working as Clinical Psychologist with clients on one to one basis in London and worldwide via online therapy. She specialises in adult mental health and couples therapy. Studied at the universities of East London, Oxford and Cambridge and trained at the Institute of Psychiatry where she worked across world-renowned NHS Trusts.

Dr Patapia TzotzoliMedical LiveWire Award Winner

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