Religion & Liberty Online

Tetris and the Birth of an Obsession

(Image credit: Apple TV+)

Want to blame something for your kids’ (and perhaps for your) obsession with screens? You can start with consoles like Game Boy and videogames like Tetris—the latter of which was the brainchild of a Soviet citizen living on the verge of freedom. There’s a lot of backstory to be found in that tiny screen.

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It may be hard to picture now, when American children spend seemingly every waking hour absorbed in Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube, but once upon a time the country’s youth contented themselves with activities that did not involve gazing into tiny screens—you know, riding bikes, throwing around a football, jumping rope.

One might assume this changeover coincided with the rise of smartphones and social media, but a new movie shows that it happened as early as the summer vacation of 1989. During that fateful interregnum between school years, kids were introduced to something that prefigured the electronic devices of the 21st century: a battery-powered, 8-bit handheld videogame device whose two buttons and chunky directional pad belied its addictive properties.

The console in question was Nintendo’s Game Boy, which, upon its introduction to the young people of America that fateful summer, was sold with the game Tetris, which, before bewitching players on this continent, had caused a sensation among the computer-savvy during the dying days of the Soviet Union. The game involves players steering variously shaped blocks into full lines; it is the sort of thing that sounds monotonous but, when tried, proves as compulsive as manipulating a Rubik’s Cube.

The movie Tetris, which was released on the Apple TV+ streaming service on March 31, tells the story of the videogame’s journey from behind the Iron Curtain to the hip pocket of every kid in America during the first year of George H.W. Bush’s presidency. In director Jon S. Baird’s telling, the introduction of this technological trinket is a victory of Western-style innovation, entrepreneurship, and scheming over the forces of Soviet-era oppression, control, and denial of fun—which, indisputably, it is.

The fact that the film Tetris ignores the Pandora’s box of widespread videogame consumption—the way in which the Game Boy, like the later smartphone, redirected kids’ attention from the world around them to a threadbare simulation of the world that could be controlled at their fingertips—doesn’t mean we are obliged to do the same.

Yet fairness dictates that we first take the film on its own terms—and, by that measure, it’s a thoroughly charming portrait of two species of capitalism: the overt kind of Henk Rogers, a videogame designer who wheeled and dealed his way into licensing Tetris; and the nascent capitalism of Alexey Pajitnov, the Soviet-born computer programmer who created the game in defiance of a society that made scant allowances for mindless fun and none at all for personal gain (e.g., financial reward for Pajitnov). Henk first came to learn of Tetris, which had already been rather shakily (and shadily) licensed to some markets but had not yet achieved anything like global domination, at a videogame trade show; he later encountered Pajitnov after making a naïve trip to Moscow to sort out the licensing quagmire.

Tetris exists within the honorable tradition of movies about real-life entrepreneurs bringing their wares to market, including Francis Ford Coppola’s masterly Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988), David Fincher’s excellent The Social Network (2010), and David O. Russell’s ambitious Joy (2015). What these films have in common is a kind of wholehearted delight in their protagonists’ pluck and perseverance. (That the hero of The Social Network unleashed Facebook on the world and the heroine of Joy contributed little more to civilization than the Miracle Mop is irrelevant for our present purposes—but perhaps worth noting all the same.)

As played by Taron Egerton, Henk—born in the Netherlands, reared in New York, and then based in Tokyo—is a mustachioed ball of energy: enthusiastic about both Tetris on its own merits (“I still see falling blocks in my dreams,” he says while trying to sell a banker on the promise of the game) and Tetris as a cash cow whose obvious potential for widespread popularity could benefit all parties. To that end, Henk’s spunky sense of salesmanship sustains audience interest through writer Noah Pink’s convoluted screenplay, which attempts to faithfully depict the jumble of scheming and subterfuge involved in licensing Tetris in various territories and in various iterations. High-powered factions competing with Henk include imperious British media magnate Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam) and his cocksure son Kevin Maxwell (Anthony Boyle)—for those keeping score, that would be Ghislaine Maxwell’s father and brother—as well as software salesman Robert Stein (Toby Jones, whose presence makes the film feel like an 8-bit version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy).

When you add the presence of the inscrutable but rather uncomprehending Soviets, the movie can become a bit bewildering and more than a little pedantic. This is a story that turns on the distinction between a videogame and a computer game, but Egerton—always loose, always hopeful, never hot under the collar—keeps it flowing. After maneuvering his way into Nintendo headquarters to broach the idea of partnering on acquiring Tetris rights, Henk offers this pitch to the boss: “Partners are what make us great. That’s why Mario has Luigi.” Deep within the film’s conception of Henk is the appealing notion that speaks to the venture capitalist within each of us: identify a valuable product or service, do everything you can to exploit it, and hope that your faith and effort will be rewarded.

For much of the film, Pajitnov (played by Nikita Efremov) takes a backseat, dramatically speaking—exactly where the Soviets want him. The character acts as though he can’t quite envision a world, from his desk in Moscow, in which his inspired creation will bring him any tangible good. One of Pajitnov’s happier moments comes when Henk urges him to tweak a bit of the programming on the videogame—a small bit of business that nevertheless demonstrates that his creativity and imagination is respected. “Life is hard, and we deserve our small celebrations,” says Pajitnov.

In sequences that cheerfully evoke the crafty plotting of Russell’s 2013 masterpiece American Hustle, Henk manages to gain control of Tetris rights from the Soviets despite the last-minute warning of Robert Maxwell to his pal Mikhail Gorbachev: “Once you let capitalists through your gates, they will never leave.” Yes, indeed. Gorbachev would have known the truth of this statement because he knew the truth of human nature: people are wired to think not collectively but individually. That a Soviet citizen like Pajitnov created Tetris in the first place is a testament to individualism; that Henk so relentlessly pursued its mass marketing is a testament to individualism, too. Their mutual self-interest resulted in much happiness—for themselves and for millions of Game Boy addicts. After the Soviet Union falls, Pajitnov pulls up stakes for the U.S., and the final scene, in which he meets Henk and his family at the San Francisco airport, is touching (and a little schmaltzy) in the manner of the finale of, say, Planes, Trains and Automobiles: one man is inviting another man into his home—his house in Planes, Trains; his nation (and way of life) in this picture.

Yet something remains a little bothersome, or at least ironic: here we have a movie in which Soviet officials, newspaper kingpins, and assorted businessmen speak in hushed tones and wear haunted expressions about . . . a videogame. This is not exactly Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, but the film’s fetishization of its subject matter—the movie splits its stories into “levels,” and director Baird occasionally overlays 8-bit-style graphics over the live-action scenes—suggests that it regards Tetris as a cultural touchstone. Let us cheer the heroes of Tetris but mourn (at least a bit) that it helped build a generation (or two) of screen watchers. There is something tiny about this tale as a Cold War metaphor—as tiny as the little screens with the itsy-bitsy blocks.

Peter Tonguette

Peter Tonguette is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, National Review, and the Washington Examiner.