The Tetris Effect: What Video Games Can Teach Law
My experience is what I agree to attend to. — William James
At first blush, video games and law might seem like an odd pairing. The gaming industry is a cool, fast-paced environment in which competitors constantly innovate and push technical boundaries as they strive to deliver the latest and greatest. Law, on the other hand, is steeped in tradition and risk averse by nature, with innovation viewed warily and adopted slowly. How might lawyers learn from gamers and change their perspective to adopt an innovative mindset?
Speaking from personal experience, it’s easier than you might think. Over the past two years I’ve learned much from my co-founders’ extensive background in gaming: from principles of agile software development to lean start-up methodology. Most importantly, I’ve retrained myself to think less “like a lawyer” and be more open to recognizing previously unseen opportunities for success. And it’s made all the difference.
Ironically, the term coined for the type of mindset shift I’m describing draws its name from one of the most popular video games of all time, namely the “Tetris Effect.” As Shawn Achor describes in The Happiness Advantage:
The Tetris Effect stems from a very normal physical process that repeated playing triggers in their brains. They become stuck in something called a “cognitive afterimage.” […] That’s the way it is with our brains: They very easily get stuck in patterns of viewing the world, some more beneficial than others. But of course the Tetris Effect isn’t just about video games […] it is a metaphor for the way our brains dictate the way we see the world around us.
For those in the legal industry this tendency predominantly manifests itself as a Negative Tetris Effect: reinforcing a risk averse mindset that prevents us from seeing opportunities and decreases overall success rates within the profession. And it starts very early on. Achor himself notes something I’ve stated before, namely that law school is not just an education, it’s an indoctrination:
The problem starts in law school, where levels of distress spike as soon as students settle into their classes and start learning the techniques of critical analysis. Why? Because, as one study from the Yale Journal of Health Policy, Law, and Ethics explains: ‘Law schools teach students to look for flaws in arguments, and they train them to be critical rather
than accepting.’ And while this of course is ‘a crucial skill for lawyers in practice,’ when it starts to leak beyond the courtroom into their personal lives it can have ‘significant negative consequences.’ Trained to be on the lookout for flaws in every argument, the holes in every case, they start ‘to overestimate the significance and permanence of the problems they encounter,’ the fastest route to depression and anxiety-which in turn interferes with their ability to do their job.
When someone is stuck in a Negative Tetris Effect, they become literally incapable of seeing other opportunities. The pervasiveness of this mindset within the legal profession is one of the reasons that legal tech startups have faced tough challenges in fostering innovation and user adoption. Engaging with prospective customers and partners can be hard when the new solution you’re offering is inherently viewed as risky, even if they know full well that the current status quo is fundamentally flawed.
As Achor notes, this “highlights what psychologists call ‘inattentional blindness,’ our frequent inability to see what is often right in front of us if we’re not focusing directly on it”. If you’ve ever seen this video, you already know this all too well:
But the Tetris Effect can be powerful in a good way too. If we can retrain ourselves to focus on positive outcomes, we stay open to possibility and recognize new opportunities for success. Current global initiatives to “free the law” and improve access to justice recognize that ‘free’ means more than just the absence of a paywall. Viewed from a positive mindset, free means open access to use, copy, and redistribute public legal information (what Colin Lachance calls “wholesale” access) in new and innovative ways that empowers citizens to meaningfully act on their rights.
I’m proud of how Knomos has built key strategic partnerships with progressive legal stakeholders including the BC Government, the Supreme Court of Canada, and the Canadian Legal Information Institute. These organizations have shown a true openness to explore opportunities for collaboration and to innovate for the benefit of all.
It hasn’t always been easy and the process takes time, but we’ll continue to build on these partnerships and other relationships as we work towards a broader Positive Tetris Effect within the legal industry. As Colin rightly notes,
Today’s challenge, however, is to support the growing ecosystem of legal information innovators by systematizing and standardizing access terms. If each new player has to run the gauntlet at each court in order to gain access to case law, Canadian legal information innovations will forever be limited to the outputs of the existing service providers. That’s not good enough.
We must continue to work together to standardize access, identify opportunities for collaboration, and support the growing ecosystem of Canadian legal innovation. At Knomos, we happily accept Achor’s parting challenge: The possibilities […] are there for everyone to see. Will you look right past them, or will you train your brain to see more?