Unexpected Mindset Lessons from Tetris

Image Credit: lukpedclub via Bigstock

Of all the games I thought I’d write an article on…Tetris was not one of them.

Yet, the game illustrates some great points on mental and emotional control. Curious? Read on for the surprising lessons of this puzzle video game.

Video games get a bad rap as brain-melting time sumps. However, that image is starting to change. Video games may help improve mental health (as seen in Jane McGonigal’s work and this New York Times feature) and some argue they’re a great creativity boosting tool (thanks to Eric S Burdon for this article).

I definitely did not use those points as rationalization when I broke down and got a Playstation 4.

Yet as I perused titles, flicking through the action and adventure based games I really bought the system for, I noticed a new version of Tetris.

I hated that game as a kid.

My mom, however, was a Tetris master. When The New Tetris came out for the Nintendo 64, she was all in.

I used to watch her for what felt like ages — dropping blocks and filling line after solid line only to break them down in some mind-numbingly complicated maneuver.

No one in my family could touch her high scores. Especially not me. My repeated inability to get anywhere in the game in comparison drove me to the nausea-inducing, early-3D adventure games like Donkey Kong 64 and Mario 64.

So, when I saw the PS4’s Tetris Effects, nostalgia (and the desire for a rematch with my gaming arch-nemesis) won out.

I bought the game.

This rematch was nothing like the old Tetris.

New Game, New Rules

For anyone unfamiliar with traditional Tetris, the game is fairly simple. Build up layers of lines using the falling blocks, then break the lines by completing them.

As a match goes on, the blocks (Tetrominos if you want to get technical) fall progressively faster. By the time you have a high score, the blocks fall at a blindingly fast pace.

Technically, because there’s not an end goal, there’s no winning in traditional Tetris — only beating your scores. You “lose” once the lines build up past a cut-off point on the playing field.

Tetris Effects took all of those rules and threw them out the window.

In Effects, the main play mode sets a goal of building and breaking 36 lines to “beat” a level and proceed. No big deal, right?

Well, not until the level alters the speed of the falling blocks at random.

Some levels start slow, then jerk into a whiplash pace in a blink. Others start fast, then slow down for a “breather” round, only to speed back up once you’ve hit a certain number of lines.

From an objective standpoint, it’s a refreshing change of pace (pun intended) for the game. From a player’s standpoint, however, it’s a game-fail waiting to happen.

Because levels are completely unpredictable, you never know when the speed will change. Which means from the first level to the last, you can get thrown off. In fact, any rapid increase in pace generally runs by this five step process:

  1. The game speeds up
  2. The person playing yells/gasps/screeches in surprise
  3. Blind panic sets in
  4. The player makes mistakes
  5. The player loses

I wasn’t an exception. But as I continued through the levels, I learned how to adapt and calm the panic. When to risk building up lines to get combination points and when to stay low just to survive.

At some point in the game, it hit me:

Life works the same way — metaphorically speaking at least.

We never know what “speed changes” are coming our way. When we’re going to be under pressure and when we won’t be.

Fortunately, with a little practice, we can learn to deal with the stress. We can hone our responses until we reach a state like David Allen’s mind like water.

And some lessons from Tetris can help.

You Have to Be Present

Once you’re past the initial smack in the face of a major speed change, Effects’ randomness has a tendency to induce paranoia. When a level starts slow, you’re constantly wondering: “Okay…When is it going to speed up?” When a level starts fast, you’re caught in a button-mashing whirlwind of “When is this going to stop?” Plus there’s the never-ending concern about “What if I don’t get a certain piece?”

Unfortunately, none of these thought processes gets you any closer to a higher score. It just makes you tense. Which means you’re more likely to miss opportunities to boost your score because you’re preoccupied and stressed.

Same’s true of any endeavor in life. If you’re not present in the moment, you’re going to miss opportunities. Chances to get ahead. Possibilities others might not see.

So stay in the moment. It’s a mental superpower all its own.

Plan — But Be Flexible

When you’re laying blocks on the playing field in Tetris, you can see up to the next three available pieces. You start planning your next moves, moving pieces into certain slots rather than others. It’s great to build up combination points and raise your score.

Then an inconvenient piece shows up or you make a mistake and your entire plan is shot.

In life, we may not get to see even three pieces ahead of our current move. We’re stuck making decisions based on limited or even faulty information.

So we have to learn to adapt. To adjust our mindset when our plans fall apart. And most importantly, we have to keep looking forward rather than getting frustrated over missed opportunities.

This means working on our mental flexibility — whether this is through improving our decision making (credit to Shane Parrish for this guide), developing awareness of our cognitive biases (thanks to Buster Benson for such a thorough breakdown of biases) or fighting our cognitive traps (links to Melody Wilding’s fantastic article on thought traps).

With enough flexibility, you’ll be able to adapt to even the most unexpected of circumstances.

Panic is the Enemy

The first twenty seconds after a speed increase determines the outcome of a level in Effects. I know, because I’ve had to restart levels enough.

Remember step three of that speed change — the blind panic? When that surge hits, you have two choices:

  1. Control it as best you can to avoid mistakes
  2. Let it overwhelm you and cause mistakes

If you don’t get control of that panic within twenty seconds of the speed increase, you’re not going to beat the level.

While Tetris is a micro-scale fight-or-flight induction, we do the same kind of things to ourselves every day on a macro-scale. We do risky things while driving because we’re late. We make stupid mistakes because we’re feeling pressured. We blurt out things we regret because our emotions got the best of us.

It’s all a form of panic. The lizard brained part of us that’s great at keeping us alive but not so great at keeping us functional in the modern world takes control. Once it has its claws in, there’s not much you can do.

But, if you can learn to rein it in, to keep it from really digging its claws in, you can fight back.

This isn’t easy by any stretch. And at no point in this panic-fight will you feel completely calm and collected. The panic will threaten. But with practice, you’ll manage to keep most of your mind working towards clear-headed responses.

Under Stress? Take One Small Step at a Time

When the blocks are falling faster than you can think, it’s not the time to engage in fancy combinations in an attempt to get more points. You need to be thinking about clearing one line at a time. It might not seem like much while you’re doing it, but the effects add up — and it might make the difference between losing or beating a level.

It’s easy to forget to apply this theory in life. Under stress, the horizon of “finishing” a project can become overwhelming. We get caught up in frantic pursuit of any action, no matter the difficulty or time involvement. If we can’t keep up, it only adds to our stress levels, miring us deeper.

In these cases, the philosophy of kaizen is a lifeline. Instead of focusing on what it will take to finish a project, focus on the smallest next step. Don’t worry about grand gestures or massive action.

Your small steps will compound with time and they will pay off in the end.

The ultimate lesson here is that you can learn from anything. Always be on the lookout for the ways you can learn from even the most surprising of sources. If you’ve learned something from an unexpected place, please feel free to share it in the responses!

And don’t forget: Tetris counts as exercise for your mental muscle. Exercise it accordingly!