Wednesday, July 27, 2016

First Second: Box Brown's Tetris

In telling the story of the video game Tetris, Box Brown went into some deep philosophical territory. He begins the book by delving into gaming theory and asks the basic question of why is it that people play games? From that simple question, Brown spins a crazy story involving art, commerce, creativity, cold war politics and outsized personalities. What would seem to be a simple question (how did a particular game get designed?) demanded a timeline of the history of Nintendo, an understanding of the way world economics used to work in the Soviet Union, and an attempt to understand how and why some games become incredibly popular. For game designers, there's even a sense of trying to reverse-engineer successes in an effort to understand why they become so popular.

The book (and the game) begins with a couple of computer-programming friends in 1984 Moscow named Alexey Pajitnov and Vladimir Pokhilko. Pajitnov posits that rather than simply a way to pass the time, games have a specific psychological function. Brown runs with that idea, even making a distinction between the physical aspect of sports versus games. Early sports may have been a way of recapitulating human competition in terms of survival, whereas games are an expression of the same urge that comes from creating art. Games are a merging of competition and the childlike need to process the world and learn about it by way of play. Play is far from a frivolous process; anyone who's ever observed children playing knows that they take it very seriously, as they transport themselves into a world with particular rules with a lot at stake. In the same way that a work of art no longer truly belongs to the artist once they've finished it and displayed it, so too is a game no longer quite the possession of its designer. It becomes part of the imaginations of those it captivates.

Brown breaks this idea down further, suggesting that games excite the pre-frontal cortex, the brain's executive functioning center. It strengthens one's brain while tricking it into learning through fun. In learning and becoming drawn into a game, it can improve one's higher-order processing and decision-making. Unlike the way we resist rote memorization as a means of learning, learning through game-playing combines the practice necessary in order to excel at anything through repeated gameplay with constant stimulation of the brain in a way that's motivating and pleasurable. Brown does not state this, but one of the arguments of the book is that it's more important than ever for adults to play games that motivate them and not abandon them as childish things.

Brown parallels the history of Nintendo (which started as a card game company) with the history of Tetris' design, because it gets to the heart of development in a capitalistic society vs a communist society. What's interesting is how Brown played up a number of similarities that led to success for both. Nintendo became successful in the electronics and video game markets because of visionary CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi and genius engineer Gunpei Yokoi. The successes came because Yamauchi trusted Yokoi's creativity and ingenuity as assets that would allow Nintendo a leg up in the market. When video games took the world by storm, they hired a conceptual artist named Shigeru Miyamoto to come up with ideas for games and leave it to Yokoi to figure them out. That process led to the insanely popular Donkey Kong, which later led to a huge empire based off of the original game. Video games touched a nerve, as good ones demanded problem solving skills and heightened hand-eye coordination. In a capitalist society, demand is at the heart of profit. Brown goes on to discuss a number of Nintendo's other moves, including conceptualizing handheld games that could travel with the game (that eventually became the Gameboy). The greater the number of platforms available for a game (gaming system, computer, arcade game, handheld device) meant that there were more and more rights to secure, making the process cutthroat at times.

By contrast, Pajitnov created Tetris because he felt compelled. He was obsessed with the shapes, the way they interlocked and how clearing out a row was such a fulfilling feeling. He did it on his own time and simply gave away copies for free, because he wasn't eligible to sell something of his own creation in the Soviet state. The game was such a hit that some businesses had to ban it from their computers because it killed productivity. The genius of it was that by removing violent, genre or competitive aspects of the game, it appealed to an incredibly wide demographic. Licensing the game or the idea of inventing different platforms for distribution never even occurred to him, yet the game was a success, like Nintendo was a success, because the creative talent was left alone to build the game as they saw fit. The genius of Yamauchi was that he recognized that he didn't know everything and instead surrounded himself with smart people that he trusted. 

The second half of the book is a dizzying account of the quasi-legal nature of foreign software companies trying to get the license to the game going up against Soviet bureaucracy at its best. There were billionaires, bullshit artists, and children of moguls going up against a Soviet group that on the one hand was trying to nickel and dime them but on the other didn't fully understand the nature of what they had. The most colorful personality was Henk Rogers, a game designer who got frustrated trying to deal with the man who apparently had the foreign rights to Tetris, so he simply fly to Moscow unannounced in an effort to make a deal. Brown emphasized that the way he barged in was simply not the way they did things in the Soviet Union, but the fact that there was a new, shrewd chief in charge of the game in Moscow made things interesting. There were double-crosses, companies making illegal versions of the game and all kinds of other crazy chicanery. There was even an attempt to get back the market rights when a billionaire made an appeal to Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, as well as a federal court decision that decided who had game rights: Nintendo or Atari.

Brown weaves a taut tale with all of these crazy events and synchronicities with his trademark restraint and stripped-down, iconic figures. Yellow is the only color used, giving the whole book an odd, slightly artificial feel that mimics screen time. Brown provides breaks when introducing new players in the story on an otherwise black page, allowing the eye to rest as he tore through the book at a fast pace. That sense of pacing is what makes this history book with deeply philosophical underpinnings so successful. With no real action on the page, Brown made things interesting simply by making the reader's eye whip across the page, trying to take in the story as quickly as possible. It helped that there was tension in the real-life narrative that gave the book a tight second-half structure, as opposed to the more episodic set-up of the first half. The tension between companies and countries about the game spoke to the way that the need to play stimulating games crossed cultures; the demand for the experience is what made everything so high stakes. The book is a success, and more successful than his Andre The Giant book, because with Tetris, Brown found a way to take a popular subject and plunge into its depths while making a number of fascinating connections. In the Andre book, there just wasn't enough there to go deep, and while that "star is unknowable" concept wound up being part of the book's point, the actual execution simply felt like a series of well-told but barely-connected anecdotes. In Tetris, Brown found a way to bind any number of characters to the book's central theme, with the anecdotes providing a climax to key tension points instead of wandering. Brown really stepped up his game in this book, and it's clear he's found an interesting niche in the world of comics. 

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