Video gaming is an entertainment super-industry. The Call of Duty franchise alone has made over $10bn. But the bestselling game of all time is an 8-bit challenge from the 80s.
Tetris. Why is it so addictive? And what's story got to do with it?
We've bought more than 70 million copies of Alexey Pajitnov's tile-matching puzzle game since it appeared in 1984. And we've downloaded it another 100 million times. But why? Why do we love Tetris so much?
The Zeigarnik effect – our deep need for resolution
There's actually a very good theory to explain Tetris's popularity. It's based on something called the Zeigarnik effect.
Bluma Zeigarnik was a Soviet psychologist. She saw that waiters could remember unpaid orders in great detail – but that they forgot them once they'd collected the money.
Zeigarnik published her research on the subject in 1927, finding that people do indeed remember incomplete tasks more clearly than completed ones.
So what does this have to do with Tetris? Dr Tom Stafford is a lecturer in psychology and cognitive science. He explains it like this:
Tetris holds our attention by continually creating unfinished tasks. Each action in the game allows us to solve part of the puzzle... but is also just as likely to create new, unfinished work. A chain of these partial-solutions and newly triggered unsolved tasks can easily stretch to hours, each moment full of the same kind of satisfaction as scratching an itch.
If you were hooked on Tetris in the 90s, this will sound familiar. And if you're a sucker for click-bait headlines like the one on this article, Zeigarnik's theory explains that too.
We need our questions answered and our problems solved.
No answer? I'll invent one then
The Zeigarnik effect must also explain why we find cliffhanger endings so irresistible. How many hours have we spent making up neat endings for The Italian Job?
The Royal Society of Chemistry even held a competition to find a way to get all that gold off the bus. Here's a snippet from the winning entry:
First, the coach would have to be stabilised by breaking the windows that overlooked the precipice. Then the fuel tank at the rear of the vehicle would have to be emptied by running the engine. And finally, a gang member would be allowed out of the coach in order to stabilise the front end with rocks.
We just can't handle the mystery of an unfinished story. The incompleteness gnaws away at us, holding our attention until we're convinced by one of the many possible truths.
Suspense, danger and confinement – a potent cocktail
Alfred Hitchcock was, of course, the master of suspense. He knew that a string of 'partial solutions' and 'newly-triggered unsolved tasks' was the way to hook an audience.
In Rear Window, James Stewart's character has an actual itch he can't scratch – a big toe poking out the end of his plaster cast.
There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it – Alfred Hitchcock
But confinement was also a big deal for Hitchcock. In Lifeboat, Rope and Rear Window, the danger and suspense is heightened by a restrictive, physical environment.
Tetris relies on confinement too. Trapped between walls, there's nowhere to go as the blocks fall, stacking ever higher as the music races along.
Is your story as memorable as The Italian Job?
The next time you use story in a presentation, remember the Zeigarnik effect. Remember danger, suspense and how it feels to be trapped.
Remember subtle suggestions of a character's past, and hints at hidden motives.
Above all, remember to cause an itch your audience will be dying to scratch.