I Played The World’s Largest Tetris Game

This weekend in Philadelphia, Tetris escaped the confines of the five-inch screen and appeared on the side of a 29-story building.

Apr 6 2014, 3:00pm

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Pong may have the glory of being the first big competitive video game, but a slightly later release is responsible for introducing a factor that is now the basis for countless chart-topping mobile games: addiction. We’ve all succumbed to the geometric repetition of Tetris at one point or another. For many of us, it began when Nintendo chose to package every Game Boy with a copy of Tetris. This weekend in Philadelphia, Tetris escaped the confines of the five-inch screen and appeared on the side of a 29-story building, shattering the previous giant Tetris record by thousands of square meters (take that, Birmingham, UK). 

As much as I love Philadelphia, I never considered it a breeding ground for innovation, but over the past few years, the city has built up enough of a tech scene to spawn an entire week dedicated to celebrating it. To kick off its fourth year, Philly Tech Week gave locals the chance to play Tetris on the Cira Centre, a building conspicuous for bearing a grid of color changing LEDs that sometimes display the Phillies logo. It’s the second game Drexel University professor Frank Lee has brought to the Cira Centre, topping his giant Pong game last year. “What was gratifying for me about the Pong project last year was not that it was the world’s biggest videogame display, although that’s kind of cool. Rather, it was the sharing of the moment by the two people playing, the hundreds of people watching, and thousands of people across Philadelphia watching,” says Lee. Similarly, giant Tetris is more of an art project than a feat for the record books. Lee aims to create a social benefit, what he calls an “aesthetic of a shared moment.” 

A couple thousand Philadelphians showed up to share in Lee’s moment on Saturday night, along with a special visit from Henk Rogers, the guy who partnered with Tetris-creator Alexey Pajitnov to bring the game to the world. Rogers is arguably the first person ever to become addicted to Tetris. As he describes his first encounter, “When I first played the game at CES in 1988, I was instantly hooked. I would play for a bit, walk away to look at other things, and then come back to play again. I did that several times, over and over.” Twenty-six years later, he beamed with the same enthusiasm as he played the game on a building-sized screen a mile away. 

The game's controls were situated across the Delaware River from the Cira Centre, in front of the Philadelphia Art Museum’s famous Rocky steps. In a line of booths, game devs demonstrated their creations to passersby and a crowd milled between rows of food trucks. Chiptunes blasted from the speakers around an empty stage. I arrived with some time to spare before my spot in line, so I occupied myself with an oversized game of Connect Four (which I won, no big deal). When it got dark, Dr. Lee and Henk Rogers christened the controls with a quick game before handing them over to the line of eager gamers that had formed behind them. 

While gaming crowds are known to be fairly civilized, Philadelphia crowds are not, so I wasn’t completely surprised when some mild heckling began. Most people have only played Tetris on a tiny, private screen, without anyone else witnessing their screw-ups. Imagine the pressure of playing it on a 100-meter screen in front of a crowd of people who are rooting for you to lose so they can play. Every bad move received a startling uproar, and every score merely evoked a murmur of acknowledgment. After a few games, the crowd started to yell like the Yankees were in town. Here are several exclamations that I heard directed toward players while waiting in line.

“This guy should be ashamed of himself.”

“You’re in a tailspin, buddy. Just die already.” 

“This moron has to be looking at the wrong building.”

“Is that where you put a f—king square? Jackass.”

“I’m losing faith in humanity by the minute.”

By Philly standards, this was pretty intellectual trash talk, but it had to be unnerving nonetheless. Just before playing, the guy in front of me was flanked by a pack of his drunken buddies who exuberantly played cheer squad for the duration of his 45-second game. When I went up after him, I realized why so many people were having a hard time with the controls. Rather than a separate button, the rotation control was ‘up’ on the joystick. On top of that, trees obscured the bottom line of the screen. The height of this Tetris game was about half the standard, so every error was that much more disastrous. My first two Tetrominos were S-shaped, so the invisible bottom line was immediately a lost cause. After that, I made two alignment errors in a row and ended up with more wasted space. Before I could salvage the screen, I got two L’s when I needed a J, and then it was all over. Like most of the players before me, I crapped out without busting a single line. Just after me, my photographer got on and held the crowd’s attention for twice as long, showing me up by busting three lines before he wiped out. 

As the line continued, several hecklers lived up to their trash talk with good games, but everyone’s skill was cut in half by the reduced height of the screen. Without the chance for recovery, there’s only so much game to be played. Challenges aside, giant Tetris was a great reminder of this game’s magnitude and universality. Dr. Lee’s aspiration of creating the aesthetic of a shared moment worked despite the historically personal nature of the game itself. Nevertheless, I’ll forever be haunted by the heckling and will probably hear it in my head every time I screw up playing Tetris on my phone. 

Photos by Sunny Ali

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