Is Tetris a Soviet Plot to Reduce Anxiety?

Reducing stress might be as simple as stacking shapes.

A new study indicates that Tetris may boost emotions for people waiting for stressful news. When we’re anxiously anticipating something, stacking simple shapes on a screen calms us down by giving us something low stress and satisfying to focus on fostering flow, a state of mind where a person is so focused on an activity that they forget about time and stress.

“Flow state activities are any kind of task or activity that completely grabs your attention,” says Kate Sweeny, lead author of the study. “A flow state is when you lose yourself, your sense of what’s going on around you, your sense of time.”

Tetris, the simple but engaging tile game, was invented in 1984 by Soviet game designer Alexey Pajitnov and has sold 425 million copies on mobile devices.

The UC Riverside psychology professor chose Tetris to foster flow because of the game’s simplicity. With its limited number of shapes and simple controls, It’s easy for novices to learn. First time players can grasp it after just a few minutes.

Sweeny’s subjects played Tetris while waiting to see how their their fellow students ranked their attractiveness. In the study, students rated each others’ pictures as they would in a dating app. Anticipating how their looks would be judged created just enough stress for the test to yield results without triggering ethical concerns.

They played the game on three different speeds: extremely fast, extremely slow and normal. The normal speed players reported higher emotional well being. The game gradually drew them in, heightening their focus on the game until it consumed all of their attention. Everything else in the world, including the stressful news they were waiting on, disappeared.

The Tetris test was only one part of Sweeny’s study. She also looked at law students expecting bar exam results and Ph.D students awaiting academic job interviews and placement. In self reports, subjects distracted themselves from stress by engaging in activities ranging from cleaning to sex. Flow is completely subjective based on a person’s experiences and interests.

“It’s absolutely the case that what puts you in flow is not necessarily what’s going to put other people in flow,” Sweeny says.

One of the best ways to create flow is gradual achievement. When smaller goals are part of a larger one, it becomes easier to focus on menial tasks and track progress. Cleaning an apartment, for example, offers short term achievements (scrubbing a sink, vacuuming a floor) that are easy to knock off on your way to the larger goal of a clean apartment. In her personal life, Sweeny finds that data analysis helps her achieve flow.

“That process of setting everything up and running analyses and seeing what I found, seeing if the study worked, can be a really flow state inducing activity for me,” she says.

Not everyone’s flow state-inducing activities will be productive, and that’s okay—the idea is to lose yourself, at least for a short time, to relieve stress. Sweeny emphasizes that she’s not advocating playing video games to shirk responsibilities. But sometimes the best thing you can do when you’re stressed out, particularly when you’re waiting, is distract yourself from the stress and waiting.

And if all else fails, Tetris is a fun way to pass the time.