It was within me all along

I recently had to go somewhere I really did not want to go and do things I really did not want to do. The reason I did not want to do either of these things were because of old traumas associated with them that, stacked on top of the unrelenting shitshow of the past two years, just didn’t sound like my idea of a good time. I was right: they weren’t.

Fortunately, unless the afterlife is much more enriching than I believed, I survived the ordeal. Whenever something like this happens and old wounds are reopened, two things happen: I learn something new about myself, and I also reach deeper and greater peace than I had before, even as I am convinced that whatever I am dealing with at the time is The Worst™ and surely is the truth of my existence.

Every single time, these two things happen. This time, the connecting factor in all of this is Tetris.

Yeah, Tetris. That little thing. Maybe you have heard of it? It’s only the world’s most popular game. If it seems familiar that Tetris is coming up in a conversation about trauma: it was recently confirmed that Tetris is proven to reduce post-traumatic symptoms when played immediately after a traumatic event. Woah. That’s pretty big.

This news popped up not long after my re-traumatic event, and interestingly enough, all I had wanted to do was play Tetris, even before this news hit the mainstream. I hadn’t played it in years that I could recall but had always deeply enjoyed when I did. I found a free play version online that sort of worked for me but didn’t entirely scratch the itch.

I’d peruse Steam every so often to find an officially-licensed game, knowing I could no longer resist the siren’s call, but kept scoffing at Tetris Effect: Connected. The price tag was ridiculous. Who was paying forty freaking dollars for Tetris? (Spoiler alert: me. I was paying forty freaking dollars for Tetris.)

This isn’t a game review, this is an essay about how a video game re-centered some things in my life I didn’t even know it could, so I won’t gush about the engaging soundtrack, the lush playfields and backgrounds, the play modes, or anything like that: I will direct you to this review for that.

What I will do, however, is share a few specific things I have learned with you, and hopefully impart something you needed to hear today.

Patterns, prep, and practice are the name of the game

At the time of this writing, I’ve cruised through over 70 levels and unlocked 25 of the 43 achievements available.

Several of the single-player game modes basically function as training grounds for the marathon games wherein one plays for three to five minutes with a focus on a specific task such as reaching the highest score possible, clearing the most lines, achieve All-Clears, and things like that. They build and hone individual skills required to master the game.

In the beginning I was just toying around and learning how the whole universe worked, not really seeking any specific goal or skill: I just wanted to play Tetris, and a lot of it. I had years of itches to scratch. And as I bounced between the modes, I noticed that the way I even thought and functioned in the game changed drastically. Taking the time to build each skill, consciously, really helped me see results in my overall performance.

The reason for this, I believe in my case, is harnessing one of my subconscious superpowers: hypervigilance. I am what is known as a fearful-avoidant attachment style. This results, amongst many other things, an inability to trust others or the self. Because of that lack of trust, I have learned how to read everyone and everything around me freakishly well. This can lead to problems, but it often also helps me out. I cannot help but to notice patterns and predict next-steps in everyone around me, for better or for worse.

With Tetris, I am able to examine and plan patterns on the fly. In the beginning I’d get flustered at level 13 and overwhelmed. Now I breeze through it and laugh when I inevitably drop that one tetrimino that I will have to work around for several minutes. More often than not, I no longer see that as a failure, rather an opportunity to use the space differently. Investing the time in building my Ultra and Sprint skills—two starkly different but important aspects of the game—has shown me that the work really pays off. I’ve learned to trust that I can accomplish the game’s objective regardless which shape it throws at me.

It forced my perspective to change for the better

The powers of Tetris isn’t just about getting into the zone but activating different parts of my brain and conscious thought patterns. It’s so easy for me to switch between game modes myself even in a marathon.

In the early stages, until speed level 12 or so, it’s all about building foundations and achieving as many Tetrises as I can (clearing 4 lines at once), or racking up multiple combos. Once speed level 13 kicks in, I shift into focus mode: just letting the pieces fall and creating line clears and manipulating the field space in a different way. It’s purely living in the moment; the tetriminos fall so fast there is only time for a couple of quick reflex responses.

Both are so different and so powerful. I have learned so much just from watching myself build these fortresses of tetriminos, painstakingly arranged just so, nary a single empty block in sight, only to delightfully watch them disappear into nothingness. And then later in the game, giving everything up to chance and trusting that I can sweep it all away efficiently.

In short, Tetris has taught me a lot about learning to trust myself and the environment around me: it is a direct and practical example of what I can control (where the tetriminos go) and what I can’t (the velocity and order in which they fall). And somehow, I still end up with a better result every time.

Zoning out is really zooming in on my subconscious

There comes a point in any Tetris game where the player switches from completing the puzzle to a pure flow state. At first when I started playing this didn’t happen that often; higher levels caused me to get clunky and frustrated, unable to respond to what the game was throwing at me (and at level 15+ that is often what it feels like).

But I continued to play, to seek that state of flow and brain fuzz as I called it, to get to that state where all time really slowed down and I just focused on one tetrimino at a time as they floated to their resting space. To this day I still get stuck on the L-tetriminos at high speeds and they are my Achilles heel when it comes to the last few stretches of a 150-line marathon.

But something I have learned in the past few weeks is to embrace the zoning out. Truth be told, it’s not “zoning out” at all but really zoning in. In the early levels of Tetris, one considers the big picture: how do we use up every single space in the field, leave no gaps, achieve Tetris or Tetris and multiple combos without topping off?

In the higher levels (quite different for each player) that changes and it becomes about each individual piece. Mess up and hard drop in a weird spot? Okay, where can the next piece go? What happens here, when all the Z- and S- pieces have made a minefield of my beautifully-flattened play space?

That is where the zoning in really works.

At first I would kick myself and groan over a misplaced tetrimino or a premature hard drop. But as I kept playing and trying, and trying, and trying again what I found was that not only would I clear more lines and ace more classic marathons but also that I would separate myself from the emotions entirely. I learned to completely depersonalize the experience. Messing up at the ultra speeds wasn’t a measure of my worth or value or even skill as a player; it was simply a mistake and I could to my best to work around it: I would focus on the next piece, and the next… and the one after that. So many times it would save me when the peaks of my field were just pixels away from failure.

And as I focused on just one piece at a time in these critical moments of the game, that’s when the subconscious would come out. Thoughts I never knew I had would float to the surface. I’m not ashamed to admit that some of them were life lessons wrapped up in the game mechanics that brought me to actual breakthrough moments for my life and health. In the short term, the seven to nine minutes it takes for me to complete a marathon, I’m not so much spaced out as it is rather zoned in on one specific task: beat the game. There is no room for anything else, unlike the effect of trauma in which I have no choice but to make room for everything but myself in order to survive.

The Tetris Effect was within me all along

I’ve also been curious about the phenomenon known as the Tetris Effect. While not exclusive to Tetris, it’s a phenomenon where players begin to experience Tetris in real life: “seeing” their life in colored blocks, as it were, and arranging them just so. There are other examples of this, of course, as it is ultimately a manifestation of hypnagogic imagery. Such as if you drive a Ford Focus, you are much more likely to notice other Ford Focuses on the road.

I have always been subject to a slight form of the Tetris Effect. I’ve always been an organized person. My organization isn’t extreme or overly-detailed unless necessary. I prefer looser systems and refining them as needed. I’ve always liked to plan ahead. Not so much to follow a precise itinerary but just to have an idea of what’s coming. Like my own preview slot on a Tetris field.

As I’ve gotten older and learned more about what drives both my conscious and subconscious behaviors, I’ve made peace with my style of organization. It works for some people and does not work so much for others. It was a way for me to efficiently control an environment when mitigating factors constantly sought to destroy it. Given that Tetris rewards efficiency with high scores, it’s no wonder that I have taken to this like duck to water.

For example, I happen to have a knack for organizing spaces with what’s present. Have a stock room you don’t know what to do with? Call me. I’ll fix it up. I once held a job in which I managed a lot of physical inventory. It required constant shuffling and monitoring and while my actual duties had more to do with receiving shipments, at the end of the day the team always asked me to come and fix or tweak whatever they were stocking at the time. “It’s easy, you see!” I’d say, shoving boxes about this way and that. “We’re just playing Tetris, after all.”

Tetris did not cause the Tetris effect in me… it was already there, waiting to be activated. The purpose of Tetris is to achieve it, clearing lines, creating more space. In the end, the object of the game and the strongest lesson it imparts is that you plan for Tetris, but let go of it, too.

It seems silly that one video game has changed my life so much in such a short period. Not only have my trauma symptoms reduced drastically, so has my entire approach to handling them and other things in my life. In most cases, I don’t have to consciously wonder aloud to myself—because it’s already on my mind and I act on it. My days are more productive and I can focus better on other tasks.

I can’t and won’t contribute all of that success merely to Tetris, as mighty and beloved as it is. But I can say that where I was in late September and where I am now is not just a reset or return to base, but marked and obvious progress I did not ever think I could experience especially in such a short time frame. The traumas that were triggered on my trip no longer interrupt my days or give me nightmares. Instead, I dream of falling colored bricks…


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