Gongol.com Archives: March 2024

Brian Gongol

March 24, 2024

Computers and the Internet Was Tetris keeping America sane?

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is credited with defining the state of "flow", in which the individual is so engaged in a task -- challenging but not overwhelming -- that they effectively become lost in the moment. "Flow" is a state of elevated concentration where the act becomes the reward unto itself. ■ Coloring books for adults are only among the latest tools to have been pitched for achieving "mindfulness" and sedating anxiety, but they're really not all that novel: People have been using hobbies, particularly ones that involve repetitive physical motion, to achieve meditative states practically forever -- long before labels like "mindfulness" or "flow" ever came along. ■ Winston Churchill was a prolific painter. Thomas Jefferson was a lifelong violinist. Warren Buffett has played countless games of bridge. ■ It's often hard, though, for people to pick up new hobbies. There's usually an initial phase of embarrassing incompetence, and acquiring a skill often requires attending classes that can compete with precious family time that adults may be (rationally) unwilling to sacrifice. ■ Some computer games, though, offer low barriers to entry -- intuitive enough to learn, easy enough to pick up and put down anytime, and randomized enough that the experience always feels new. ■ Grand champions of the genre include Space Invaders, Pac-Man, and Tetris. It's worth wondering: Games like those fell out of favor as desktop computers, and then smartphones, became capable of delivering much richer graphical experiences. Early cellular phones had simple-but-engrossing "Snake". And then it was eclipsed by games that offered better pictures, but a lot less "flow". ■ The decline of that class of games -- and their subsequent revival (as, notably, the New York Times is betting on the attraction of flow games to keep people spending time and money with them) causes one to wonder: If America really did lose its mind sometime around 2012 (as the pop theory goes), was it because easy access to flow had quickly disappeared from millions of computer screens? Was Tetris keeping America sane after all?

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