· Tetris Made Me Do It ·
I grew up in the age of Nintendo. The original NES. I played hours and hours of video games long into the night for most of the late 80s and early 90s. Chef Peter Pepper and I made burgers in Burger Time while escaping enemy hotdogs, pickles, and fried eggs. Mario and I navigated the Mushroom Kingdom while dodging fire breathing dragon turtles in an attempt to rescue a princess in Super Mario Bros. 1, 2, AND 3. And the Casino Kid and I gambled our way through fictional Las Vegas, playing blackjack and five-card poker in hopes of earning enough money to face the King of the Casino.
Then I met Tetris.
My brain was made to play Tetris. As creator Alexey Pajitnov puts it, humans have an innate desire to “create order out of chaos.” Especially this human. I’m not sure I’ve ever related to a statement more. “Create order out of chaos.” That’s how I function. This is me to my core. I played so much Tetris, I was seeing falling Tetriminos in my sleep. I was determined to clear more lines, reach a higher level, and beat my previous high score every single time I picked up my controller. I was intrinsically motivated to learn more.
“Humans have an innate desire to ‘create order out of chaos.'” #CodeBreakerTweet
More than 30 years later, Tetris remains my favourite video game of all time. And if I play long enough, I’ll still be counting Tetriminos in my sleep. Needless to say, when Apple TV+ released the Tetris documentary earlier this year, I grabbed a bag of trailmix, got comfy, and sat enthralled for every single one of the 117 minutes it played on my tv. It took all of two however, to be reminded of the magic of nostalgia, my childhood, and how much I love this game all over again. The movie documents the history of the game from creation to global release and all of the corruption that came along with it. Like any good movie watcher, the second the film ended I took to the internet to find out how much of what I was watching was true to the original story. I was delighted to learn how close it actually was. This lead me down a rabbit hole of endless history and trivia about my all-time favourite video game. More learning as a by-product of my love for this game.
I learned that while a tetromino is a geometric shape made from four squares, the Tetris pieces are called Tetriminos. The Tetris Company trademarked the term in 2001. The game’s name comes from the words TETRomino and tennIS, which was the creator’s favourite sport. The original coded version of the game was text-based and used square brackets [ ] to make up the blocks. But the greatest thing I learned (and have no idea why I didn’t know this already) is that it turns out, that whole seeing falling Tetris blocks in my sleep is an actual thing! The Tetris Effect. The Tetris Effect is a phenomenon that has countless psychological studies attached to it. It occurs when something that we focus on for long periods of time starts appearing in our thoughts and dreams. It begins to pattern our mental images and even how we see things in the real world. You know when you’re packing your car for a road trip and can visualize exactly how to fit every last piece of luggage in the trunk by flipping and rotating everything just so? That’s the Tetris Effect at work. Being able to fit every cereal box perfectly in your pantry? The Tetris Effect. Mind. Blown.
Do yourself a favour. Google it. You’ll find a boatload of research done on how playing Tetris changes your thinking and how beneficial it is for your brain.
This deep dive into all things Tetris took over my life for the next two weeks. I now know the entirety of the game’s history, the bookmark of the mobile version of the game is already worn out (if that’s even possible on a phone), and I’ll have a brand-new set of coasters in my mailbox next week. But as I sat last night happily adding unnecessary merchandise to my bottomless shopping cart with 47 tabs open about everything and anything Tetris, I came across the notes for the Tetris theme song. And because my brain works the way it does, this happened next…
Music notes…hmm…I wonder if I could learn to play that song…I wonder if I could code that song…I wonder if I could code a simulation of the game with the music…I have a Micro:bit…can I? I can…How? No idea…Why? Because it’s fun? Yes…This is what I’m doing…I need snacks…I’m totally doing this…but first, snacks.
Then five hours had passed and I hadn’t left my computer.
The first thing I did (after grabbing a bag of chips from the cupboard) was find a piano tutorial for the theme song. The tutorial I found had notes and an accompanying video with the notes written in blocks of different sizes. I’m not musically inclined, but I eventually figured out that the different sizes meant the note was held for longer. The theme song is actually played with both hands on the piano using low, middle, and high notes. My code included only the notes played with the right hand, the high and middle notes because I haven’t yet figured out how to create an algorithm that has both playing at the same time. Not having much knowledge and experience with reading or composing music, coding the song was the hardest part. Figuring out how long to hold the notes required playing what I had coded over and over again listening for any missteps in the tune. This was important learning for me.
In order to code the tune as close to the original as possible, it required a significant amount of trial and error. When I think about what this learning looks like in a classroom, I am reminded of the necessity of giving our students tasks that allow for considerable trial and error, not only in an engaging way, but in a way that is meaningful to the learner. An empowered learner will persevere through a task if they are not afraid to fail. A learner staring at a fill in the blank worksheet or textbook with pages of questions not only is not empowered, but not receiving the immediate feedback that a task like this offered me which was why I was able to continue to move forward with my learning.
I had no idea how much math would unfold in front of me as I continued on with my night filled with snack, Tetris, code, and computers. A nerd’s dream come true!
The rest of my evening was dedicated to coding the Tetriminos to fall. The Micro:bit matrix is a 5×5 grid comprised of 25 LEDs in the form of 5 rows and 5 columns. Each Tetris piece is made from 4 blocks, so making space for enough pieces to be on the screen required a massive about of spatial thinking and planning. I had to be able to fit blocks in the grid with enough space to rotate and flip while appearing to fall at the same time with the goal of making full lines, which would then disappear, causing the leftover “blocks” to drop. I had to be able to visualize the full puzzle, and then take it apart piece by piece in reverse. Research has shown that spatial reasoning—the location and movement of objects, either visually or physically, in space—and mathematical thinking are very closely connected and suggests that spatial skills in very young children can predict a child’s overall knowledge and understanding of number concepts. Spatial reasoning in large part, informs our ability to explore and solve problems in mathematics. Immersing our students into learning that requires them to think spatially and test and retest solutions puts them in the driver’s seat of their learning. It gives them opportunity to understand by doing, rather than consume by simply hearing it from the teacher at the front of the room.
The code that I created involved turning LEDs on and off in a way that made the Tetriminos appear to be falling or rotating on the grid. The programs I create in the Micro:bit environment usually involve fairly simplistic probability concepts and so having now explored the platform further, I have a better understanding of how to create a much more efficient code; Something that I had to create in order to discover. Cyclical learning. I had to learn how to do something one way before I could discover other ways to solve the same problem. I discovered that I could have plotted the LEDs with x and y coordinates rather than draw individual images on the LED screen. Creating and using variables that turn LEDs on and off by adding or subtracting one, making the lights appear as they are falling to the bottom of the grid, would have shortened my code considerably. The math I discovered as a by-product of what I was creating was huge. Again, learning I would have never discovered had I not first attempted to solve the problem the way I did—with a comically lengthy algorithm!
When I discovered that there were more efficient ways to create this program, I was immediately faced with the question of failure. Did I fail? My code was riddled with bugs as I explored new and more advanced features of the platform for the first time. Through trial and error, by executing the code and debugging it throughout, it informed my learning moving forward. I did not fail. I simply didn’t get it “right” the first time. And in the end, the program I set out to make was exactly what I created.
Learning through trial and error affords all learners opportunity to experiment with different strategies and approach problems with new perspectives. This naturally scaffolded approach differentiates learning for each individual. The immediate feedback that hands-on learning offers allows all learners to evaluate their methods in real time and make immediate changes in order to move forward. This is why it is crucial to seriously reflect on the learning opportunities we are giving our students.
We have an obligation to provide opportunities for students to lead their own learning and discover that mistakes are a part of the process that leads to further questions, further solutions, and further learning. I don’t want to cover curriculum. I want to UNcover curriculum.
“We have an obligation to provide opportunities for students to lead their own learning and discover that mistakes are a part of the process that leads to further questions, further solutions, and further learning.” #CodeBreakerTweet
Does this mean we need to ensure that all students have opportunities to create Tetris simulations coded to music they just learned to play?
Well, I guess that all depends on just how much they love Tetris.