Posted 10.27.2006 at 3:33 pm
In the pantheon of ubiquitous games (checkers, tic-tac-toe, etc.), Tetris is one-of-a-kind. For starters, there aren't too many members of that pantheon that are videogames, considering they've only been around for a few decades, compared with a few millennia for board games. Even more interesting, though, is the story of Tetris's viral rise from a puzzle-loving Soviet hacker's pet project in the1980s to your Grandma's favorite videogame, all during some fairly heavy Cold War years.
If you're thinking that the intriguing backstory behind one of the Soviet Union's most unlikely cultural exports is right in a BBC documentary filmmaker's wheelhouse, then you would be correct [see it on Google Video here (also embedded below), with props to the fine Kottke.org for the find]. At the core of the game's complicated story is the still-hot issue of intellectual-property rights, in particular the policies of the Soviet era, in which private ownership of an intellectual commodity was a completely alien concept. Seeing Alexey Pajitnov, the game's original creator, recounting in the doc's opening scenes how baffled he was to even think about how a piece of computer software could be sold or protected with a copyright gives an indication of just how crazy the ensuing licensing battle would become, as several international parties rushed to be the first to sell the impossibly addictive puzzle game to the West.
The documentary’s excellent Philip Glass–esque soundtrack and dramatically-lit Russian-official-in-his-office-type scenes make it well worth the 60-minute investment. You could even export it for viewing on your video iPod—that is, if you can stop playing iPodLinux Tetris long enough to watch. —John Mahoney