Tetris Effect and how it can be used for bad and good

Written by Dr. Andrew Doan & Brooke Strickland on .

What happens to our minds when we dedicate hours upon hours on a specific task or activity? What does it look like when we give our brains over to a video game for hours or even days at a time? Dr. Robert Stickgold and his research team at Harvard University published an experiment in the research journal Science illustrating that people who played the video game Tetris for seven hours over a period of three days experienced hallucinatory replay of the activities as they fell asleep. This phenomenon is referred to as “The Tetris Effect”.[1]

As gamers become more and more obsessed with their video games and the digital world that they are immersing themselves in, their minds and their sense of reality are beginning to shift. Even if they don’t know it, this reality is becoming skewed and combined with the digital world they are seeing every day. Sure, a gamer may not set out to become obsessed with the world in the game, but if they are devoting most of their free time to it, the Tetris Effect will begin to take hold.  For example, after they put down the game and lay down to go to sleep or head off to school, their minds will probably be drifting back toward the game they have just spent hours on. They might be thinking of new strategies to get to the next level, how to get new items for their characters, and how to better manage their kingdoms.

The Tetris Effect can be used for both good and bad purposes.  Consider your time and what it’s worth. What are you spending your time and energy on? Are you spending hours upon hours building fake kingdoms and developing online relationships with characters that don’t even exist?  When your mind is becoming absorbed into the digital world, are you seeing positive fruits in your real life from that? It’s doubtful. In fact, you’ll likely be seeing negative repercussions from your huge amount of time spent online.

On the other hand, if you can manage your game playing and use video games for the positive, that’s excellent. There are numerous studies out there now about how video games can help improve hand-eye coordination, how they can stimulate brain activity and bolster memory for elderly citizens, and they can also help educate young children. These are real, practical, and positive ways to use gaming. The problem comes when kids and adults become hypnotized by the game, they get sucked into it, and their minds simply can’t let go of the images they are seeing. For some people, they simply cannot cut off their use of the games, similar to a drug or alcohol addict that can’t just cut off their use of their harmful substances of choice.

The enticing nature of games is irresistible for many people.  So, next time you turn on your TV or computer to play a game, ask yourself a question: how are these games affecting my mind?  Am I using the game as a positive in my life, or am I seeing negative consequences instead?

By Brooke Strickland


1. Stickgold et al., “Replaying the game: hypnagogic images in normals and amnesics.” Science. 2000 Oct 13;290(5490): 350-3.