The simplicity of Tetris and the complexity of the mind

Professor gives talk on “Tetris”-focused research

When comparing aspects about what makes a person a novice or an expert, the differences may seem innumerable. That is exactly what Dr. Wayne D. Gray, professor at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, examines in his work.

On Sept. 24, the Cognitive Science Student Organization (CSSO) hosted a talk by Gray on what can be learned through videogame expertise. So many people attended that there weren’t enough seats, and some individuals stood in the back while attentively listening.

His questions are how exactly people get really good at things and what exactly does it take to become an expert, specifically in gaming.

“A lot of games involve these really tight loops of perception, cognition, action and real-time decision,” said Gray. “It’s the same in video games as it is in surgery, flying a helicopter, air traffic control and many other tasks.”

Gray decided to study the game “Tetris,” an easy game to learn but difficult to become an expert in. It is the most commonly studied game and very easy to recreate.

Gray and his team recreated the game “Tetris” in order to study how people think through what pieces to place, and how quickly they are able to do so. In his version, he was able to track eye movements as well as record the games that were played.

“Tetris” is a tile-matching puzzle game, 10 squares wide and 20 squares tall. One piece drops at a time, at random, and you have to find a way to fit it. The way to earn points is to get rid of lines of built-up pieces. If a player lets the board overflow, the pieces hit the top and they lose. “Tetris” has some forethought to it, as there is a preview box that shows the specific piece that will come next.

Gray wanted to know what makes a person a novice or an expert at expert. He was able to recruit many undergraduate participants, some who were experienced at “Tetris” and some who hadn’t even heard of the game.

With the wide array of skills, Gray and his team were able to split the players into five categories. These ranged from those who had just started the game and had trouble learning the rules to those who were extreme experts and scored the highest in the game.

Despite the wide range, there were similarities among the categories. Individuals had the same eye patterns, in that they looked in the same areas of the map. This means that they had similar strategies to decide where to put the pieces.

However by looking at the score and board state during the span of the game, it seemed that experts had more forethought and control over the flow of the game. They also tended to look more at the preview box than the novices.

He also noticed that the control breaks down the faster the game gets. Even the experts eventually try to just get the pieces down so that they do not lose.

People may wonder what is the significance of studying something like video games. According to Gray, knowing how a person can be an expert in games means one can also learn how to be an expert in other fields that involve high amounts of coordination and mental processing. Looking at what makes an expert in “Tetris” can also transfer to how someone can become an expert in flying a helicopter.

“I think that [the study] was an excellent demonstration of how ordinary or seemingly unimportant parts of our lives are actually immensely complex and worthy of deep study,” said Max Zimon, president of CSSO. “I think it also showed us just how much more we have to learn about the way our minds function.”