Tetris: how the game became a mental health refuge beloved by anxiety sufferers - Tetris effect explained

Players are mentally and physically engaged as they become fully absorbed in the game and lose track of time

I've tried most things when it comes to alleviating the symptoms of my generalised anxiety disorder and the depression that comes with it.

But one of the more surprising suppliers of regular moments of respite has come from a video game. That's not all that surprising in and of itself - after all, gamers regularly find themselves getting lost in massive open-worlds, juggling multiple side-quests as they head to gather the next doodad for whichever random NPC they just stumbled across.

But Tetris Effect, developed by Enhance Games and first released in 2018, is not one of those games. Sure, it's a modernised, graphically and aurally complex take on the famous puzzle game - which celebrates 35 years since its birth in Soviet Russia this year - but at its core, it's still that incredibly simple game.

So just why was I finding myself - particularly during the early throes of the pandemic era - losing hours to this captivatingly simplistic title - available at no extra cost to subscribers of Xbox Game Pass?

The 'Tetris effect' explained

(Image: Enhance Games)(Image: Enhance Games)
(Image: Enhance Games)

First, a note on the name of the game itself, which is by no means an accident. Tetris Effect is actually named after a very real psychological phenomenon that occurs when someone spends a significant amount of time playing or thinking about a particular activity, and it begins to pattern their thoughts, mental images, and dreams even outside of the gameplay experience.

In terms of anxiety and mental wellness, the Tetris Effect can have positive effects. The game's repetitive and immersive nature can lead to a calming and trance-like state of mind, similar to meditation or mindfulness practices.

When someone is engrossed in playing Tetris, their focus shifts away from anxious thoughts or worries, providing a temporary respite from stress. This absorption in the game can help promote a sense of relaxation and reduce anxiety levels.

By capturing one's attention and inducing a state of "flow," where the player is fully immersed and engaged in the activity, Tetris can serve as a form of distraction from negative emotions and rumination. This diversion can alleviate the intensity of anxiety and depressive symptoms and provide temporary relief.

Tetris lends itself well to establishing this serene state of "flow". Its straightforward concept and rules - players are tasked with arranging falling blocks of different shapes to create complete horizontal lines, which then disappear, allowing for more blocks to fall - are easy to understand, and the controls are simple.

Without being burdened by complex instructions or controls, players can quickly grasp the mechanics and focus on the constant stream of gameplay. The rapid pace of the game, with blocks falling steadily and increasing in speed as the game progresses, keeps players mentally and physically engaged as they become fully absorbed in the game and lose track of time.

Tetris Effect was specifically designed to enhance and build upon the soothing effects of the Tetris phenomenon, combining its gameplay with captivating visual and audio elements to create a multisensory experience that deepens the state of flow and enhances the calming effects of Tetris.

Its flashy graphics and sound effects also provide immediate feedback, where the disappearance of each line is accompanied by a cloud of swirling particle effects, giving players a satisfying sense of accomplishment and triggering positive emotions.

From my own experiences, Tetris Effect has become a welcome refuge, granting me moments of respite from the storms within, and as we continue to explore the intersection of technology and well-being, recognising the potential benefits of games like Tetris can help shape a more comprehensive understanding of mental health interventions.

Embracing the positive aspects of gaming can contribute to a more holistic approach to mental wellness, harnessing the power of immersion, distraction, and flow to create moments of tranquillity in a chaotic world.

Tetris and games like it offer a positive tool for escapism and immersion. They provide a respite from the demands of daily life and offer a focused and absorbing experience that can temporarily alleviate the weight of anxiety and depression, and prove gaming can serve as a complementary approach to evidence-based treatments, enhancing mindfulness and relaxation.

By embracing the potential benefits of gaming and recognising its place in promoting mental well-being, we can broaden our perspectives on mental health interventions and create a more inclusive and comprehensive approach to support individuals in their journey toward wellness.