Your Thoughts Exactly: Tetris and life

Saturday, March 21, 2009


Tetris and life

One of my favorite parables I heard as a kid goes something like this:

One day, flood waters were rising and threatening to submerge a small patch of land where we find our friend, the scorpion. He cried out for help, but most other animals fled for their own safety, not trusting the dangerous creature. Finally, a frog stopped to examine the plight of the scorpion. "Please, you've got to help me and take me to safety on the other side of the river!" the scorpion pleaded. "Ha!" says the frog. "Why should I trust you? as soon as I get you on my back, you'll sting me!"
The scorpion reasoned- "No, why would I do that? If I were to sting you, you would die, and we would both drown!"
The frog thought this over, and reassured by this logic, agreed to let the scorpion climb on his back. No sooner than they were halfway across the river did the frog feel the searing pain of the scorpion's sting. "Why did you sting me?" he cried out. "Now I will die, and we will both drown!"
"Because," said the scorpion, "it is in my nature to sting."

I don't know why that story has stuck with me for so long, but it's always left an impression on me. I thought of it the other day as I played Tetris- one of the top games of all time, if you'll recall my list from a few years ago. Like many people, my first exposure to Tetris came through the original Nintendo Game Boy- pretty much the gold standard of Tetris, the one that other versions of Tetris tried to one up or duplicate, but yet never really manage to outdo.

I mention that version because there's a version I play on my iPhone that is nearly identical to that version, except for one major difference- the scoring. The original version of Tetris, for those that don't know, gave a bonus for completing a Tetris (clearing four lines at once.) So many of us played that version and its derivatives that I'm sure many of us would agree that the "right" way to play tetris is to build up a large block of squares, leaving one column open for the long, straight pieces. So it was with an annoying realization that I found out the version on my iPhone gives the same reward for four one-liners that it does for a full Tetris. It seemed wrong to me. At first I chalked it up to a bug, because they obviously had not followed the reference material closely enough. I mostly ignored it, and I continued to play the way I had trained myself to play- slowly growing a block tower only punctuated by drops of the long pieces into the waiting empty space. But I wondered to myself- why play this way, when it's far less risky and far more sensible to continually go for the one-liners at the bottom? But try as I might, I would always find myself placing the blocks to arrange a beautiful (at least in my mind) tower with a gaping hole on the right side.

I realized that regardless of score, I enjoyed playing only when I could complete Tetrises (sp?) and regardless of score, it didn't feel right to play any other way. They could come out with a version of Tetris where you got penalized points to clear four-liners, and I would still not play it any other way.

Life is a lot like that. Sometimes everything works out great, the pieces come just as you want them to, and you do great. But was it luck? Could you have adapted had things not come as they did? Because sometimes you spend the whole game waiting for that straight piece to come, and it never does. You build up the whole tower, and in the end, your incessant drive to go for what you've trained yourself to do ends up screwing you. It never comes, and you lose. And sometimes your nature loses you the game, despite the best intentions, strongest logic, and all the luck in the world.

I remember when I was younger, I would see people who committed suicide on the news, and I would think- "Why would you do that? What could be so bad in your life that you can't just pick up your stuff and move on to something completely new?" I had an all-purpose contingency plan- if things ever got so bad that I was contemplating suicide, I would move to Mexico and open a Chinese restaurant. A fresh start, I thought. But that ignores the problems that people get themselves into, and the nature of themselves that causes them to get into those problems.
But it's not that simple. You might be able to leave your troubles behind, but you can't run away from yourself.

But we're not the scorpion. We can change, right?

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