Decades before video game revenues outpaced box office receipts, everyone played Tetris. It was as close as early video games came to a universal language. Even today, more than 30 years after its launch, the title continues to movie units, with 495 million estimated purchases and/or downloads across all platforms—more than four times that of Minecraft, its closest competitor.
The story, as told by Philadelphia cartoonist Box Brown in his new book Tetris: The Games People Play, is, in a sense, the story of all gaming. Things begin simply enough, on a Moscow night in 1984, as two computer scientists at the Soviet Academy of Sciences Computer Center discuss the universe. One of the pair, Alexey Pajitnov, would go on to create the game later that year—an amusement designed to entertain coworkers that would become a global phenomenon.
From there, Brown rewinds the clock a full 17,000 years and touches down upon the Lascaux Caves in Southwestern France, the site of some of the best known and best preserved early human cave paintings. Clearly, this is an ambitious book for one ostensibly focused on a single title, living up to its much broader subtitle.
The story follows Pajitnov through the game’s initial inspiration and conception, with detours involving the birth of Nintendo, a playing-card turned video game company that would soon play a key role in the acquisition and eventual distribution of the title, with 35 million copies sold for the Game Boy alone. The game would eventually become the center of a protracted international legal battle involving some classic Cold War skulduggery.
Brown leaves no context unexplored. Those early cave paintings begin as a depiction of daily life for homosapiens in the Upper Paleolithic and ultimately shed light on what appear to be primitive games, as early humans race and wrestle. From the late Stone Age, the book fast-forwards to Ancient Egypt, a mere 3,500 years back, to a wall on the tomb of Prince Pepyankh, which offers a very clear depiction of an early board game, surprisingly similar to the variety stashed in our closets for a rainy day. The game, called Senet, became an everyday part of life in ancient Egypt.
In this deleted scene from the graphic novel, out today via First Second Books, Brown explores the spiritual aspects of the game, featuring Egyptian gods Ra and Thoth, as players explore the afterlife and entry into the court of judgement. It’s a good representation of one of the book’s key themes: how the value of games is so much more than how we pass our time.