Cognitive scientist Tom Stafford argues that extraordinary feats in old video games teach us about the boundaries of human capability.
It was a seemingly insurmountable task for a long time.
An American youngster named Willis Gibson, better known by his online moniker “Blue Scuti” in the latter days of 2023, “beat” the 1989 Nintendo Entertainment System version of the Tetris video game.
The developers of Tetris originally believed it was impossible to create a game that could be played indefinitely. Pieces fall at an ever-increasing rate, eventually overwhelming the player. In order to win, players must rack up scores so high that the game collapses due to an excess of its memory banks. We win because the computer can’t keep going.
I was captivated by Gibson’s dizzying achievement because, as a professor of cognitive science, I am interested in how individuals gain skill, especially in video games. What this thirteen-year-old accomplished teaches us about the shifting boundaries of human capability in the digital era.
In the past, only AI has been able to defeat the NES Tetris game. A purpose-built application could sense the current Tetris condition almost rapidly and choose moves as quickly as the console could process them. It seemed to be much beyond the limitations of human ability; it performed nonstop without ever making a mistake.
By 2021, the AI-Tetris player has shown humans yet unexplored levels. As with black hole physics, the higher levels of Tetris cause reality to distort. At level 29, when very few individuals make it and even fewer make it through, the pace increases dramatically. The score counter will start to display letters instead of numbers after it reaches 1 million, and eventually glyphs from the Tetris visual set will replace the numbers. Over time, the block colors will distort and shift; for example, some levels have shocking pink blocks, while others have very black blocks that are almost invisible, particularly when you’re racing against the clock to stay alive.
In this setting, on December 21, 2023, Gibson webcast a 40-minute game in which he played at ever faster and faster rates. The global records for highest score, number of levels played, and lines cleared were all broken by him at this time. After what seemed like an eternity, he finally got the crash that meant he had defeated the game.
The impact goes much beyond the world of retro arcade games and their devoted fans, but the accomplishment is undeniable. There are broad implications for human learning and performance limit extension in what Gibson accomplished and how he accomplished it.
Think of Tetris as more than just a game—it’s a community. That should help explain why. Gibson became a part of a live tradition when he took up an antique console. The NES, the system where Tetris was first introduced in North America, has thousands of devoted players. Not only do players compete, but there are also casters, writers, strategy theorists, and record-chasers. Every year in Portland, Oregon, there is the Classic Tetris World Championship.
Even though there are a plethora of alternatives, new players are lured into the game by the Tetris community, which is renownedly engaging.
Inspiring one another is a key component in unleashing human potential, and communities provide both of these. In communities, individuals may try new things and share what works with others. It’s like a living lab for ideas and experiments. The term “cultural evolution” describes the scientific study of this kind of social learning. Humans are the best at this, yet other species do it as well. Culture is born from this process, as many societies adapt their behaviors to fit their local environment.
In learning groups, successful new skill practices spread like wildfire. Consider the Fosbury Flop, a high jump move made famous by Dick Fosbury when he won an Olympic gold medal in 1968. Using the Flop method, every single athlete at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics reached—and in several instances shattered—Fosbury’s record-setting height of 2.24 meters (7 feet, 4.19 inches).
Almost every talent conceivable is being enhanced by the internet and AI, much as Fosbury did for the high jump. The transmission of cultures has recently been propelled to new heights by the advent of the internet. Nowadays, it’s simpler than ever to mimic someone else’s actions, whether you’re trying to learn how to code or just repair your dishwasher. Players nowadays are more skilled than at any time in history, thanks to a generational leap in chess talent that began with the introduction of home chess engines. One news article even linked a spike in a certain kind of vehicle theft to TikTok, proving that even criminals use social learning.
The “rolling” technique, in which players tap the pad’s underside with a finger or thumb hovering just above the keypad, is a major improvement to the way players handle the controller in Tetris. Players can type commands more quickly than with a single finger. Although Tetris has been around for 34 years, rolling has only recently gained traction among broadcasters and competitive players. It is often the case that the youngest members of a society are the first to spot beneficial innovations. Gibson started playing Tetris when he was eleven years old and broke records using the rolling method.
Many AI discussions center on potential areas where humans’ abilities may become irrelevant, yet it’s unrealistic to assume that human competence would remain a constant benchmark. We are always pushing ourselves to the boundaries, as Gibson’s record-breaking feat demonstrated.
The takeaway is that great people and constant group innovation are what really push the boundaries of human capability. Learning is a defining characteristic of the human race, and the advent of the digital era has opened up ever-expanding possibilities for performance in every field of study and creative form, including Tetris.