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tetris and morality

The moral question, How To Live, is hard to answer. But it's especially hard to answer in spoken language. Many of the concepts involved are difficult to put into words. It's hard to find examples that aren't highly personal, and hard to understand for strangers. But I was just playing Tetris, and I think it will do nicely to illustrate a part of the answer.

For those who don't know, Tetris is a game of falling blocks of varied shapes, and you must choose where they fall to make them fit together into solid lines. You have to be quick to decide where to put a block because you only have a limited time before it falls.

Some people might be tempted to pause their Tetris game for every new block and calculate exactly where the best spot is. I'm sure this is possible. However, to get a good score in real time, you can't just calculate exactly what to do.

Similarly, in real life, we never have unlimited time to make a decision.

How, then, do Tetris players play, if not by calculating what choice is best? They use their intuitions. They create various patterns they are familiar with and consider good. And they set specific goals within the game and play moves designed to achieve those.

Example patterns to aim for are: higher on the edges, lower in the middle, or bumpy shapes, or flat lines. Or everything solid except one thin line to be filled in later with a single line piece for bonus points (if you clear many lines at once you get more points).

Example goals to aim for are to uncover a buried hole so it can be filled in, or to not stack more pieces over a certain feature.

So suppose we find ten people with different intuitions and have them all play 10,000 games of Tetris. We ignore the first 2,000 as just practice. During those practice games, players will learn how best to achieve their personal goals. They'll learn all the little tricks that help them get where they're trying to go. They'll learn pattern recognition and come to intuitively respond to all the common patterns.

Coming back to morality, they are learning how to get what they want.

In the later games, we will see some players are better, and some are worse. And we will see they all consistently play in certain ways which they feel are best (they were asked to try their best every game, and perhaps paid depending how well they score).

Each player represents a set of intuitions that together those intuitions are a Tetris playing strategy, and the best strategy will on average score highest. The others are doomed to mediocrity.

However, there's one more thing! I used to create holes to fill in for bonus points a lot, and if the line to fill them in didn't come for long enough, I'd lose (lines have a 1/7 chance to come, but if you play enough, sometimes you won't get one for thirty pieces). I don't do this nearly as much anymore. When I see holes like that I worry.

I used to create flat areas. They seemed less messed up. But it turns out a lot of pieces don't fit nicely onto flat, and work better on bumpy shapes.

I used to put a lot of pieces in the middle if that seemed convenient, or a bunch on the edge if that was. Didn't care which. Now I've changed this, and I go to significant lengths to stack the edges and keep the middle low.

I used to hate to bury any holes intentionally, and would put it off as long as possible, letting the holes get deeper, and sometimes getting out of it, and sometimes getting screwed. Now I do damage control early. I can recover from lots of small problems, but I can't risk any big ones if I want to score well.

So the point is, to be truly good at Tetris, one must change his intuitions, to feel that certain patterns are better, and others worse, than one originally felt. With enough changes, I've found I die much less.

And back to morality, to be truly moral, besides figuring out how to achieve what you want, like, and intend, you must also find ways to change what you want to better things. No matter how good you are at creating holes in your Tetris position in search of bonus points, or how good you are at making flat structures, you'll never be very good.


Elliot Temple on October 12, 2004

Comments (6)

Very cool post.


Gil at 10:06 PM on October 12, 2004 | #1141

Great post.



There's also "culture" involved that can pass along better Tetris "morality". e.g. When I first started playing I basically had the create-long-deep-gaps / keep things flat / no intentional holes strategy, like you did. Then I saw friends play in the arcade, not using that strategy but tolerating holes etc., and doing better than I ever did, and thus altered mine.


Blixa at 11:04 PM on October 12, 2004 | #1142

Right, so to find the best moral approaches to living life, we can explore the moral knowledge of cultures who are doing well. Such as, Judaism.


Alice at 5:18 AM on October 13, 2004 | #1143

To clarify: Jewish cultural knowledge on morality and how to live life is embodied in the Jewish religion and its texts.


Alice at 5:20 AM on October 13, 2004 | #1144

Yup. Continuing on the "culture" theme, imagine you're a kid growing up in a household where the parents play Tetris and you watch them doing it from infancy, and you observe that they tend to try to have high sides, don't sweat burying intentional holes if the situation calls for it, etc. You'll view these as natural, instinctively-good Tetris strategies. You'll never have to go through the "it's bad to have holes!" type stages that I and Elliott went through in the first place. Good culture has benefits, makes things easier.


Blixa at 11:53 AM on October 13, 2004 | #1145

I love it! What a great post


Anonymous at 8:51 PM on October 14, 2004 | #1146

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)