Considering Tetris as a Simulation


October 17, 2012 by sczaja200


Considering Tetris as a Simulation

Stephen Czaja

In his article, “SIMULATION 101: Simulation versus Representation”, Gonzalo Frasca discusses how we can understand video games through simulation. Frasca’s objective is to distinguish video games from other types of media (such as film and literature) by demonstrating the way in which video games are able to both represent and model objects and systems. This modeling capability is what sets video games apart, because through the power of the computer a video game is able to go beyond the mere representation that other types of media offer.

Frasca defines a simulation as the “act of modeling a system A by a less complex system B, which retains some of A’s original behavior”. Video games like Microsoft Flight Simulator, Madden NFL, and SimCity all explicitly state what real life system they are simulating; that is, airplane flight, NFL football, and urban planning/city construction, respectively. Therefore, because the relationship between ‘system A’ and ‘system B’ is defined, it is clear we should consider these games to be simulations. In other words, authorial vision has made it obvious to label them as such. The problem we come across with Frasca’s discussion, however, is that many games do not tell us whether they are modeled after a specific ‘system A’, or not. Thus, because the author has not provided this information, we do not know whether certain games should be labeled as simulations. This might mean that some games are not simulations, thereby losing a defining characteristic that separates them from other media types. Through the following analysis I hope to provide a solution that helps alleviate this problem. To preserve the study of video games as an entity separate from other types of media, I propose the following thesis: Every video game has the possibility to be viewed as a simulation, because when the creator of a video game has not defined a specific ‘system A’, the individual playing ‘system B’ (the video game) can use his or her imagination to picture ‘system A’ as anything. To defend this thesis we will analyze a video game that most would not consider to be a simulation and, in the end, see if this method of imagination can change the way we perceive the game.

Tetris is a puzzle game presented in a 2D rectangular space where tetriminos – puzzle pieces consisting of four blocks arranged in seven different ways – ‘fall’ from the top of the screen down toward the bottom of the game space. The objective of the game is to stack these tetriminos together, by rotating and sliding them along the x-axis while they fall, in a way so that no spaces are left between the blocks in each horizontal row. When an entire row is filled without any empty spaces, the row disappears, thus allowing more blocks to fit in the game space. The game ends when a tetrimino is unable to fit on the board because the game space has been filled with too many incomplete rows. As the game progresses the tetriminos fall at an increasingly faster rate, which forces the player to place the blocks with less time to think, thus making the game more difficult over time.

Compared to other video games that demonstrate realistic looking situations, Tetris is rather abstract. It is easy to imagine such realistic looking games as being modeled after a real ‘system A’, but Tetris stands out as being quite unrealistic, so it is difficult to picture it being modeled off of another system. Indeed, the game space does not seem to be based off of any real world entities; instead, it could be considered as a mere interface, a graphical necessity, for the mechanics of the game – the falling and stacking of 2D blocks – to operate. I would like to suggest that Tetris could be modeled after a real life system, however, even though such a system may not currently exist.

To imagine a real ‘system A’ on which Tetris is modeled, let us start with a real, tangible object: Connect-Four. In this board game, the playing area is a square grid that rises perpendicular to the table it is sitting on. The board allows black and red checkers to be placed in columns that sit next to each other along the x-axis. If a checker is placed in a column that already contains a checker, the new checker sits on top of the old. In this way, the entire grid can be filled with pieces, side-by-side, one on top of the other, until there is no room left. Now, with a few modifications, we can take this structure and turn it into a real life version of Tetris. We just need to replace the checkers with tetriminos, set a time limit for the placement of each piece, and have a device that takes out rows when they are filled correctly.

One might notice what has happened here: a video game system (now ‘system A’) has been modeled to create a real life simulation (now ‘system B’). The modeling has reversed. While this might seem contrary to our goal of defining video games as simulations, it actually fits in quite well and can be considered an amendment to my original thesis. Now we can say that if a system in real life can be created to model a video game system, the opposite could have happened, as well; it is simply mere chance that the video game came first. It does not matter whether the ‘system A’ actually exists or not; all it takes is a little imagination to prove its possible existence. I would like to call this the postulate of possible simulation.

The challenge with a definition, of course, is to balance differentiation with exclusivity. In other words, a definition must be specific enough to differentiate the defined phenomenon from other phenomenon, but also broad enough to include everything it needs to cover. This limited exposition is just one part of what could be a much larger project concerned with considering simulation as a necessary condition for something to be defined as a video game. The result of this essay, I hope, is the successful proposal that all video games could fall under the category of simulation to differentiate this type of media from others. There is much more to discuss with regard to this topic, though, such as how an individual is able to picture a possible ‘system A’ that does not yet exist. A discussion about the methods used by the imagination could be a next step toward furthering this theory of simulation, which I hope to pursue in the future.

Works Cited

Frasca, Gonzalo. “SIMULATION 101: Simulation versus Representation.”
N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2012. <;.


One thought on “Considering Tetris as a Simulation

  1. Xiaoxin says:

    It is really interesting that you formularize the modeling process and think about the reverse of the simulation theory. I personally second Frasca’s idea that videogames are dynamic systems that simulate certain situations and produce results, and am actually less concerned about whether or not it is possible to find system A. For I consider the usefulness of the simulation theory lies in the part in which he points out that videogames are dynamic and can produce results according to the conditions chosen or executed by players. I too agree with you that system A could be one’s imagination. It would also be possible to find “system A,” especially when we think about the theory in reverse and tailor-make system A for system B. However, I can also easily conclude that all artificial and dynamic systems are simulations, because they are all simulating some kind of ideas or imagination. Yet still, I am not so sure about how interactive movie is different from video games in the simulation context.

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