- Author, Tom Stafford
- Role, BBC Future
It was a feat considered impossible decades ago.
To beat the game, you have to reach scores so high that the memory banks become overloaded and the game crashes. The player wins because the computer simply cannot continue.
I’m a cognitive science professor and I’m interested in how people gain experience, particularly in video games. That’s why Gibson’s mind-blowing feat immediately caught my attention.
This 13-year-old boy’s feat says a lot about how the limits of human performance are changing in the digital age.
Until then, the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) version of Tetris had only been released by artificial intelligence.
A specially designed program was able to sense, almost instantly, the state of the Tetris game and select actions as quickly as the console registered them. The AI played incessantly, without making a single mistake – something that seemed far beyond the constraints of simple human performance.
At the time (2021), AI was able to show humans levels never before reached by Tetris players. Like physics on the edge of a black hole, the game’s reality begins to bend at the highest levels.
The speed suddenly doubles at level 29, which few humans reach and even fewer can survive for long.
When the score reaches 1 million, the digits begin to be replaced by letters and then by symbols from the Tetris graphics set.
After a certain time, the colors of the blocks are distorted and change. In some levels, they are all in a strong shade of pink, while others have blocks so dark that you can barely see them, especially at the speed at which you have to play to survive.
This is the context of the streaming game posted by Gibson on December 21, 2023. In the video, he plays Tetris at increasingly frantic speeds for 40 minutes.
Along the way, he sets new world records for scores, levels played and lines completed. Finally, he is rewarded when the game crashes – the sign that Gibson has done the impossible: he has beaten the game.
The feat is real, but its importance goes far beyond the domain of classic arcade games and the people who love these games. Gibson’s achievement and the manner in which he achieved it offer general lessons about how people learn and how to push the limits of human performance.
To understand why, you need to remember that, more than a game, Tetris is a community. Gibson didn’t just pick up an old console to play games on, he joined a living tradition.
There are thousands of dedicated Tetris players on Nintendo’s NES platform, the same one on which the game was officially released in North America.
In addition to players, there are streamers, bloggers, theorists discussing strategies and record hunters competing to outdo each other. There is even the Classic Tetris World Championship, held every year in Portland, in the US state of Oregon.
The Classic Tetris World Championship is held every year in Portland, United States.
Tetris is famous for being addictive. But the community is what attracts new players to the hobby, even with the increasing number of alternatives available on the market.
Communities provide incentives and another key ingredient for accelerating human potential: inspiration. They are living laboratories of ideas and experimentation, where different people can try new things and successes can be shared.
Scientists study this social learning under the name “cultural evolution.”
Other animals also perform this activity, but humans are the masters. Cultural evolution provides the seeds of culture, as different communities develop different practices to fit the environment around them.
And winning new techniques spread among learning communities.
One example is the “Fosbury Flop”, the backflip – a high jump technique popularized by American athlete Dick Fosbury (1947-2023), gold medal winner at the Mexico City Olympic Games in 1968.
Fosbury’s winning jump reached 2.24 meters. But this level was reached (and, in many cases, crushed) by all competitors at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan – all using the Flop technique.
The internet and AI are doing to almost every human skill imaginable what Fosbury did to the high jump.
Recently, the internet has exponentially accelerated the mechanism of cultural transmission. Whether you’re learning programming code or just watching a dishwasher repair video, it’s easier than ever to copy new skills.
An example is the game of chess. Since home computer chess games emerged, there have been massive generational advances in game techniques. These advances have meant that today’s players can play chess better than at any other time in history.
Even criminals employ social learning. A recent news story blamed TikTok for the rise of a specific style of carjacking.
Players adapted the conventional way of holding a controller from Nintendo’s NES platform in their hands to be able to play Tetris more quickly.
In Tetris, a fundamental innovation was the new way of holding the control, known as rolling. In it, players tap the bottom of the controller against a finger or thumb, which is just above the keys. The technique allows players to type commands faster than pressing a single finger.
The game has 34 years of history, but rolling has only become popular in recent years. It quickly spread through the streamer community and players in Tetris competitions.
And, as is often the case, the youngest members of communities are those who recognize the usefulness of innovations. Gibson started playing Tetris at the age of 11 and used the rolling technique in the game that broke all records.
Many discussions about artificial intelligence focus on fields where human abilities may become obsolete, but it is a mistake to imagine that human performance is a stationary target.
As Gibson’s record-breaking achievement demonstrated, we constantly challenge our limits and, in reaching them, expand our understanding.
The moral of the story is that pushing the boundaries of human abilities is a consequence of the continuous innovations achieved by the collective and by notable individuals.
We humans are a species defined by our ability to learn. And, in the digital age, there is ever more potential to take our performance into unexplored territories in all aspects of art, science and culture – even the game of Tetris.
The post first appeared on www.bbc.com