MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
If you had happened to peek into my college dorm room freshman year early '90s, you would have witnessed my roommates and me glued to our computer screens completely obsessed not with overdue term papers and problem sets but with a game called Tetris. Turns out we were not alone. Today Tetris is recognized as one of the most popular video games of all time. Thirty-five years ago, it was a side project for a Russian software developer working in Moscow. That software developer was Alexey Pajitnov, and he is here now. Welcome.
ALEXEY PAJITNOV: Hello.
KELLY: Hello. I suppose I should start by saying happy anniversary. Tetris is celebrating its 35th birthday today.
PAJITNOV: Could you believe it? It was like yesterday (laughter).
KELLY: Well, I want to hear the story of how you came up with it, but I guess I should start by explaining for people who, unlike me and my college roommates, were not completely addicted to it at some point in their life that Tetris is - it's a very simple game. There's no, you know, asteroids to dodge or aliens chasing you. It's blocks that fall from the top of the screen, and you manipulate them, spin them around to create lines. And if you do it fast enough, then you clear your screen. And if you don't, then game over. Have I basically explained that accurately?
PAJITNOV: More or less yes.
KELLY: Where were you when you came up with this idea?
PAJITNOV: I was in Moscow. I was young developer, young programmer. It was a very fascinating time for me because I got something which looks like a personal computer now.
KELLY: Yeah. What kind of computer were you working on?
PAJITNOV: It was kind of ugly Russian clone called Electronika 60. So my friends just made it up out of spare parts or something.
KELLY: (Laughter) OK.
PAJITNOV: The prototype of Tetris was the board game called Pentomino.
KELLY: Pentomino - go on.
PAJITNOV: Yeah. I love those puzzle all my life. And once I decide to put on computer some to play our game based on it. And when I start to program it, the idea of real-time game with those pieces came to my mind, and that's how Tetris was born.
KELLY: As I understand it - course you came up with this game. This is 1980s in the Soviet Union. You eventually - you lost the rights for a while and then eventually regained the rights after the Cold War ended. Is that right?
PAJITNOV: Well, I granted my rights for 10 years to the Soviets, to my job place. That's the only way the foreign agreement could be done.
KELLY: I should mention you in the intervening years have left the Soviet Union you live now in the United States. Do you own the rights to Tetris now? Or who does?
PAJITNOV: Yes, I do. It was my partner. Finally in '95, '96, the original right came back to me, and we maintain Tetris brand since.
KELLY: What do you think explains the ongoing popularity of this game given that now people can play games with incredibly complicated, you know, computer-generated graphics and yet people still love just spinning blocks around?
PAJITNOV: The software and hardware are changing dramatically, but our brains do not. So we still love what we used to love many, many centuries ago.
KELLY: We still like playing with blocks as little kids, I suppose. So why not do it on the screen?
PAJITNOV: So Tetris is very attractive because it has a constructed spirit. You feel that you create something rather than destroy, you know?
KELLY: Do you still play?
PAJITNOV: Oh, yes, I do.
KELLY: How many hours would you wager you have spent on Tetris?
PAJITNOV: Not that much.
PAJITNOV: I have to catch up with the other games as well.
KELLY: Alexey Pajitnov, thank you so much.
PAJITNOV: Thank you. Have a nice day.
KELLY: He joined us via Skype. He is the creator of Tetris, which, as you heard, turns 35 years old today.
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