‘What appears in your eyes all the time are your mistakes’
– Alexey Pajitnov, Tetris inventor, speaking in Tetris: From Russia with Love
Oonagh Murphy recently wrote about gamifying the PhD, describing a system of rewards and positive reinforcements. Conference papers, productive meetings with supervisors, publications and collaborative projects definitely feel rewarding but the daily work of a PhD feels more like a game of Tetris. ‘Tetris is a game with a very strong negative motivation’, argues Mikhail Kulagin, in the same film. The good chapters and finished articles are like the completed lines; they’re set aside from your workspace and converted into points on the scoreboard, ticked off your thesis plan or added to your CV. Your research gaps, incomplete bibliographies and works in progress are the things you see on the screen in front of you.
Sometimes writing up a PhD feels a lot like Tetris. As the documentary’s voiceover explains: ‘all that remains is what you’ve failed to complete’. What the voiceover doesn’t convey is the intense, immersive feeling of yearning towards the next complete moment. The Tetris Effect ‘occurs when people devote sufficient time and attention to an activity that it begins to overshadow their thoughts, mental images, and dreams.’ I think every PhD student can relate to that.
You don’t ever complete a game of Tetris and I don’t suppose you really ever complete your thesis: both just reach a point where they come to an end.