Why Everyone Is Obsessed With the Kid Who Beat ‘Tetris’

A 13-year-old kid has seemingly beat Tetris. Long believed impossible or a myth, the magical feat took place on December 21 and apparently shocked even the player, Willis Gibson, who reached level 157 and launched the heretofore unseen “kill screen,” where the game crashes and there’s nothing left to play. “Oh my god,” Willis says repeatedly in a video he posted of his success this week. “I’m going to pass out.”

Under any other circumstances, this would have simply elicited a “Hey, cool!” response. “Kid beat Tetris” is the kind of thing that would pop up on Boing Boing or X, and elicit a smile and a share with the group chat. This week, though, Gibson’s story took off. It got covered on CNN, NPR, and The New York Freaking Times. Maya Rogers, the CEO of Tetris, congratulated Willis, known as “Blue Scuti,” in a statement to the Associated Press, saying his “monumental achievement” defied “all preconceived limits of this legendary game.”

On this point, she is right. Ever since Nintendo brought Tetris from Russia to the rest of the world, the game has been a bit of a cultural obsession. Over the holidays, stores were selling Tetris waffle-makers. Apple’s 2023 Tetris movie didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but had fans seeing falling blocks in their dreams once again. Interest in the game, now four decades old, isn’t, I believe, what’s driving the fascination with Gibson’s victory. I think it’s a deep desire for some kind of wonder.

For a lot of people, 2023 was awful. Wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, labor strikes, a recent uptick in Covid-19 cases that seems all but routine—there’s not much good news to latch on to these days. Folks hoping to return to work with “new year, new me” vitality are finding themselves coming up short. “Dry January” is trending, but most of the posts are less than enthusiastic (example: “instead of dry January I’m doing why January. it’s where every day I stand in the middle of the street & scream WHY GOD WHY”). Seeing that a kid in Oklahoma defeated the programming of a game that has caused countless people joy and frustration feels like a balm.

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Gibson completed his legendary run in under 40 minutes. About 38 minutes into it, he says, exasperatedly, “please crash.” It almost feels like the motto of the past year. While no one wants things to fall apart, there is an overwhelming sense that things are tumbling too fast and it would be a relief if they stopped—not because the worst outcome had happened, but because the struggle was over.

Perhaps the reaction to Gibson’s accomplishment is no different than if an NBA team won the finals thanks to a buzzer-beater three-point shot, or if a figure skater landed a near-impossible jump to win Olympic gold. But in 2023, it feels unique. Oversimplistically, Tetris was designed to play forever. Gibson’s onscreen score was stuck at 999,999, but he estimates it was closer to 7 million. By crashing Tetris, Gibson essentially beat its coding. For the past 12 months, as artificial intelligence has infiltrated creativity and threatened jobs, the rise of the machines has never felt more real. Watching one 13-year-old with a NES controller and a lot of determination beat a computer is a win for everyone.

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