Tetris and Empathy

June 23, 2020 - 5 minute read

[a modified journal entry]

Here's an analogy that just dawned on me: my social life is a lot like Tetris.

Often during the course of a PvP Tetris match, I'm not actively thinking about what my opponent is doing.

> The result: my opponent sends me a ton of lines and I top out.
> The reason: I wasn't paying attention to the crazy t-spin setup they were setting up.

And even if I notice their block placements, I revert to my old habits of playing quickly and only setting up Tetrises (a bad strategy) over playing intelligently: feeling out the opponent, reacting to their moves, predicting their next one.

Then I top out, and lose the match.

Again and again and again.

but what do we really want?

During my games I often detect a feeling of ambivalence come over me.

"Do I want to climb up the ranks and get better, reach top 800, 700, 600 in the world?", I ask myself.

Sometimes not. Sometimes I'd prefer to practice my intense speeds in a few solo rounds of 40 Line Mode. And when I do want to practice alone and nonetheless find myself clicking the multiplayer button to commit to a 5 minute match against another human of similar rank, and am therefore half invested (podcast in one ear, music in another), then my results will ultimately suffer and I won't get better. I'll get worse.

But I urge you, my reader, to ask yourself if you can start to see where I am going with this (the title is Tetris and Empathy after all so where is the analogy?). Consider the experience of having a conversation with another person. Do you ever catch yourself half invested in a conversation with a friend with whom you are speaking to? How do you feel when you think back to these moments? Regretful? Unhappy? Discontent? Restless? If we are anything alike, I imagine you at least would agree that your lack of presence was not good for the relationship.

But we can get better at this. In the same way that one can study their Tetris match and find areas of improvement to prepare for the next, so too can one reflect upon their interactions with strangers at the park, boisterous gatherings at a house party, or even an argument with a family member.

But how far does this analogy extend? To what extent can we isomorphize the game of Tetris to the "game" of connecting with others and deepening our relationships?

Success for both requires a deep understanding of your partner (or opponent) at the time; everyone is different and you need to adapt to them in the moment to fully get what they are thinking (or how they are playing).

the missing piece

This analogy, while charming in its comparison, seems to have one glaring obvious hole in it (perhaps a T-shaped one).

In the 2 player game of Tetris, the objective is to win. It's about beating someone else. If I am not paying attention to my opponent's move, it can only come at the expense of my own success. If I ignore my opponent and play all willy-nilly, I may be missing valuable information and this blindspot may contribute to a loss. This holds especially true for online Tetris matches where the two players are not even in the same room!

And to bring it back to the social side, if you were with a friend - hanging out at the park, sitting across a table in a cafe, even talking on the phone - this changes everything! The goal here, is not to win, to prove a point, to convince the other, to change a mind, although I imagine you may be tempted to identify with these desires in some of your past dialogues with other people. But in the best version of yourself, when there is no other agenda or topic or subject other than a conversation, the clear goal is to connect with each other: to empathize, to listen, to understand.

closing words

The failure to meet the eyes of your conversational partner, but instead watch your own head involuntary jerk moment to moment to the cellular phone resting on the table between you two, is precisely a failure to stay present to the moment. This surely can't be good for you. Moreover it can't be good for the relationship either.

Ask yourself next time you notice this happen, who exactly is your friend talking to if it is the "you" with divided attention?