EXCERPT: "Playing Tetris on a Philly Skyscraper," From Andrew Ervin's Bit By Bit


Any lingering distinction that might have still existed between video gamers and the general public was obscured even further one recent spring night here in Philadelphia. A huge segment of the city witnessed a monumental, twenty-nine-story-tall game of Tetris played on two sides of a skyscraper. The game was visible—and immediately recognizable—for miles in each direction. For one weekend, the nation’s fifth largest city, the birthplace of American democracy itself, became the staging grounds for the largest video game ever played.

By some estimates, Tetris is the bestselling video game of all time, with 100 million copies in circulation across all platforms. Many Philadelphians that weekend had likely suffered at one time or another from Tetris Syndrome, that sensation of seeing in the mind’s eye the ghost images of those seven color-coded puzzle piece shapes dropping downward and rotating neatly into rows. Invented by the Russian programmer Alexey Pajitnov in 1984, Tetris remains hugely popular to this day. It stands among the most famous and iconic video games, those that have transcended the medium and entered the public consciousness.

Over 2,500 of us bundled in hoodies and gloves and scarves, a few in Tetris-themed costumes, lined up along the Schuylkill River on opposite sides of the Cira Centre. We awaited turns to operate the joysticks affixed to laptops at two locations at ground level, where 4G wireless hotspots sent instructions to a server inside the building. Not everyone got to play, but many of those present hummed Tetris’s familiar theme music and snacked on greasy food-truck grub. We were joined by Henk Rogers, the Dutch-born video game developer responsible for the highly innovative role-playing video game The Black Onyx (1984), but who is best known for acquiring the all-important handheld-game rights from Pajitnov—at the height of the Cold War, no less. He had come to Philly to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the game in epic style. With him was Drexel University professor Frank J. Lee, who had made the entire spectacle possible.

The Cira Centre resembled a silver box that has been gently twisted to create sharp and seemingly crystalline angles. Its shimmering, asymmetrical sides rose in contrast from the flat industrial landscape around 30th Street Station, the city’s primary train depot. In the daytime, the glass superstructure reflected every cloud and contrail and blended more into the sky than the rest of the city. At night, even with many of the office lights still on, as the employees of a Swedish global hygiene and forest products company worked late, those Tetris shapes illuminated the surrounding area in bright colors. The amplified sound effects almost drowned out the sounds of the highway and the traffic around the Eakins Oval in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. At the time, museumgoers could have seen a temporary “Treasure of Korea” exhibition and even Vermeer’s “A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals,” which was making a rare visit to the city and was displayed not far from Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain.

For Philly Tech Week, Lee and his team had programed the LED-enabled, internet-connected façade of the Cira Centre. (The previous year, they had created a similarly sized game of Pong on the same building and in doing so set the Guinness World Record for the Largest Architectural Video Game ever made.) I met Lee at his university’s Expressive and Creative Interaction Technologies Center (ExCITe), where he served as Associate Professor of Digital Media and Director of the Entrepreneurial Game Studio. In sartorial contrast to most college professors I know, Lee arrived for our meeting in a t-shirt, this one bearing the wordsPONG CHAMPIONSHIP 1972. Several of his students joined us at a conference table surrounded by wall decorations featuring Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros. “I knew it was theoretically possible,” Lee told me of his Tetris installation. “I initially had the idea in 2008 and the Pong project came out in 2013.” Of that five year effort, “four years and ten months was simply convincing Brandywine Realty Trust, that owns that building, to let me hack those lights.” After finally getting permission, Lee’s team still needed to overcome numerous technical challenges, large and small. “Even if we could control those lights, if those lights were too slow then you couldn’t really create a game out of them,” he said. “If the refresh rate was one per five seconds, you can’t create anything out of that, that delay.”

To make Tetris work, they needed to establish direct VPN access to the building’s proprietary network, which controlled the lighting system, and map the physical location of each light on the building’s irregularly-shaped sides onto a grid. Then they acquired the software (via the collaborative GitHub network) that would allow them to remotely control the LEDs. Only at that point could they configure the LEDs into the appropriate shapes and colors. “Thankfully, we were able to improvise, find, or resolve the technical issues to create Pong. And once we created Pong we had all the stuff there for Tetris.” The relief and excitement still showed on his face.

The efforts of Lee and his team reminded me of many of the other game makers I had read about and spoken with while writing this book. All of them shared a commitment to innovation, to pushing past the limits of what seemed possible, and to making something beautiful and unexpected,

Excerpted from BIT BY BIT: How Video Games Transformed Our World by Andrew Ervin. Copyright 2017. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.