Tetris Saved my Frazzled Brain

Last week I got the Tetris theme music stuck in my head, which wouldn’t have been so bad except that I was in the middle of grading 2,000 high school English essays. You see, for the past three years I have participated in the Educational Testing Service’s Advanced Placement Literature Exam reading in Louisville, Kentucky. Every year, ETS hires a little over a thousand English teachers from both high schools and colleges around the country to spend seven days scoring the written essays for the AP Lit test. For most people this sounds like the most torturous work imaginable; eight hours a day, seven days straight, reading handwritten (but mostly handscrawled) high school essays. As you might imagine, there are times when the hours seem to crawl by and sleep threatens to pounce at any moment. As a literature teacher and a gamer, I discovered that one of the best ways to alleviate these issues was to introduce some gaming visualization into the otherwise mundane process of scoring a seemingly endless supply of essays.

This year nearly 400,000 undergraduate students took the AP Literature Exam, and each exam has three essays–meaning that over a million essays are scored during the reading. But the nature of the task means that individual readers can’t be distracted by the overarching, logistical situation. Our concern is the essay in front of us at any given moment. But strange things happen when you sit in a chair and read essays all day long, and this year was my third turn as an AP Reader (yes, people go more than once). So when the Tetris theme music from Game Boy popped into my head halfway through the week, I decided to embrace my subconscious mind’s suggestion and fight back the daydreaming and mind-wandering with a little old-fashioned gameplay.

There are two essential qualities that every AP reader needs: speed and accuracy. Without speed, all the tests won’t be read within the time allotted, but if we only focus on speed, then the accuracy of the scores will decrease, doing a disservice to the students. The trick, then, is to find a happy medium wherein the reader can be both relatively quick while maintaining good accuracy in their scoring. Because of my background as a gamer, I found that the Tetris music, rather than driving me crazy, was a somewhat soothing psychological additive to my reading experience.

Not surprisingly, two of Tetris’s most valuable skills are also speed and accuracy. So I discovered that by imagining myself in a weird puzzle game where the task was to fit each essay into its requisite scoring position, the time seemed to pass a little quicker. Indeed, my pace even quickened as the week progressed, so perhaps the music was having a measurable impact on my scoring. Now we just need a sociologist to put together an experiment that has people playing Tetris, then performing another task with the music playing in the background. Who knows, maybe we could all use a little more Tetris in our lives.

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  1. Great. Now it’s in MY head too!

  2. Great post, and yes, it’s now in my head as well. When I get stressed, there’s a soothing song from Fable that usually pops into my head and it helps bring on the calm. Sometimes, when I’m trying to meet a deadline, I can hear the “Samus escaping” song from Super Metroid playing over and over. It’s great that video game songs help some of us make it through!

  3. Bosstiger

     /  August 25, 2012

    Reblogged this on Gigable – Tech Blog.


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