Thursday, 23 June 2011

The political currency of Tetris

Sorry for the lack of updates, as penance I offer what I hope will be a convergence of multiple themes (for lack of a better word)that I've previously talked about, namely the history of the Soviet Union, and video games. I recently discovered the above very catchy music video detailing a brief yet surprisingly accurate and lyrical history of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and modern Russia. The only real criticism I'd make is the endings optimism about Russia's political leanings, its often forgotten that United Russia the Russian Federations governing and most popular party is a Conservative party not a left leaning one. The confusion on this front often stems from two things, first every western Conservative party has since the 1980's completely embraced 19th century liberal economics (hence why its called Neo-Liberal) all Milton Friedman (he bloke who gets the credit) did was update the terminology of Gladstone's speeches. And the seeming refusal of Putin and Medvedev to completely denounce the Soviet Union in its entirety, "Anyone who doesn't regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains."

Anyway after hitting the replay button a dozen times I was reminded of a documentary I watched on BBC Four(first part viewable below*) about the actual Tetris game and how a simple puzzle game about oddly shaped blocks actually raised a few problems for International Relations because of its popularity.

During the Cold War there were periods of "thawing" between the West and the USSR, at this time trade did occur and were expanded. The most significant period of trade occurred in the 1970's after Nixon and Kissinger successfully achieved what became known as Great Power Detente. This period ended in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The then President Carter who was suffering a severe lack of popularity as throughout the third world especially in Angola, Nicaragua and Iran the "red menace" appeared to be gaining ground toppling friendly autocrats while the United States seem to do nothing, (actually Carter approved funding and military assistance to practically every trouble spot including the Mujahedeen) so to make a big show for the American public Carter suspended all trade agreements and boycotted the Moscow Olympics, unfortunately this was not enough to save President "Peanut" though it did give Reagan the opening he needed to expand aide to the mujahedeen, and the Contra's, and the government of El Salvador amongst others.

However entertainment was exempted since it had no tactical applications or aided Soviet Foreign policy in any meaningful way. However there was still one critical problem with East West trading of electronic products. Officially the Soviet Union did not belief in individual ownership of property so who exactly would the Western game makers (in the 80's there were literally dozens of competing computer systems) acquire the rights from? The games maker Alexey Pajitnov no unless he defects as the game was developed at a Soviet Research and Development lab and he doesn't have the necessary authority. Fortunately for Nintendo and there new Gameboy good old General Secretary Gorbachev would smooth the process. As part of his economic restructuring (Perestroika) Gorbachev was very keen to increase exports to the west so created a number of export institutions such as ELORG for software exports, whose remit Tetris obviously fell under. There was however still a problem in that these export ministries had absolutely no precedent to draw experience from and a lot of pressure to deliver results, much of Perestroika and the future of the USSR depended on there performance. So in practice they operated like a cross between the Soviet foreign office and the KGB, extremely paranoid.

All of this makes for fascinating viewing.

*Torrent of the full documentary can be found with seeds here.

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