We think that even the original Nintendo version of Tetris did not anticipate a human defeating it, let alone a teen from USA. December 21, 2023, was a life-changing day for Willis Gibson. The 13-year-old Oklahoma boy advanced to a level so far in the game that it froze. He became the first person to achieve this feat, which was previously credited only to artificial intelligence.

 To beat the game, a player has to achieve scores so high that the game’s memory banks overload and it crashes. Willis got to Level 157, reaching Tetris’s “kill screen,” the point where a video game becomes unplayable because of limitations in its coding. As you can see in the video below, when the game freezes, the screen reads that Willis made it to Level 18. That’s because the code wasn’t designed to advance so high!

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History Has Been Made

Willis has played Tetris competitively since 2021 under the name Blue Scuti. His Tetris journey started when he came across YouTube videos of the game, and he began gathering the equipment necessary to play an old version of it. He said he was attracted to the game because of its “simplicity.” According to Willis, Tetris is “easy to start off yet it’s really hard to master it.”

Theoretically, the game can go on forever if a player is good enough. For years, though, the limit was thought to be Level 29, when the blocks start falling so quickly that it seems as if it would be impossible for a human to keep up. But in the last decade, a new generation of Tetris players have tested those boundaries. Willis being the key example.

The 13-year-old boy put his hands to his head and rocked back and forth in an office chair in his bedroom, unable to believe what he had just accomplished. His computer screen had frozen, and the Tetris score read ‘999999.‘ “Oh my god!” Willis repeatedly exclaimed in a high-pitched voice as per the triumph video he uploaded to YouTube on Tuesday. He collapsed into his chair and couldn’t feel his fingers.

Tetris Willis Gibson video game

His Prep

 In a given week, Willis said, he plays about 20 hours of Tetris. For decades, gamers “beat” Tetris by hacking into the game’s software. But Willis, who in the last year has become one of the country’s top Tetris players, is the first to do it on the original hardware. “It’s never been done by a human before,” said Vince Clemente, the president of the Classic Tetris World Championship. It was considered to be an impossible task.

In the competitive Tetris world, the object is generally to outscore your opponents rather than to outlast them. “Trying for the crash” is a different approach entirely, it’s an act of survival. As per Willis, “The main strategy is just playing as safe as you can.”

Willis has already won several regional tournaments, and his goal is to win the Classic Tetris World Championship, in which he bagged third place in October. Willis’s next tournament is at the end of the month in Waco, Texas. So far, he has made about $3,000 from playing in Tetris tournaments.

The Game

Invented by the software engineer Alexey Pajitnov and released on the original Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989, Tetris features relentless arrays of shapes floating down a player’s screen. The object of the game is to keep the blocks from piling up. Players can rotate the blocks and position them to form solid lines, at which point those rows are cleared away. It is among the most enduring and celebrated video games ever which is designed to be played endlessly. 

But the game of Tetris has gotten more complicated since, says David Macdonald, a video game content creator and competitive Tetris player known as GameScout. In recent years, top players have begun using the “rolling technique,” a quick tapping method using several fingers instead of just one or two. This innovation has changed what is possible in competitive Tetris. More top players are “going for the crash,” as opposed to simply accumulating as many points as possible before being defeated by the game.

This Tetris prodigy has just come up and just completely taken over the pro Tetris scene,” David said. Gibson’s achievement will now unlock new frontiers for Tetris players to explore. For example, Willis triggered the freeze by clearing a single row of blocks. A double-row clear may not have frozen the game. It was never meant to go that long and no one had ever reached a trigger point like that.

Tetris Willis Gibson last level highest score beat video game

Now that it’s been done, there’s kind of a new phase or a new challenge. “When we all found out this past year that, ‘Oh, the crash is possible, you could do it at this level,’ then people started racing to be the first to do it. But now there’s a whole new challenge, which is basically now, instead of going through the crash, how long can you go beyond the crash?” said Mr. Macdonald.

The Learnings

What does Willis Gibson’s historic victory tell us? This nearly impossible feat by the young teen depicts how the limits of human performance are changing in the digital age. Tetris is famously compelling, but it is the community that ensures new players are drawn into the hobby, despite the proliferating number of alternatives out there. Communities encourage and inspire, both crucial ingredients for accelerating human potential.

Despite the game’s 34-year history, the technique of “rolling” only became popular in recent years, spreading through the community of streamers and Tetris competition players. Often, it is the youngest members of a community who recognise useful innovation and dig deep into any sort of new tech. Willis began playing Tetris at the age of 11 and used the “rolling” technique in his record-breaking run.

Tetris Willis Gibson humans vs AI machines

With the advent of artificial intelligence, the debate of ‘can machines replace humans’ has constantly come up. The discussion about whether human skills might become obsolete because of AI has been the latest hot topic. But it is a mistake to think that human performance is a stationary target.  As Gibson’s record-breaking achievement showed, we constantly look to the outer limits and, by reaching, extend our grasp.

Humans are a species defined by our ability to learn, and in the digital age there is more and more potential to push into uncharted territories of performance in all aspects of art, science and culture – Tetris included.