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After a 20-hour Tetris marathon on his Macintosh SE/30 desktop computer, Frank J. Lee drove across the Bay Bridge from Berkeley to San Francisco, his mind still stuck on the game. He was an undergraduate majoring in cognitive science, and the year was 1990.
As Mr. Lee crossed the bridge, the buildings near the water reflected the setting sun. He soon began seeing things. The windows of the skyscrapers had transformed into the L-, Z- and square-shaped Tetris blocks of arguably the world’s most famous puzzle game.
“It was very clear to me that it was there,” Mr. Lee said in an interview last month. “Shapes rotating and falling, rotating and falling.”
On Saturday, two and a half decades later, his hallucination turned into reality. Mr. Lee and 100 gamers in Philadelphia played the world’s largest game of Tetris on the facade of a 29-story office building downtown.
Mr. Lee and his colleagues at Drexel University, where he is now the director of the Entrepreneurial Game Studio, turned the Cira Centre into a giant monitor by hacking the lighting system of the glass-encased skyscraper (with the permission of its proprietor). The event marked the kickoff of Philly Tech Week 2014, and was an early birthday party of sorts for Tetris. The game turns 30 on June 6.
“Tetris is a cultural icon,” Mr. Lee said, describing it as the “perfect game” based on its simplicity and addictive game play.
Tetris was first released in 1984, designed and programmed by Alexey Pajitnov in the former Soviet Union. It became a sensation in the United States and the world over when it was bundled with the Nintendo Game Boy in 1989. The game has been released on more than 50 different platforms and sold on more than 425 million mobile devices, paving the way for today’s casual game successes like Candy Crush Saga.
Yet Mr Lee’s primary aim for organizing Saturday’s event was not just to celebrate Tetris, but also to create a “public art event” that would for a few hours bring people in Philadelphia together.
“Technology has sort of made us isolated from each other,” he said. “I want us to be with each other and play with each other.”
It was the second year in a row that Mr. Lee and his collaborators used the Cira Centre to recreate a bit of gaming fun. They set a Guinness World Record last year for the “Largest Architectural Video Game Display” by inviting city residents to play the arcade classic Pong.
With this year’s event, Mr. Lee expected to break that record. “It’s twice as big,” he said, noting that this year’s event was played on two sides of the building, not just one.
The games began Saturday night with two groups of players located a mile apart at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and One Drexel Plaza. A beer garden, food trucks and live bands, including some that merged video game sounds with rock tunes, added to the party atmosphere at the art museum, where hundreds gathered to watch the event.
Using the north side and the south side of the building, competitors played a version of the game, in which rows of blocks were added to the opponent’s screen when players eliminated them on their side.
Joysticks were connected to a computer that transmits data via a 4G network to a computer inside the Cira Centre. There the signals were translated into commands to the building’s external LED lighting system creating images on the facade. Another gaming session is scheduled to take place on Sunday night.
“When I first played Tetris at the CES trade show in Las Vegas and later met the game’s creator, Alexey Pajitnov, I knew the game was special, but I could never have imagined that almost 30 years later I’d be playing Tetris on a 29-story building,” said Henk B. Rogers, the managing director of the Tetris Company, who participated in the event. His company owns the worldwide distribution rights to the game.