How the creator of Skyscraper Tetris hopes to expand social experiences

In 2013, Drexel University professor Frank Lee realized a five-year dream that ended with Pong, playable on a 29-story skyscraper. This year, Lee plans to go bigger with a multiplayer game of Tetris.

Today, in celebration of the beginning of Philly Tech Week, Philadelphia visitors will amass to watch and play Tetris with LED lights on the sides Brandywine Realty Trust's Cira Centre. Lee admires Tetris as a cultural icon — much like Pong was — but his hope is bring people together in a "shared moment."

According to Lee, technology tends to separate people. It's a problem that can be traced back to the first time someone put on headphones, Lee said. Social isolation begins with tuning out the rest of the world and spreads to friends sitting in silent groups while staring at their phones, or parents sending emails at the dinner table.

"Technology, for the most part, seems to have made us isolated from each other," Lee said. "I think humans are fundamentally social animals. My purpose then was to use the same technology and games to try to create a social experience, a social moment, that's shared by the entire city."

"The game of Tetris will be visible by the entire city."

This year, the display will take place on the north and south sides of the skyscraper — an expansion from last year's single wall. Although last year's efforts were only "half successful," Lee said, people still shared videos from across the city; each was a unique perspective of the event. As the crowds watched the game's progress, he added, there was a collective rise and fall of emotion with every win or loss.

"Aesthetically, the game of Tetris will be visible by the entire city. For that two hours, it becomes a social beacon for the city of Philadelphia, for the entire city of Philadelphia."

The thought is similarly echoed by Brandywine, who gave Lee permission to use their building in the first place.

"For those of us who remember playing the original Pong and Tetris arcade games, it brings a touch of nostalgia and provides a unique opportunity to share that experience with the new generation of gamers to inspire wonder and creativity," president and CEO Jerry Sweeney told Polygon via email. "The Tetris event on the Cira Centre's curtain wall will be a unique paradox in the sense that it will incorporate a classic video game projected on to the grandest stage ever set for the display of a video game."

According to Lee, much of the heavy lifting for this year's project was already done, thanks to previous Pong efforts; it used a budget of about $50,000, split between Brandywine and Drexel University. Players, selected by a lottery, will be given about one to one and a half minute to play; the game has been adjusted accordingly to speed things up.

"I want to have as many people as possible to experience it but also have them get a good amount of gameplay in," Lee said.

Lee has centered all his attention on the project at hand, but he does have an idea on how he'd like to approach a third event involving a nationwide, or perhaps even worldwide, contest. Professional and amateur developers would submit their game ideas, of which a few would be chosen for Philly Tech Week.

"Coding is going to be so important in our future."

Part of Lee's plan includes a "very simple" web page simulation in which users could input their own code to mimic the experience on the Cira Centre building. Although this simulation would be open to everyone, Lee hopes to specifically interest middle and high school students in coding.

"Coding is going to be so important in our future," Lee said. "Certainly you have a lot of people saying that as well, but this will be a fun way to engage students who might have never thought about going into programming. I'm deeply involved in local community organizations that help out young women — middle school girls — to think about technology and science as a future, as a career, and underrepresented minorities as well.

"[I want] to use this as a platform to try to reach those groups and those students to think about programming as a very creative endeavor."

Update: See video of Tetris played on the side of Cira Centre.

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