How Pac-Man Revolutionized Gaming | The MIT Press Reader
The original game is the basis of a rich tradition of design, which goes far beyond detailed graphics and smooth controls.
When Pac-Man arrived in 1980, it has not only become a popular video game. It transcends video games. There was Pac-Man Cereal in grocery stores, a Pac-Man cartoon on television, and even a hit Pac-Man song on the radio. In other words, Pac-Man blew onto the scene with a scale of cultural impact that video games, already an international phenomenon, had never achieved before.
In the decades since its release, the game has inspired a novel by Martin Amis and one fashion collection, without speaking about a slew of goods, from fancy boxer shorts to a commemorative alcohol from the Matsunami Sake brewery. Clearly, Pac-Man ‘its appeal goes beyond games.
And yet the games themselves – there have been over 200 releases to date – continue to find a receptive audience. This week, 40 years later Pac-ManGoogle’s launch, Google’s Stadia service will be released Pac-Man Mega Tunnel Battle, yet another addition to the franchise. And Google is far from the only one. In October, Pac-Man Bandai Namco creators are out Pac-Man Geo, an app that turns real city streets into Pac-Man labyrinths; earlier this month, UK developers Steamforged Games released Pac-Man: the card game, a family board game. So, what explains the lasting appeal of Pac-Man?
Just as the cinema has a set of fundamental techniques – angles, cuts, pans and zooms – there are fundamental techniques of video games. But unlike the metalanguage of cinema, which we’ve been discussing for a century, we’re just beginning to understand the fundamentals of video games – how their operations create meaning and shape our gaming experiences. Pac-Man opened up new avenues.
In my new book, “How Pac-Man eats,âI explain the design innovation that made Pac-Man possible – and so impactful – and explore how game developers still apply this approach to fundamental gaming techniques today, expanding the ideas they can express.
One of these techniques, collision, is the fundamental action of one game object entering another. It’s so familiar to all video game players that they probably don’t think about it, but it’s worth understanding the importance of this operational logic. Collision was a central part of the games that dominated arcades and home consoles before Pac-Manarrival, like Asteroids and Space invaders.
These games were a huge success, inspiring the opening of arcades across the United States and around the world. Space invaders even took over the cultural position of Pong, becoming the common cultural benchmark for a video game – such that its alien descendants are still used as an icon for video games, even among people far too young to have played in the late 1970s.
Corn Pac-Man brought things to a new level. People wanted to watch a Pac-Man cartoon because Pac-Man felt like a character. It was something that no previous game had really achieved. And the key was not technological. Pac-Man ‘s simple animated circle was not a technical leap past the player’s ship in Space invaders. On the contrary, Pac-Man felt like a character due to the game’s new approach to collision.
Collision in many of the early video games – Asteroids and Space invaders, for example – was entirely literal. It meant “one thing colliding with another,” with the resulting effects. Space war !, developed at MIT in the early 1960s, featured two spaceships that could (fatally) collide with both a star in the center of the screen and missiles fired by the other player. Pong, the first video game to achieve public success, featured two paddles that each attempted to collide with a ball that they gathered back and forth, with players scoring points when the ball struck the side of the screen of the other player.
In Pac-Man, collision rather expresses something metaphorical. The physical act of collision replaces the physical act of consuming – eating. It was this, rather than more detailed graphics or smoother controls, that made Pac-Man a character players could relate to. It’s something that the people behind the game understood. Like Dennis Lee, brand marketing director for the US division Bandai Namco Entertainment, the company that created Pac-Man, told the Marketplace radio show: âEating is just a very universal humanistic characteristic.“
This change was not something the company fell into by accident. Rather, the creative team was explicitly looking for a way to create a game about something new that would explore new experiences and attract new audiences. In the Netflix documentary series “High score, âToru Iwatani, who led the team that developed Pac-Man, remembers having wanted to make a game that went beyond Space invaders-style death: “Eating doesn’t mean killing yourself,” he said to himself, “and maybe women can enjoy it as a game too.”
In “How Pac-Man eats,“I call this kind of approach to the fundamentals of games expansive. It’s an approach that new generations of creators continue to rediscover and use to open up new possibilities for what games can be. I describe, for example, how a broad approach to collision is at the heart of Dys4ia, Trans designer Anna Anthropy’s autobiographical play on when you start taking estrogen. Now that gamers are accustomed to the extended uses of collision, designers like Anthropy can dramatically increase the level of metaphor – using collision to express everything from the power dynamics of a conversation to a personal experience of the image. bodily.
Google Stadia executives who decided to bet on Pac-Man Mega Tunnel Battle are unlikely to have any idea that the original Pac-Man is the basis of a rich tradition of design. But they certainly know Pac-Man ‘s a deep and lasting cultural impact. As we learn more about the fundamentals of games and understand games that use them in new ways, the door opens for more creators to deliberately use games to change our culture.
Noah Wardrip-Fruin is professor of computer media at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he co-directs the Expressive intelligence studio. He is the author and editor of several books, most recently “How Pac-Man eats.“