PAC-MAN – A Last Look Back

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[This Commentary originally appeared in the January 10, 1991 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]

CarosaCommentaryNewLogo_259Just over twenty years ago, a new game began sprouting among aging pinball machines in arcades across the land. Its instant popularity helped solidify the video game market. Two things distinguished PAC-MAN from its immediate predecessors and, especially, the granddaddy of all video games – Space Invaders.

Foremost, PAC-MAN employed a novel technique for its genre – color. Prior to the advent of the gobbling yellow circle, video games featured only white lines and shapes in a black background. PAC-MAN became the first video game to exploit the cartoon-like images we see today.

The theme of the game, however, represented perhaps the most significant difference between PAC-MAN and its forerunners. Space Invaders, like most video games, consisted of blasting, killing, maiming and otherwise destroying virtually anything the “live-action” missile graphics innovatively used microprocessors could provide.

PAC-MAN, on the other hand, relied on another American tradition – eating. Surely, the yellow circle might “eat” the blue ghosts Pinky, Inky, Harpo and Zeppo (or whatever their names), but the act reflected only a temporary destruction. Indeed, destruction may be inappropriate, as the ghosts never actually disappeared from the screen. They merely changed their state (making them harmless), and rematerialized in the isolated nest located at the center of the game.

The game seemed to have no point. As the player, you guided the yellow circle (a “PAC-MAN”) through a maze and consumed little white dots on the display while, at the same time, avoided being eaten by the multicolored ghosts roaming about the screen. While you could eat the ghosts (when they turned blue) or the bonus fruit (when it appeared), you didn’t need to. Once you cleared all the little white dots from the screen, a new maze emerged and the process would begin again.

Without the usual trigger buttons and computer simulated explosions, video game aficionados initially turned a cold shoulder towards PAC-MAN. PAC-MAN, they reasoned, would simply fail to attract “real men” (then a concurrent American fad) in the male dominated video game market.

The hypothesis failed because, in their collective naïveté, these young men failed to consider a new variable in the video game equation – young women. As it happened, PAC-MAN’s initial popularity evolved in the female domain – heretofore an untapped portion of the video game market.

PAC-MAN attracted many curvaceous members of the fairer sex. Men discovered this fact about a year after the game’s introduction. Simultaneously, men discovered a new test of masculinity, namely, the “How-Many-Screens-Can-You-Clear” Test.

Evidently, American males independently found out American females could be impressed by what came to be known as “PAC-MAN Prowess.” Like earlier fad standards such as swallowing goldfish, driving small foreign cars and lifting weights, PAC-MAN Prowess quickly established itself throughout the country.

Rampant competition caused the creation of what can only be called the PAC-MAN economy. Aside from such silly peripherals as PAC-MAN tee shirts, PAC-MAN baseball caps and PAC-MAN designer clothes, information became the meat of this economy. PAC-MAN guidebooks topped the New York Times Best-Seller List.

These books told of certain paths along the maze which virtually guaranteed clearing the screen. Finding these routes denoted the ultimate sign of manliness. Who could ever forget the suave sophisticate who freely lectured to any and all, expounding on the joys of finding a path which would guarantee access to the much sought for “key” screen. More importantly, what young man could ever forget those coy young women who remained glued as this expert showed his prowess at the nearest game.

Clearly, PAC-MAN had become a part of American courtship. Love blossomed as the munching yellow circle raced through the mazes, gobbling little white dots, eating rare fruit and eluding the four ghosts. Yet, despite this amorousness, perhaps PAC-MAN has taught us even more.

In playing the game, one must constantly decide between maximizing points (a high risk strategy) and clearing as many screens as possible (a low risk strategy). The dichotomy looms even more apparent when one realizes that, after 10,000 points, point total yields no further special bonuses (like extended play). Logically, then, after accumulating 10,000 points, the player should then switch to a philosophy of clearing boards.

Still, the opportunity to score more points presents itself too often to idly pass it by. In particular, chasing blue ghosts can be very tempting. At slower speeds, the player can both score points and clear screens. At higher speeds, though, completing both objectives at the same time becomes almost impossible. The player must decide between the high risk strategy and the low risk strategy.

Often, a player will switch from the high risk to the low risk game plan when the speed of the yellow PAC-MAN exceeds some critical velocity. PAC-MAN therefore allows a not so subtle look at the adventurous high risk/high reward versus the low risk/conservative type of inner self. Given the situation, any player can choose either route. As students of human behavior, the point at which a player switches strategies interests us most, for it can tell us how risk averse the player might be.

History shows risk aversion – knowing when to take a chance and when not to take a chance – plays an important role in determining success in business, politics, military and other endeavors. Many organizations use many different methods (from the job interview to standardized tests) to assess an applicant’s ability to successfully cope with risk.

Perhaps we should bring back PAC-MAN instead.

Ed. Note: The Carosa Commentary reflects the opinions of its author and in no way represents those of this newspaper or its management.

Next Week #92: The Year in Review – Or, Why Do We Go Through This Every Year? (originally published on January 3, 1991)
Next Week #94: The Name Chris (originally published on January 17, 1991)

[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]


  1. Chris Carosa says

    Author’s Comment: I’m sorry, but the addition of the Editor’s Note at the conclusion of this particular Commentary is simply a hoot. By now, I had been getting questions about what was going on deep within the bowels of the Sentinel’s office. (Honesty, I couldn’t answer then and I can’t answer now.) Suffice it to say, I would soon discover another anomaly.

    This particular Commentary has to rank as among my favorite. Not is the writing style better than (my personal) average, but the subject also excites me. I hope it does the same for you, too.

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