With the onset of the 1980s, coin-op arcades across the world filled with “wakka wakka” sounds for the first time. This mesmerizing noise emanated from arcade cabinets featuring Japanese company Namco’s Pac-Man—a yellow circular protagonist with a pie-wedge shaped mouth who, since 1980, has gobbled up dots, ghosts, and countless hours of people’s lives. In the two years following Pac-Man’s release, Namco sold 400,000 cabinets worldwide and grossed an estimated $2.5 billion in quarters, making it the most successful arcade game in history. Entering an arcade scene dominated by shoot-em-ups like Space Invaders, Defender, and the U.S. military-endorsed Battlezone, Pac-Man designer Toru Iwatani wanted to create a gender-neutral game that could appeal to both men and women. One whose premise centered on the universal habit of eating fit the bill just fine.
A year later, three college students formed the General Computing Company (GCC) and approached Pac-Man’s American distributor, Chicago-based Midway Manufacturing Company, with a modified enhancement for Pac-Man called Crazy Otto. Midway, recognizing the potential to profit off the Pac-Mania marketing fever sweeping the nation, eagerly embraced the mod-kit without obtaining permission from Namco. With minor revisions and a not-so-subtle name change, America’s illicit and unauthorized sequel was born—Ms. Pac-Man.
From a technical standpoint, Ms. Pac-Man improved upon its predecessor in virtually every way. The game offered players a lead female protagonist for the first time in video game history. She sported a bow, lipstick, eyelashes, and a mole, and now eluded ghosts that did not follow a standard pattern. Instead, the four ghosts—one renamed Sue—featured non-deterministic artificial intelligence. The bonus point food items, rather than remaining stationary, now moved through the maze. Finally, the game expanded from one maze to four, three of which featured multiple warp tunnels. It is for these reasons that the highly-respected Game Informer magazine in 2009 ranked Ms. Pac-Man at #10 in “The Top 200 Games of All Time.”
What Ms. Pac-Man did for players was take a good gameplay model and make it great. As with Pac-Man, both men and women flocked to arcades to play it, but Midway went to extra lengths to promote the game’s feminine appeal. One Midway flyer announced the character as “sure to be the most popular girl in the game world.” Dividing the first several levels were three intermissions, which as this flyer put it, told the “touching love story” of how Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man met, fell in love, and had a baby.
Advertising flyers of the period depict only women playing the game, which reflected a broader acknowledgement of female participation in video gaming. In its May 1982 issue, Electronic Games, the first dedicated video game magazine, ran an article by co-founder Joyce Worley titled “Women Join the Arcade Revolution.” The tagline read, “Move Over Guys, Here Come the Gals.” Worley notes that arcades used to be as much a “strictly male preserve as the old corner barber shop.” In the 1980s, however, “liberated ladies [were] rapidly discovering that electronic gaming is one activity in which the sexes can compete on absolutely even terms.” To the contemporary reader, it seemed that the video gaming industry had finally turned the corner on embracing female participation.
Today, however, video games are embroiled in a heated gender debate of new proportions. We are encouraged to think about video game culture in a discourse of post-escapism. This new paradigm recognizes a slow but steady shift in discussing video games not as products of technology, but as products of culture. Video games have always been intrinsically reliant on advances in computing and digital technology, so much so that they have avoided divisive topics like sexism, race, and politics. Until recently, critics have reviewed games not as forms of art, subject to a panoply of societal critiques, but as technological achievements more akin to the latest iPhone. Today, many believe video game culture is “finally starting to grow up,” with both designers and critics engaging with games “in the context of the world they exist in,” not “in a vacuum devoid of social or political forces.”
It may come as little surprise, then, that Ms. Pac-Man today is viewed as the historical catalyst in attracting women to a traditionally male-dominated hobby. She was, after all, the first female protagonist in video game history. In 2014, now-owner Bandai Namco announced a partnership with the National Breast Cancer Foundation for a month-long “Ms. Pac-Man Pink Ribbon Campaign.” This appropriation of Ms. Pac-Man as an icon for female activism is entirely fitting, but it distorts the game’s historical significance within the larger question of women and video gaming.
The original Pac-Man was a shattering success because it appealed to both male and female gamers. Midway spokesman Stan Jarocki expressed that his company was “keenly aware of its debt to lady arcaders” for popularizing their classic game. Says Jarocki, “Pac-Man was the first commercial videogame to involve large numbers of women as players. It expanded our customer base and made Pac-Man a hit. Now we’re producing this new game, Ms. Pac-Man, as our way of thanking all those lady arcaders who have played and enjoyed Pac-Man.” The female protagonist, therefore, was not created to attract women to its blossoming franchise, but rather to acknowledge and give thanks for their already abundant participation.
Pac-Man’s original Japanese name was Pakkuman (パックマン). As designer Iwatani intended, the character was asexual—a simple yellow circle whose only function was to eat. On the subject, he stated that “rather than defining the image of Pac-Man for the player, I wanted to leave that to each player’s imagination.” It was only with the English name translation, or perhaps specifically after Midway transformed Crazy Otto into Ms. Pac-Man, that Pac-Man took on a visibly masculine role in contrast to his new female companion. In this light, we can more clearly understand Pac-Man’s globally universal appeal to both men and women in 1980.
In an interview with TIME in May 2015, Iwatani discussed the impact of his golden child today. He stated that his original intent was to introduce a game “that would not be intimidating to female customers and couples to try out.” Pac-Man’s enduring impact for female gamers today lies in the empowered state of the main character, who in the blink of an eye can change from being the hunted to the hunter. He notes, “I think this idea also appeals to a new generation of female players who have grown up empowered and want to be the pursuer rather than being the pursued.” With Ms. Pac-Man, Midway not only kept this core component of the gameplay, but made Pac-Man’s empowering, arguably feminist roots explicit for female players.
As with most video games, corporations tend to cater to their audience when crafting the narrative. The genesis of Ms. Pac-Man was no different. Midway recognized that women were, from the beginning, a considerable portion of the Pac-audience. The game’s ground-breaking status, then, must be seen for what it is: a vast improvement on the model’s gameplay, based on its technical proficiency and craftsmanship. That Ms. Pac-Man went on to become an even bigger smash hit, eventually outselling and outlasting Pac-Man, is a testament not to its feminized form, but to the genuine improved nature of the gameplay. Therefore, in an era of post-escapist discourse, where video games are to be judged for more than their technical merits, we must restore Iwatani’s original Pac-Man, not its successor, to the rightful place as the preeminent revolutionary force in attracting women to the video gaming world.
= Play the cultural masterpiece here =
= Play the technical masterpiece here =
Daniel Goldberg & Linus Larsson, “Post-Escapism: A New Discourse on Video Game Culture [Introduction],” in The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture, ed. Goldberg & Larsson, New York, NY: Seven Stories Press, 2015: pp. 7-13.
Richard Stanton, A Brief History of Video Games: The Evolution of a Global Industry, Philadelphia, PA: Running Press, 2015.