As Google reminded us today with its first interactive doodle (yes, you can actually play it), today is the 30th anniversary of Pacman’s release in Japan. Originally “Puck-Man,” the game was released in the US in 1980 and quickly became an icon of 80s pop culture: along with its successor, Ms. Pac-Man, it stands as the best-selling arcade video game in US history.
Famously inspired by the shape of a pizza, Pacman’s friendly emphasis on food and reproduction was also born of an effort to demilitarize gaming parlors by demasculinizing them:
In fact, Iwatani acknowledges that, while a eureka moment for the annals, that event represents the official birth of Pac-Man: “The whole thing actually started with me walking around games arcades watching how many boys were playing and the fact that all the machines were about killing aliens, tanks or people. Girls were simply not interested, and I suddenly had a motivation for my work: I wanted game centres to shed this rather dark, sinister image, and it seemed to me that the way to raise the atmosphere of a place is to entice girls to come in.
The whole purpose of Pac-Man was to target women and couples, and get a different type of player involved. So there I was, wondering what sort of things women would look for in a video game. I sat in cafés and listened to what they were talking about: mostly it was fashion and boyfriends. Neither of those was really the stuff of a good video game. Then they started talking about food — about cakes and sweets and fruit — and it hit me: that food and eating would be the thing to concentrate on to get the girls interested.”
Ultimately boys turned out to like the Pac-Man games just as much as women, and the subculture of competitive vintage arcade games remained heavily masculinized. Sheri Graner Ray explores the reasons for this in her book Gender-Inclusive Game Design, suggesting the changes in avatar design and game themes could make video games more appealing to women.
Another hypothesis: maybe it’s not that girls don’t like shooting space aliens but simply the fact that girls and women have less time to spend mastering video games – a point driven home by the documentary The King of Kong, which provides a fascinating look at the subculture of competitive gaming:
The first annual World Pacman Championship was held in New York City in 2007. Currently, David Race holds the record for being the fastest player ever to get a perfect score on the original Pac-man game, beating out Billy Mitchell who had previously held the record since 1999.