The idea in a nutshell

  • Pac-Man might be just a game.
  • On the other hand, it might be an allegory.
  • There are a number of interesting parallels between Pac-Man’s behaviour and real life.

Pac-Man – His Story

I think that Pac-Man is an underestimated game. Pac-Man was released by Namco in 1980, the decade that introduced us to Gordon Gekko, who said “Greed is Good” and inspired avarice in both me and Charlie Sheen, the man I’ve always wanted to be. The context reveals the game’s origins but does not explain its success.

It makes absolutely no sense that The Guinness Book Of World Records lists Pac-Man as the best-selling video game of all time, shifting 300,000 arcade units in the course of its life. It’s a simple game. Eat the dots, don’t get eaten by the ghosts. So, why then did it become so popular?

Pac-Man was drawn yellow because a variety of psychological studies have shown that yellow is the colour most associated with happiness. The shape of the eponymous protagonist is essentially a pizza. The Pac-Man, then, is designed to define consumer culture, embodies it in fast food, marries it with a with a positive, joyful emotional state in a jaunty colour and sets about business. No character can be understood however, until one knows his motivation.

What motivates Pac-Man?

Pac-Man’s only desire is to consume. His sole purpose is to eat all the dots on a page. When he’s done that, he gets another identical page. And you can keep doing that forever. Consumption never ends. It sounds ideal. But is it?

He’s only ever a wrong turn from a ghost catching him. While he consumes, he is chased, relentlessly, by death in multiple colours.

The game contains moments, of the sort that we’ve all experienced in our own lives, during which we seem to be in control. When, for a moment, for a change, we’re holding the boss. Eat a Power Pill in Pac-Man and you can chase the ghosts for a change. However these moments, in the game as well as life, are fleeting; a mirage of hope, an illusion. When they end, the Pac-Man returns to his mundane consumer plodding.

He’s easily fooled, the Pac-Man. There’s an exit to his world, we’re shown, on the right hand side of the screen. Even this slim hope is a thinly veiled trick, an exit which is simply an entrance to the same place. You can check out any time you want to, Pac-Man, but you can never leave.

Interestingly, the arcade gets hotter and hotter as the game runs, burning energy to keep it alive, mirroring global warming and keeping us occupied as that particular metaphoric frog is literally boiled.

What can we learn from Pac-Man?

Perhaps Pac-Man defines the lonely, meaningless life currently suggested to us. Relentlessly consuming until we die; believing that sometimes, we win. It’s a challenging mirror we should all examine closely for meaning.

When playing Pac-Man you’re a consumer, paying a dollar to consume a game in which a (Pac) man consumes white dots and fruit. It’s totally meta and self referencing. When you look into Pac-Man, Pac-Man looks in to you.

Are you Pac-Man or the person playing the Pac-Man game? Who asked that question? Surely, the person watching the man playing the Pac-Man game did. He’s observing the man playing the Pac-Man game. Who is watching him?

Pac-Man raises more questions than it answers, offering an infinite number of men, playing Pac-Man and observing the one in front of them. It’s as if we’re in a lift with mirrored walls stretching endlessly onwards, each reflection observing the man in front. In one sense Pac-Man, as the original, is the only real thing there.

Is this how Pac-Man saw his life turning out?

Pac-Man may be here to make us question our reality. I wonder if, ultimately, the real purpose Pac-Man serves is to teach us not to play futile games and to ask the questions of ourselves that we should.

I will return to this thought, its implications, and how Pac-Man might save the world, in future posts.