Pac-Man has a gambling problem.
This became clear to me last week, after I read through articles about games and their ability to contain narrative. “Certainly, it is easy to argue that games such as BioShock, Zelda and L.A. Noire tell a complex and engaging story,” scholars often say, “but what about popular games like Tetris or Pac-Man? What stories do they offer?”
It may be true that Tetris and Pac-Man do not offer any explicit narrative at first glance. No text displays in order to offer a back story of the falling blocks or the missing-pizza-slice face that is chased through mazes by a gang of colourful ghosts. No dialogue is offered. But that does not mean that narrative is completely bereft. In fact, I say that these games leave the creation of story up to the gamers who play them, and offer building-blocks of narrative (no Tetris pun intended) in the form of characters, actions and symbols in order to facilitate this creation.
Marie-Laure Ryan, in her article “Beyond Myth and Metaphor: The Case of Narrative in Digital Media,” explains that narrative can be presented in a number of varying degrees, and is not always made obvious for gamers/users:
A game such as Tetris represents the lowest degree of narrativity, because “fitting blocks of various shapes into slots as they fall from the top of the screen” is hardly interpretable as the pursuit of human interests in a concrete situation.
However, Ryan suggests that Tetris‘ “low degree” of narrativity may offer enough symbolic representation for gamers to find meaningful story within:
The narrativity of Tetris would increase if the player stimulated herself by imagining that she is a slave building a wall from bricks thrown at her at an increasing rate by a sadistic master, and that she will survive only as long as she is not buried under the falling blocks.
For Ryan, the narrativity within games grows as far as gamer imagination allows it to grow.
Pac-Man (1980) is rife with symbols that suggest creator Toru Iwatani may have been trying to make a statement about the dangers of gambling. Pac-Man clearly represents the insatiable greed of capitalists from the developed world. He never stops gobbling the “power pills” (which I will henceforth refer to as coins) that line the maze through which Pac-Man navigates, and indeed the game only progresses once Pac-Man collects all of the coins in each level. The maze represents the constant battle Pac-Man wages within his own mind—a battle between the rational realization of odds and moderation, and the irrational, maverick desire for the potential riches that lay just beyond his reach. Within the maze are four ghosts—Pac-Man’s inner demons—that threaten to trap him within the maze and destroy him mentally, and financially. When Pac-Man is caught by one of the ghosts in the game, the missing-pizza-piece character turns on its side and diminishes into nothingness. Pac-Man literally transforms into a pie-chart that represents his financial standing; he ultimately succumbs to his demons, which destroy the last of his willpower, and he loses everything (Fig. 1).
Much of my theory rests upon the round, yellow objects within Pac-Man being understood as “coins” rather than “power pills,” as is usually the case. If the round objects of Pac-Man’s desire were pills, there would still be an argument that Pac-Man is a game of addiction. But I argue that the classification of the coins Pac-Man collects as “power pills” is a cultural mistake. After all, the game’s title screen does not label them as such (Fig. 2), and the disks are quantified in a way that replicates standard currency—at least standard currency of the time (10 pts=dime, 50 pts=50-cent piece). Additionally, the yellow hue with which the coins are coloured represents gold, the standard with which international currency is measured. It is also notable that the famous platform game Super Mario Bros. (1985) included the “gold coin” currency, and many games continue to do so today (ie.World of Warcraft).
The ability to defeat ghosts that Pac-Man gets when collecting a large coin (worth 50 pts) represents the highs that gamblers achieve when things are going well. After winning or losing modest sums of cash for days, weeks or months at a time, Pac-Man may eventually hit it big and, for a time, he quells (or at least forgets about) his demons. He may even claim that his gambling days are over now that he has enough money to get by on, or at least enough to pay off his debt. But ultimately his demons return (they never truly go away) and Pac-Man is pursued by his demons once again.
The most obvious evidence of gambling that one finds when playing Pac-Man are the fruit that appear within the maze at various points in the game. Cherries and lemons in particular have become well-recognized symbols of casino slots, due to their regular appearance on the spinning wheels of these machines (Fig. 3).
It is clear to me that there is an understated and under-appreciated storyline that surrounds the popular Pac-Man video game—one of highs and lows, nervous tension, indecision, mistakes and ultimately despair. It should be no surprise that a game inspired by impulsive gambling was first bestowed upon games that required gamers to insert coins to play. Was Pac-Man an early statement against underage gambling? Was it a warning of things to come—that video games could be as disastrously addictive as gambling? Was it a statement on Western society in general? Was Ms. Pac-Man the driving force behind Pac-Man’s gambling addiction?
Or am I completely out to lunch?
Let me know by commenting below!
“Pac-Man.” Wikipedia. 9 June 2011. Web. 11 June 2011 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pac-Man>.
Ryan, Marie-Laure. “Beyond Myth and Metaphor: The Case of Narrative in Digital Media.” Game Studies. 1.1 (July 2001). Web. 11 June 2011 <http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/ryan/>.