Pac-Man in the forthcoming film Pixels (Columbia Pictures, 2015)

Eat to Live: The 35th Anniversary of ‘Pac-Man’

The story of Pac-Man is the story of America.

A maze with dots. That’s about all it was, just a maze filled with dots.

You earned points for eating those dots. You were rewarded with a new level for eating all of the dots.

You took on the role of a big yellow mouth. You had three lives. You were chased by ghosts, except, of course, when you chased those ghosts yourself.

It’s the 35th anniversary of Pac-Man today, May 22nd, 2015, and for my money that means more or less that it also is the 35th anniversary of the medium of video games.

Yes, before there was Pac-Man, there was Pong, there was Space Invaders, there was Colossal Cave Adventure, even earlier than that there was Spacewar! However, in 1980, for much of the public at large, their first experience of a video game was Pac-Man.

Those other games existed, but besides the few people who experienced Colossal Cave because they were associated with computer programming or who had owned a Pong system at home, Pac-Man was the game that they first dropped a quarter in a slot to play. The difference between the few video games created in the late ’70s and Pac-Man was that Pac-Man mattered to the public, to the culture.

It seems appropriate to me then that Pac-Man would tip off the arcade era of the ’80s since it is all about consumption. It’s about running around a maze, fleeing from ghosts, and eating, eating, eating. You eat to earn points, to feel a sense of achievement and status at “getting the high score.” You eat to live, eating even your enemies when you get the chance. Heck, if you ate enough things and earned enough points, you were even rewarded with something close to eternal life: an extra life, an extra life that could be spent consuming all the more.

It might have been a game designed in Japan, but in a sense, Pac-Man seems altogether American. Indeed, Pac-Man may be the story of late twentieth century America.

For a culture of consumption, the refrain of Pac-Man chewing up dots might be the prefect soundtrack. Arcade machines like Pac-Man were loud and garish, like the era that they emerged from. They were designed to extract quarters from your pocket for the chance to briefly eat and earn, eat and earn, and this became the benchmark of what gaming in a video form would be all about: get stuff, get stuff, get stuff, so that you could show off your score to others on a glowing arcade screen. They were about consumption for the sake of status.

Video games have changed, and, of course, they haven’t changed. They’ve grown, gotten more sophisticated, learned to tell stories, learned to pack entire worlds into the space of a television screen or a computer monitor. They remain about acquiring, though, acquiring power ups, acquiring levels, acquiring new skills, acquiring princesses, acquiring worlds.

One lesson remains central to the experience of Pac-Man (and maybe to video games in general). Eat while you can, for in three lives, you may die.