Pac-man is perhaps one of the most popular games to have ever been made, right along side such series as Mario, Legend of Zelda, and Warcraft. With humble beginnings, Pac-man was a simple game, with a simple goal, but grew to be one of the most beloved games of all time. It also contains some very interesting themes that I would like to examine today.
Pac-man paints a rather disturbing picture of the corporate rat race that many people find themselves trapped in, be it the rat race of the 80s or the rat race of today. Pac-man, the rather plain and insatiable “hero” of the game, is tasked with consuming all the Pac-dots on the screen to progress to the next level. The symbolism here is clear, Pac-man represents the middle class of American society, constantly looking upwards, to consume and consume because this is the American “Dream”; to drive the biggest car, own the biggest house, have the hottest significant other. These are all the generic things that the generic Pac-dots represent. There is no form to the dots, because there is no significance to the reality of the dots manifest themselves in, they are imagined markers of “success”. There are some solid goals that are presented through the game, but they are represented by food, something that is quickly consumed and then just as quickly expelled. These goals are fleeting, however, reflecting the luck (or prediction of the future) involved in such corporate advancement rather than actual skill.
Pac-man also exhibits an appetite that is neigh unsatisfiable; continually consuming, never happy with what he has. This ties into the level progression of the game, which is a simple maze with a few iterations. This signifies the ever changing, but ever the same, environment of the corporate ladder. Nothing is really different from rung to rung on the corporate ladder, and the insignificantly different mazes are a representation of that.
The final aspect of the game are the ghosts, which represent the imaginary “evils” that our society has taught us plague our every step towards success. Pinky, the only female in the group, represents the evil of lust and promiscuous sex. Blinky is the overly competitive rival that peruses your every step, waiting for you to fail so that he may strike a killing blow. Inky represents randomness and chaos. Being inconsistent in your decisions is considered a bad thing, even if you have learned that you are wrong, you still shouldn’t change your mind lest you be a flip flopper. Finally, Clyde represents “childishness”, which I put in quotes because I mean the imagined childishness of enjoying things outside the norm, such as, say, video games, or reading, or avant garde music. These four ghosts, though unsubstantial, cause you problems in the corporate world. There is a way to combat them, however, and that’s drugs. The “Power Pellets” in the four corners of the mazes represent the freedom that drug use offers a mind. Clearly the creators of Pac-man believed in the use of drugs to confront and conquer your fears.
The Pac-man series was never really meant to become as successful as it eventually did, but we can see here the chord that it struck with the American population, so many of whom are trapped with in the life style depicted. Even the inspiration for the design of Pac-man, a pizza with a few pieces missing, is indicative of the corporate structure.
I hope you enjoyed this Reading Between the Lines. I think I’m going to start focusing more on different arcade cabinet games and stick with shorter, simpler games for some regularity, and then release the bigger ones (e.g. I’m working on a Banjo Kazooie one right now) as I finish them.
Again, thank you to wikia and thank you to the Pac-Man wiki having more information than I could ever need on every game I’ve looked up so far.