Montageman: A dude who writes

March 5, 2007

Memories lead to Pac-Man

Filed under: memory, videogames — montageman @ 4:01 am

I’ve been trying to write for my master’s essay, but have been blocked.  My project, as it currently stands, is attempting to get at the fun aspect of gaming, which videogame theory fails to get at outside of Raph Koster’s excellent A Theory of Fun.  Even Koster’s book, though, is concerned too much with the cognitive and not enough with affect and pleasure.

I’ve been playing videogames for most of my life.  We had an Atari 2600 in the early 80s; a Nintendo in the mid 80s; a Genesis in the early 90s; a Playstation/Saturn/Nintendo 64/Dreamcast in the mid 90s; Xbox/Playstation 2/Gamecube in the late 90s; and now the Wii.  I would also frequent arcades to supplement my home console gaming.  Games have been an important part of my life, so why is it so difficult for me to step back and figure out what makes these games fun?

My first memories of games revolve around the Atari.  My dad playing Football with his cousins; playing Pac-Man with my mom; attempting to master Bomberman;  Atari games seem primitive now, but back in 1984, there was nothing better (at least for a kid with no other knowledge).  Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man was and is still a fun and addictive game.  Playing a game first requires the player to learn the game’s language and control scheme.  Early games had a simple language – the Atari controller was a joystick and a button.  Very simple, but a near replica of an arcade cabinet.     Pac Man is fun because there is no learning curve.  The game’s objective becomes clear after playing for a few moments.    Feeding Pac-Man is of the utmost importance and is the object of the game.  He is hungry, always hungry – the Pac-Man must chomp its way through 240  dots and four power pills that line his symmetrical maze while dodging (or eating, while under the influence of the power pill) his antagonists, the 4 ghosts – Pinky, Blinky, Inky, & Clyde (Weiss, 6).  The game is never ending.  There are cut scenes between levels 2 & 3 and 5 & 6, but after that the sky is the limit.  Actually, according to Twingalaxies.com: five people have achieved a “perfect score” of 3,333,360.  From Geek.com: Billy Mitchell, 33, of Fort Lauderdale scored a perfect 3,333,360 points on a Pac-Man machine in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire. The perfect score is achieved by playing for six hours, through 256 levels of PacMan, eating every dot, energizer, blue ghost, and piece of fruit on every single level, without dying once. After the 256th level, the game freezes. The moment of Pac-Man freezing is, in essence, the defeat of the machine.  Instead of an ending like Mario saving Princess Toadstool, the game itself gives up.

Yet, this is not a satisfactory explanation.  Pac-Man‘s designers either consciously made 3,333,360 the perfect score or the game’s design does not go beyond level 256.  The simplicity of the game is both its genius and the source of its boredom.  Pac-Man was not made to be played for 6 hours straight.  At the height of its popularity, it would have been impolite to play for 6 hours straight.  Most of the Pac-Man machines were in arcades, which are public spaces.  The player chooses his game and pays for his time with the machine – usually anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour. The player must respect others and their desire to play the same machine.  The fun of an arcade game is made to be fleeting, or conducive to drifting.

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