Grease On The Joystick: Pizza And The Pac-Man Effect

Happy birthday to the most iconic yellow circle in the world

From the familiar “wacka wacka wacka” of that little yellow circle to the permanently greasy video-arcade joystick, Pac-Man holds a special place in many people’s memories. 

In honour of Pac-Man’s birthday, National Geographic explores the history and inspiration for the 80s icon and how a seemingly innocent video game about a pizza eating fruit, inspired compulsion and addiction in generations of young video gamers. 

Pac-Man—or ‘Pakkuman’ in the original Japanese—was first developed by the Namco company and released in the U.S. by Midway Games in October 1980. Namco primarily produced kiddie rides in the early 1970s for Japanese department stores, until Masaya Nakamura, the company’s founder, decided to invest in the growing popularity of video gaming. To make a name for themselves, the team would have to compete with gaming giant Atari.

Toru Iwatani was one of the newly-hired young designers Nakamura tasked with designing a game that was comical, but also had wide appeal across genders. His idea and the concept design for the lead character came from an innocent pizza, looking at the shape of the iconic character; he’s effectively a pizza with a slice missing.

Selling over 400,000 machines within its first two years, the family friendly game sprouted countless spin-offs, including Mrs. Pac-Man, home consoles, films, and merchandise. Pac-Man became a social sensation.

Image: Avid Pac-man gamers, still from 80s Greatest

But Pac-Man isn’t as innocent as it seems. The game was built to be addictive: if you were good enough, Pac-Man would continue indefinitely, leading some gamers to obsessive overplaying. Martin Amis, scholar and critic describes the game’s sheer compulsion in his book Invasion of the Space Invaders:

“I have seen bloodstains on the Pac-Man joystick [...] I know a young actress with a case of Pac-Man Hand so severe that her index finger looked like a section of blood pudding – yet still she played, and played through her tears of pain.”

This gaming addiction has spawned essays and critical analyses of Pac-Man, seen as encouraging the technological rave and colour of a drug consuming society or even, as Stephen Poole, academic and scholar, explained in his book Trigger Happy,  metaphor for the mindless consumer:

“With his obsessively gaping maw, [Pac-Man] clearly only wants one thing: to feel whole, at peace with himself. He perhaps surmises that if he eats enough, in other words, buys enough industrially produced goods – he will attain … perfect roundness. But it can never happen.”

Whether Namco, or even Pac-Man himself, is truly sinister, the munching yellow circle remains a cultural icon.

Lead Image: Pac-man, still from 80's Greatest.

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