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kottke.org posts about Cat DeSpira

How to Play Pac-Man

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 11, 2019

The highest score a player can get in Pac-Man is 3,333,360. In a fascinating recent article on the game, Cat DeSpira doesn’t tell us how to play the digital game on the screen but instead shows how people interact with the physical artifact of the cabinet while playing Pac-Man. Specifically, she notes that the particular pattern of wear on the sides of Pac-Man machines arises from the nature of the game.

Pac-Man wear pattern

Pac-Man is more of a driving game than a maze game. As you’re playing, you’re jamming that joystick left and right, up and down, movements that shifts your right shoulder forward and back, rocking your body side to side. When the going gets tough, and the ghosts start closing in, all of this rocking motion compels you to lean into the game and, whether you realize you’re doing it or not, you’re going to grab onto the game. You actually need to get a grip…on something. You’re either going to lean hard against your left palm as it rests on the control panel which isn’t comfortable for very long or, like most people, you’re going to grab the side of the game and hold on tight. You have to or you’ll lose your balance. You can’t take the sharp corners smoothly and quickly without doing this, ether. You need the extra stabilization to move Pac-Man around the corners accurately.

Many owners have “restored” the worn sides of their games so they look like new, but DeSpira argues that covers up a vital aspect of gaming history:

Pac-Man’s worn left-side is part of the game’s provenance. It’s unique only to Pac-Man games, including Ms. Pac-Man. It’s evidence left by “Pac-Mania” and also evidence of how the game was really played. It’s a time signature left by a generation of the first gamers. It’s history that should be preserved intact. It tells a story that we’ll never see written again.

Why anyone would want to destroy something that reflects a cultural phenomenon in gaming boggles my mind. It’s confusing even more to me that people can’t see it, can’t see the worn side of the game and know exactly what put it there and find it beautiful — hands. Thousands of human hands. Millions, even. Hands of many colors, many sizes; white collar hands, blue collar hands, no-collar hands. Hands that put a quarter in a machine that was attacked by the press as being “addicting” and “unhealthy”. Ordinances were passed that helped kill the video craze off early because of Pac-man, because a generation of newly risen gamers couldn’t keep their hands off it and, in a free country, shouldn’t have been expected to anyway. That scar was put there by an act of defiance.

(thx, s. ben)