13 Ways of Looking at “Pac-Man”

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

January was apparently Andrew Ross month over at Dissent.  Two articles, Jeffrey J. Williams’s “How to be an Intellectual: The Cases of Richard Rorty and Andrew Ross” (in the Winter 2011 issue of the magazine) and Kevin Mattson’s “Cult Stud Mugged” (an online original), track Ross’s evolution from a so-called cult-stud into someone more akin to an academic labor reporter.

Though the tone of each of these articles differs significantly — Mattson is by far snarkier and consquently more amusing than Williams — the upshot of each is that Ross has matured into a serious, Dissent-approved scholar after a flashy but shallow cult-stud start.  Their larger, more trenchant point is that the casualization of acadmic labor, September 11, the various wars of the last decade, and the financial crisis have collectively “mugged” cultural studies afficionados, revealing its modes of analysis to be significantly less studly that was previously imagined.

This discussion has reminded me of my own introduction to cultural studies, way back when I was an undergraduate at Cornell.  Whatever may be true of Ross’s work, past and present, I think the shift away from cultural studies isn’t only about a turn toward more “serious” issues, such as grad student unionization, sweatshops, and income inequality.  I have been tracking a similar shift even in the way we analyze “merely” cultural objects.  This is where Pac-Man comes in.  I should warn my readers, that this post will only discuss two of the thirteen ways one might look at the game.

I.

As an undergrad with semotics in my eyes, I read — and loved — Arthur Asa Berger’s Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction to Semiotics.  Nothing was more exciting to me than semiotics; the very word seemed magical. A science of signs?  How cool was that? Very. I enjoyed lavishly sprinkling phrases like hermeneutics and ontology into papers I would now be forced to admit probably would have been better off without such stylistic garnishes.  To get a sense of why I was a fan, I present a long quote from Berger’s analysis of Pac-Man:

We can find in “Pac Man,” I believe, a sign that a rather profound change was taking place in the American psyche. Earlier video games (and the video-game phenomenon is significant in its own right) such as “Space Invaders” and so on, involved rocket ships coursing through outer space, blasting aliens and hostile forces with ray guns, laser beams, and other weapons, and represented a very different orientation from “Pac Man.” The games were highly phallic and they also expressed a sense of freedom and openness. The games were played in outer space and one had a sense of infinite possibility.

“Pac Man,” however, represents something quite different. The game takes place in a labyrinth which implies, metaphorically, that we are all trapped, closeted in a claustrophobic situation in which the nature of things is that we must either eat or be eaten. This oral aspect of the game suggests further that there is some kind of diffuse regression taking place and we have moved from the phallic stage (guns, rockets) to the oral stage (eating, biting).

Regression often takes place in people as a means of coping with anxiety and there is good reason to suspect that the popularity of a game like “Pac Man” indicates that our young people, who play the game, are coping with their anxieties by regressing (in the service of their egos). This may be because they are, for some reason, now afraid of taking on responsibilities and feel anxious about long-term relationships and mature interpersonal sexuality. When we regress to more child-like stages we escape from the demands of adulthood–but we pay a considerable price.

It is these aspects of “Pac Man” that disturb me. On the surface it is just a game. But the nature of the game–its design, which suggests that we are all prisoners of a system from which there is no escape, and its regressive aspects–must give all who speculate about the hidden meanings in phenomena something to think about.

“Pac Man” is important because it was the most popular video game in America for several years. In the 1990s, video games are much more sophisticated and complex and use more powerful technologies. They also may be more violent, sexist and psychologically damaging.

As badly as this passage may be dated, I can still remember the sense of liberation and fun it held, and passages like it, in its capacity to bring together two seemingly irreconcilable discursive registers: pop culture and high theory. To be fair to my younger self, there was also a sense of irony and play in reading such passages. I had no illusions that Pac-Man‘s aescendency spelled or was a symptom of doom, psychopathology, and sexist regression for the youth of America. Still:  “All who speculate about the hidden meanings in phenomena”! That exactly describes the group I wanted to be a part of.

II.

Sometime between the late nineties and today, something changed. To give a sense of what has changed, for me and for cultural studies as an enterprise, I’d like now to contrast Berger to a more recent approach to Pac-Man, drawn from Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost’s Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, the first in a new series from The MIT Press called “Platform Studies,” for which Motfort and Bogost also serve as editors.  The most important insight this book offers about Pac-Man is that gaming platforms matter: there is no Pac-Man apart from the technological frameworks within which the game is realized. The following review succinctly sums up how the Atari version of Pac-Man differed from the arcade version — and why the home console verson sucked:

Let me now quote at length from Racing the Beam to indicate the insights Monfort and Bogost bring to Pac-Man:

Even before we get to the game’s hero and villains, Pac-Man’s method of drawing the maze demonstrates one of the major challenges in porting the game to the Atari VCS: time. In the arcade game, the programmer would load character values into video RAM once per maze, using the character tiles to create its boundaries. On the VCS, the maze is constructed from playfield graphics, each line of which has to be loaded from ROM and drawn separately for each scan line of the television display.

To be sure, mazes had already been displayed and explored in VCS games like Combat, Slot Racers, and Adventure. But these games had to construct their mazes from whole cloth, building them out of symmetrical playfields. The arcade incarnation of Pac-Mac demonstrates how the notion of the maze became more tightly coupled to the hardware affordances of tile-based video systems. In the arcade game, each thin wall, dot, or energizer is created by a single character from video memory. Though the method is somewhat arcane, the coin-op Pac-Man also allowed up to four colors per character in an eight-bit color space. (Each character defined six high bits as a “base” color–which is actually a reference to a color map of 256 unique colors stored in ROM–with two low bits added for each pixel of the bitmap.) This method allows the hollow, round-edged shapes that characterize the Pac-Man maze–a type of bitmap detail unavailable via VCS playfield graphics. The maze of the VCS game is simplified in structure as well as in appearance, consisting of rectangular paths and longer straight-line corridors and lacking the more intricate pathways of the arcade game.

What should be immediately apparent is that Monfort and Bogost have very little interest in approaching Pac-Man with a semiotic tool-kit; instead, they want to give an account of the form of the Atari VCS version of Pac-Man relative to the technical, economic, and temporal limitations constraining its development.  More than anything, their fantastic little book reads like a technically-literate guided tour or history of the game console.

More and more, I find myself drawn away from the approach to studying culture and the arts represented by Berger and toward the richly rendered historical, technical, and formal description offered by accounts such as Racing the Beam.  Those three registers — the historical, technical, and formal — turn out to be tightly linked together.  You simply can’t discuss one without discussing the others.  Such rich descriptions must always be pressed into the service of larger arguments, of course; technical description for its own sake is of little interest apart from the claims such description serves.  Yet a close attention to technical details allows Monfort and Bogost to paint a richer picture of these early Atari games than a non-technical treatment could.  One comes away from this history with a renewed sense of how amazingly creative early game developers were.

III.

This is a longwinded way of suggesting that the shift away from the older cult-stud model — which these Dissent essays register — seems not only to apply to political, economic, and historical questions, but also to textual analysis and to the study of culture as such.  To my mind, this shift is almost all for the good, though it is in some ways less fun than the earlier model.