Pac-Man – Thoughts About Interaction

In the last few weeks I found myself thinking about the interactions with the first video games and the evolution that eventually led to the games of today. It feels to me as the video games, and computers in general, are detaching more and more from the physical world and heading towards the virtual worlds. When entering a retro arcade you immediately feel the evolution – not only the fact that the games are located in a specific physical location, but also the buttons and joysticks that differ from one game to another, designed to fit the specific game experience.

Pac-Man is a well known video game that was played in many places around the world. As one of the classics of the category of video games, I tried to analyze the interactive experience and maybe even understand its secret magic.

In his book “The Art of Interactive Design”, Crawford describes interactivity as a 3 stages conversation – input, processing and output. The interactivity of Pac-Man is kind of a physical conversation – the user only has the joystick as an input device while the machine uses the screen to output the outcomes. Although the interactive experience is so simple, people found themselves dedicating their best years playing this game. The yellow character eventually becomes us, the users. Together we try to fight the bad guys, the ghosts, and win the game. We have to put things in context of course, being present in a video arcade, surrounded by other gamers, must take out the competitiveness from each player.

Even though the interactivity is so simple we can still see differences between users. The first thing I noticed was the way different users hold the joystick, but the real difference does not show by the input or output but by the processing of the user, especially quick thinking and response. While using the machine and playing the game is pretty easy, the real difficulty is to play it fast, to be accurate, and win the game of course. The whole experience can take several minutes but people find themselves playing the game for hours.

Pac-Man basically invented its own genre of games, combining puzzle games (a maze) with adventures games (running away from ghosts). I believe that the simplicity combined with its unique genre led it to be one of the most famous games around the world. Are we missing the physical interaction of the old games in today’s world? I only know that I never heard of a game so successful since those days of Pac-Man.

"Pixels", movie poster, 2015.
“Pixels”, movie poster, 2015.

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