Pacman Anxiety – A First Read, by James (the not Mufasa)

Heart racing, palms sweating, eyes twitching I played my way through the three versions of Pacman.  I often forgot that this was supposed to be fun.  I wonder how something this stressful turned into the massive cultural icon it is today.  I imagine a bar wheeling in this big machine proudly named PACMAN.  A patron walks up to the machine, inserts a quarter and then spends the next thirty seconds freaking out over the ever-vigilant, unrelenting colorful monstrosities trailing behind him.  There is no escape.  One can only delay the inevitable.  These ghosts will find you and when they do “wah-wah-wah!!” you unpeel into virtual dust.

A funny thing I noticed about the 3 versions is that the Atari version seemed the most  realistic.  The ghosts acted more like ghosts.  They blinked in seizure inducing patterns often disappearing from the game, only to reappear to snack on innocent Pacman.  The sounds in this version actually seemed to ease my anxiety over this demise due to the fact that they were so harsh and grating that I could not wait for the game to end.  The NES version, however was the most traditional of the bunch looking to be what I think of as the “original” Pacman.  The warp tunnels were on the sides, the ghosts had colors, and the dot count was optimal.  What is referred to as the arcade version was the scariest to me.  The board was gigantic with seemilngly many added dots, but no additional super dots.  I felt helpless as I chugged my poor defenseless yellow puck through the dot fields trying to avoid the ever present spirits of color.  While I’m sure that the dot count had not changed any if at all, the warped perspective made me feel like I had to act slower than I had to in the earlier incarnations.

On a slightly different note, I researched more into our yellow friend and found this little gem.  Not only did seeing this make me feel inadequate as a gamer and as a person, but it made me realize something.  Pacman is not a game of survival.  If you care for Pacman, Pacman will not care for you.  Instead Pacman is a game of overactive twitching resulting in innumerable points.  Pacman is a game of reflexes that I cannot get into.

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6 Responses to Pacman Anxiety – A First Read, by James (the not Mufasa)

  1. You focus a lot on the sound of the game, which is great. Too often we overlook how important the sound effects (and in later games, the atmospheric music) contribute to our overall experience of the game.

  2. cole says:

    Pacman is pretty intense, I was getting crushed by those ghosts. At the same time though I go and play another time trial for portal and my thoughts are not “whoa too intense.” I know you play FPSs too and they can be twitch based, especially in multiplayer games. What makes those kind of twitch games easier for us compared to this old school twitch game?

  3. Hayley Roder says:

    James, I had a lot of the same feelings about Pac-Man that you did! I saw the NES version as the “original” (at least, the one with which we grew up) and the arcade version as the hardest and/or scariest. You’re right, too, about the ghosts–somehow, they’re the most realistic in the Atari version. Something about their bright colors in the later versions makes them seem almost friendly, which is most definitely not the point. It’s funny how Pac-Man, a game with a cute little yellow guy, can seem so intense and anxiety-inducing. You definitely got me thinking!

  4. sshapir1 says:

    I’m so glad I’m not the only one that feels this way…i HATE pacman because it gives me an uncomfortably high level of anxiety in a short period of time. Playing games like PacMan, Crazy Cabbie on Facebook, and others have an ability to increase tension and heart rate, which may be why they have such an enormous appeal. The adrenaline rush that we can receive from video games is addicting. Sadly, many people take video games seriously enough that they will get the same feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment from video games as succeeding in a real-world activity, such as getting an A on an exam, playing a sport well, or giving a successful performance. For those who are truly committed to the game, the feeling may even be greater from the game.

    It’s almost like an addiction. I’ve learned in psychology classes the effects of a drug addiction or any other addiction on a person’s brain. When you become addicted to an activity or substance, hormone levels in the brain are actually altered to the point that nothing except for success in that activity or use of that substance can bring the person to a point of true happiness. Video game addictions are a very real issue, most likely for this reason. Once you get past the point of tension that Pacman or other video games produce and actually start succeeding at the game, the feeling is addicting and potentially harmful.

    Obviously, normal people with well rounded lives will probably not play Pacman or another game enough that eating dots and being attacked by ghosts will make them happier than a real-life accomplishment. However, it is scary and amazing at the same time to think about the effect that video games have had on our modern-day society.

    • Jason Ko says:

      The effects of video games on the mind are not the same as addictive substances. If video games are addictive, it is not because of the game itself, but the player who relies on the game world or its mechanics as a crutch. Thus, video game addiction is indicative of other underlying problems with the player.

      For example, MMO addiction can be the result of using the game as a crutch for a lack of good social skills, which may be linked to low empathy. This lack of good face-to-face verbal communications skills intensifies as the potential addict becomes more dependent on the text-based chat interface of the game, and spends less time interacting with people in person. The face-to-face aspect is as important as the verbal aspect, as much of human communications in conveyed through facial expressions and other forms of body language. This increased dependence on the game environment as a vector for social interaction is what causes addiction, not the main feedback loop of the game. Thus, you could go as fas as to argue that these people have an addiction to other people (though I admit that is a stretch).

      However, this aspect can not simply be denounced as evil. In the documentary second skin, the filmmakers explore the lives of the physically handicaped who use virtual worlds to communicate with people in an environment where they will not be judged by their physical limitations. Spaces such as Second Life can also provide an opportunity for such players to experience, albeit vicariously, normal human actions such as walking, or driving a car.

      Also, on the value of virtual worth over real-world worth. Dr. Phil once criticized a girl for buying items in a game world as they were not “real.” But really, what is real, what is it that we assign value to? We assign value to money, but not because it has value in and of itself. Even gold has no value on it’s own. It has value because people want it. If people respect and value something, then it has value. Is having a record of many home runs in baseball valuable? Too physical? How about penning a great work of literature?

      These are all as abstract as the achievements made by one in the virtual space, but the mainstream does not give them value, and thus they have no value in the eyes of a large portion of society. However, the xbox live gamerscore is valued by many users of that service, and can be considered as a mark of merit within in that community.

      One last note, there are actually world records and halls of fame for video games as well, so perhaps the mainstream is beginning to open up to this idea of worth in the virtual space.

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