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When Professor Toru Iwatani created Pac-Man 35 years ago, he could have hardly guessed the tremendous impact his video game would have. Originally intended to draw women into male-dominated arcades, the game appealed to all audiences and went on to earn an estimated $2.5 billion in quarters and inspire a best-selling paperback, an animated television series and even its own breakfast cereal.
But even with all that, I believe the game accomplished something greater. I think Pac-Man helped push the human race forward along its evolutionary path and helped to make today’s youth smarter and faster than the generations that came before, by helping get computers into people’s houses in the ‘70s and ultimately leading to a generation weaned on technology.
Allow me to explain.
COMING DOWN WITH PAC-MAN FEVER
When the video game industry kicked off in the late ‘70s, game makers found themselves catering to a singular market: men. Even with their primitive 2D graphics, games were primarily shooters that appealed to the action-loving, blow-it-up video gamer.
Iwatani wanted to go against the grain. “Pac-Man was largely targeted, in design, [for women],” he said via a translator during a recent press event in Chicago. That’s why the controls are simple, and the characters—even the villainous ghosts—are cute, he explained.
Iwatani also explained that the game was designed to elicit an emotional response in players, but not a violent one. “There’s an enemy, but you can’t hate the enemy,” Iwatani says, “[It’s] kind of like the animation ‘Tom and Jerry,‘ in that vein.”
“Pac-Man was created using very specialized techniques with the players’ feelings at the forefront,“ he continued.
Ashlyn Sparrow, Learning Technology Director for “Game Changers Chicago” at the University of Chicago, describes Iwatani’s ploy to get women into arcades as ‘creating a need‘. “You can go based on market demand or you can actually create a need for it,” Sparrow told me. “Make people realize this is something that they have always wanted in their lives.”
Sparrow said the main challenge Iwatani faced was giving people something they may not have realized they wanted, which she has experience with; “Game Changers Chicago” makes games that educate youth about subjects ranging from reproductive health to social justice.
But Iwatani succeeded in a bigger way than he even intended: men enjoyed playing Pac-Man just as much as women did, which shocked him. “The men were ignored when this game was made, so I don’t understand why men are so interested,” he joked.
By tapping into a new market while simultaneously appealing to the old guard as well, Pac-Man helped kick off a video arcade boom. The nation was swept with “Pac-Man Fever,” and that fever set off a chain of events that would change humankind forever (don’t worry, I’m getting to it).
THE FEVER TAKES HOLD
With demand for arcade games at an all-time high, the market for home video game consoles began heating up too, and Pac-Man Fever quickly spread into homes. Among the first to take advantage of this emerging market were Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney, founders of Atari.
The duo sought to appeal to consumers anxious to bring the arcade experience home, and the Atari 2600 became one of the most popular home gaming systems in the country. Before Nintendo and Sega, long before Sony and Microsoft, there was Atari. And what was Atari’s top selling game at the time, helping drive that demand? The home version of Pac-Man, which sold an estimated 7 million copies.
“Atari kind of struck gold because in 1978 or so they had an exclusive deal with Namco, where if Namco ever wanted to publish a game in the United States they would have to go through Atari for home consoles,” Video Game historian Norman Caruso told me.
Caruso is the host of the web-series “The Gaming Historian,” where he creates documentary featurettes on the history of video games. He agrees that Pac-Man had a significant impact on the home console market.
“They made more Pac-Man game cartridges than there were Atari 2600s, because they anticipated that people were going to buy the console just to play this game,” Caruso explained. “And not only that, you had a lot of department stores like Sears and K-Mart, they know that Atari is going to make Pac-Man for the Atari 2600, so they say ‘OK, there’s going to be a big demand for this, let’s expand our video game area in the store’.”
“I think Space Invaders was the first big push for that, but Pac-Man solidified that people would want video games in their homes right next to the VCR,” Caruso continued.
As the home gaming console became a common household item, the public became accustomed to having digital tech in the home, and tech companies like Atari and Apple began working to get a personal computer into every home. It’s no coincidence that Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak worked at Atari while they made the first Apple Computer in their spare time; this was where the innovation was occurring.
Needless to say, these companies succeeded, and the road was paved for the digital natives to arrive.
BIRTH OF THE DIGITAL NATIVES
Once the personal computer became a household item, the dominoes began to fall. Desktop computers were supplanted by laptops. Computers got smaller and cellular phones more powerful. The iPhone led to the iPad. The tablet computer became the device of choice for millions.
The Baby Boom Generation that played Pac-Man as adults was followed by Generation X, the amount of data they consumed each day increasing as technology advanced. Fast forward to the Millennials, the first to grow up knowing what it’s like to access the internet on their phones.
By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, we see the birth of the “digital native” generation, kids who grow up on digital media. Young brains are constantly being fed data, soaking it up like a sponge. Neural pathways are developing in the brain at a greater rate. Processing information and sorting it out becomes second nature.
Growing up with such easy access to information makes a tremendous impact on human development, something researchers are actively studying. “In terms of development, we are at an interesting point where we’re researching what games actually do for people. “ Sparrow, the learning tech director in Chicago, told me. “I think that there are plenty of studies out there that show that these ‘twitch-based games,‘ the Call of Dutys, the very fast-paced games that require a lot of button control, increase dexterity. You can look at pattern recognition.”
A recent article from the American Psychologist points to studies that indicate playing video games “may boost children’s learning, health and social skills.”
And the digital native generation has a level of comfort with tech that previous generations lack. “My cousin was born in 2007. He’s constantly on iPads,” Sparrow explained. “He knows how to run every single piece of technology in my aunt and uncle’s house.”
I lay out my scenario for Sparrow, about how the arcade boom led to home console demand, which then led to the rise of home computers, and the eventual arrival of the digital native generation. How the demand for Pac-Man helped spur the market to want technology in the home, exposing children to data at a greater rate than ever before. Am I crazy to think that?
“I don’t think it’s a bad argument at all,” Sparrow admitted. “It makes sense to me.”
From the Cabbage Patch Kid to the iPad, all in the space of 35 years, a fraction of the time it took for literacy to spread after the invention of the printing press.
By the way, have you played the latest version of Pac-Man? You can get it on your phone—my six-year-old nephew has it, and he’s better at it than I am.
Elliott Serrano is a freelance “geek journo”, blogger and comic-book writer. His credits include writing for the Chicago RedEye, a sib of the Chicago Tribune, and the “Army of Darkness” comic book series for Dynamite Entertainment. He has been dubbed “Chicago’s Clark Kent” by Eisner Award winning artist Gene Ha. Follow him on Twitter @ElliottSerrano.