Game Theory: Critical Thoughts about Video Games — Existentialism and Pacman

Something by Anamesa‘s own Daniel Porsa…

The point and purpose of Pacman might seem so simple, so straightforward, as to defy complex analysis; inevitably, the more straightforwardly matters are presented, the easier it is to really look at them hard. In the game Pacman (as if you didn’t know…), you are represented in the game by a yellow circle, constantly opening and closing a segment, by way of a mouth, as you go around a simple maze ‘eating’ tokens. At the same time, you are chased through this maze, with growing intensity, by a collection of ‘Ghosts’. Occasionally, you ingest a ‘power-pill’ – a larger token- enabling you to turn the tables, and chase and devour the ghosts, though the reprieve is only short lived. Eventually, they reform at the centre of the maze, and begin their inexorable hunt again. Should you be successful at collecting all the tokens in the maze, before the ghosts devour you, then you are simply promoted to a harder maze, and the cycle begins again.

Within this simple set-up, it is possible and entirely valid to find a number of interesting philosophies. The ceaseless consumption of tokens, ever more fervently, leading only to the opportunity to collect more, without space or time for any reflection, makes an interesting critique of capitalist inevitabilities. The original character, ‘Pacman’, being later augmented by the alternate ‘Ms Pacman’ is an entire feminist can of worms I invite you to consider unaided. But today I am particularly interested in the Ghosts.

It is hard to ignore the obvious symbolism of ghosts. Ghosts can hold a specific meaning, but as a generic form they represent little more than the grave, and its looming threat. I suggest it is hard not to see them as a pure illustration of existential angst. There goes Pacman, working hard to fulfil the task he seems allotted, and his only fate seems to be the inevitable consumption, destruction, at the hand of ghosts; a successful attack losing the player, and his little yellow avatar, a ‘life’. And what awaits the successful player anyway? With ever harder levels comes a more fervent pursuit and always the inevitable end; the only consolation, a numerical score to show your relative success. It is hard not to see it as a ‘Being-toward-Death’, like so many other games of its era. No true end, merely ever greater challenges until eventual, inevitable failure.

If you wish to experience the exhilarating numbness of the ever imminent void for yourself, you can find a reasonable recreation of the game here: