Play Stuff Blog

The Lasting Appeal of Chase Games  

Frequently my two-year-old daughter Sidney greets me with two words: "chase, Daddy." It's a request that usually leads to lots of laughter and me circling around tables and chairs as I chase her throughout our house. In psychologist Peter Gray’s book Free to Learn, he notes that young mammals of nearly all species play chase games. And while most mammals take turns at being the pursued and the pursuer, research suggests that we relish being pursued. Or, as Sidney puts it, “I run away!” For Sidney and many of us, the appeal of chase is the thrill of being in a vulnerable position only to escape from the grasp of the pursuer. This kind of deep play allows us to run away from a real person who stands in for an imagined hulking monster, a flesh-eating zombie, or our deepest fears. This form of what Gray calls “dangerous play” gives children opportunities to test their fears and physical prowess as well as take control of their activities. Not surprisingly, some of the earliest and most popular video games centered on chase. For more than 40 years, electronic games provided players with the opportunity to experiment with the virtual dangers of chase play.

Gotcha arcade flyer. 1973. Photo courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, NY.Chase has seemingly always been a part of electronic play. Many of the earliest electronic games focused on or featured chasing as a main component of game play. For example, during the early 1970s, the mainframe computer game Maze Wars allowed players to chase down and shoot other players in much the same way as popular first-person shooter games such as Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and Doom (1993) asked players to do two decades later. The first home video game console, the Magnavox Odyssey, included Cat and Mouse (1972), a game in which one player moved a pixilated square to chase his or her opponent’s square. In 1973 pioneering video game company Atari released the first coin-operated chase video game Gotcha into bars and arcades across the United States.  The two-player game required one player controlling a square (“chaser”) to pursue another player controlling a cross (“escapee”) as they navigated a constantly changing maze. The object of the game proved simple: catch the cross as many times as one could before time (in this case, 1 minute and 40 seconds) ran out. Unfortunately for Atari, Gotcha didn’t catch on with players.  However, though largely abstract, unpopular, and nearly forgotten today, Cat and Mouse and Gotcha set the stage for an explosion of “maze” chase games during the early 1980s.

Pac-Man arcade game. 1980. Photo courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, NY.The massively popular arcade hit Pac-Man (1980) injected personality into the chase video game. Rather than following abstract symbols, a player’s Pac-Man character earned points by eating pellets and avoiding ghosts in hot pursuit. Eating a “power pellet” gave players the opportunity to switch roles from pursued to pursuer and gobble up ghosts for a limited time. The combination of a maze chase game and a cute character with Mickey Mouse-like appeal helped make Pac-Man a mass cultural phenomenon and led to arcade game sequels such as Ms. Pac-Man (1981) and numerous of chase game variations like Universal's Lady Bug (1981), as well as dozens of ports and clones for home consoles and computers.

More recently, game designers have revived the chase game with new versions of Pac-Man and innovative games for home consoles and mobile devices. For example, Bandai Namco’s four-player Pac-Man: Battle Royale (2011) allowed players to eat other player’s Pac-Men and ghosts in a chase and chomp free-for-all. “Mario Chase” (aka “Chase Mii”) in NintendoLand (2012) for the Wii U captured the rollicking joy of a group of friends playing chase together. It’s important to note that the reward for a player that caught up to and tackled the pursued was the chance to be pursued. Popular mobile games such as Temple Run (2011) and Zombies, Run! (2012) brought “dangerous play” to a new level—players ran away from a horde of “demonic monkeys” and from the sounds of flesh-eating zombies closing in on them, respectively.

Demonic monkeys and legions of undead might be a little too dangerous for my two-year-old. Perhaps someday I’ll chase her on ICHEG’s Pac-Man: Battle Royale game in The Strong’s eGameRevolution exhibit. For now, I look forward to more “chase, daddy,” but whether around the house, in the arcade, on television and computer screens, or on mobile devices, chase games will continue to follow us wherever we go.