Inducted Year: 2022
In 1980, Pac-Man captivated popular culture around the world with its mesmerizing but accessible gameplay and its cute, dot-munching hero. Millions of players fell in love with this simple maze chase game. And yet, most video game critics would agree that Ms. Pac-Man, which came out in 1982, is not only the better game but the more culturally significant one as well.
In terms of playability, Ms. Pac-Man improved on its predecessor in several ways. There were now four different multi-colored mazes instead of just one. The prize fruit, rather than just resting below the ghosts’ lair, bounced around the mazes, adding a new chase element as players had to decide whether to pursue the moving reward, gobble dots, or dodge the ghosts. The ghosts were smarter too, with a dash of randomness to their patterns that kept players from memorizing their movement sequences.
These improvements in gameplay came not from Pac-Man’soriginal Japanese creator Namco, but instead were changes that started with an “enhancement” kit created by a couple of MIT students who founded General Computing Corporation. They called their game “Crazy Otto” (giving Pac-Manlegs) and reached out to Midway, the company that had the rights to Pac-Man in North America, to produce it. Through their collaboration with Midway the main character was changed to female, and Ms. Pac-Man was born.
Ms. Pac-Man promoted and signaled the broadening of game play across the genders. There was nothing inherently gendered about early video games, but the coin-op industry certainly advertised them that way. Arcade flyers had generally depicted males as active players and females as passive admirers of the action. Some advertisements were more blatantly sexist, as in the case of the earlier Atari chase game Gotcha whose advertisements showed a man grabbing a scantily clad woman, like a lecherous satyr pursuing a nymph. By offering the first female video game character, Ms. Pac-Man represented a turn in the cultural conversation about women’s place in the arcade as well as in society at large.
First of all, there was the name. While on the cabinet art the character appeared as a cartoon femme fatale, the choice of the sobriquet “Ms.” rather than “Miss” or “Mrs.” was a bold one. Feminist Gloria Steinem had popularized the neutral title “Ms.” in her magazine of the same name that debuted in 1971. The term offered a female equivalent to the male “Mr.,” giving no indication of marital status. Furthermore, in the interstitial “Acts” or stories of the game, Ms. Pac-Man is as much the pursuer of Pac-Man as the pursued. She is no mere damsel in distress (like Pauline in Donkey Kong) but instead a bold, liberated woman, albeit in the shape of a yellow disc with lipstick, bow, and beauty mark.
These changes proved to be more than just window dressing in extending the game’s appeal. Women—and men—flocked to the game and more than 125,000 cabinets were sold within five years of its release, raking in some $1.2 billion during that time period, making it likely the fourth best-selling arcade game of all time (behind World Video Game Hall of Fame inductees Pac-Man, Space Invader, and Street Fighter II). At a time when Sandra Day O’Connor had become the first woman on the United States Supreme Court in 1981 and Sally Ride would become the first female American astronaut in 1983, Ms. Pac-Man offered sorely needed gender equity, along with some fabulous gameplay, in the arcade.
Did You Know?
Pac-Man ghosts Blinky, Pinky, and Inky reunite for this popular sequel along with one new friend: orange ghost Sue.