Sunday, July 31, 2011

Whom can you really trust (with Pac-Man)?

Some of you might remember the column about my confusion regarding the market impact of Richard Garriot's Akalabeth and the importance of Black Onyx as a mediator of the RPG genre in Japan. I recently stumbled over another contradiction. While that old post was all about information passed down orally vs. (the lack of) reliable data, this time it's testimony vs. testimony about the intentions behind the world's first survival horror game:

I never cared much about Pac-Man. I enjoyed playing it as a kid, but I hadn't thought much about what went into making it. This changed when I read Frank Cifaldi's article "A Real Ladies' Pac-Man" in 1up's feature magazine 1up Presents. Here Mr. Cifaldi explains—likely based on creator Toru Iwatani's talk at GDC2011, which is definitely worth a look, despite the somewhat overburdened synchronic translator in the first half (be sure to start the video from the beginning after switching the audio, or the synching might get all messed up)— the five-steps that made Pac-Man the first video game with an explicitly female target audience:

The truth, though, is that every minuscule detail that went into the making of the original Pac-Man was laser-focused on just one thing: attracting women.

The initial concept, so goes the story, originated from the observation that women loved food, and thus Pac-Man was designed as a game all about eating stuff:

In 1979, trying to tap into the female mind and come up with an irresistible concept for his next game, Iwatani spent a lot of time listening to women to find out what they were interested in.
Mostly they talked about romance and fashion, he says-neither of which were particularly compelling gameplay concepts-but a eureka moment came when he heard two ladies talking about eating desserts. Girls, he thought, love eating.

"Cool," I thought, "I didn't know that." And went on with my life, keeping in my subconscious the new-found truth about the forebear of Barbie Horse Adventures and Cooking Mama. Then I bought a discarded library copy of a really old video game history book called Video Invaders by Steve Bloom, and my world view was shattered all over again.

Written in 1982, when Pac-Man was still hot in arcades, Bloom of course didn't have direct access to the wisdom of a Japanese game designer locked away in Namco's basement (as was the common practice back then, according to my vivid imagination), so he talks to Hideyuki Nakajima (whose name he transcribes as Nokajima) and some guy called Yoko Yama. Nakajima led Namco's US operations at that time, later he should become owner of the Atari Games Corporation and found Tengen. I've got nothing on Yoko Yama other than the book cites him as a representative of Data East, Yokoyama might be his actual surname, maybe Bloom got it wrong or he was calling himself Yoko Yama in America.

At any rate, Bloom got quite a different story from Nakajima. The book agrees with the modern day Iwatani/Cifaldi duo insofar as Pac-Man has been wildly popular with women and brought big changes to the arcade clientele in the US, so much that in in result:

Though it clearly was not intended that way (as we will see), Pac-Man is even now hailed by some as the first "women's" video game.

Video Invaders Illustration
by Howard Cruse

Well, while it's easy to conclude "original developer voice > overseas managing guy voice," let's consider for a moment the amount of time that lies between both accounts: Almost 30 years (Although Iwatani has been telling the story for at least the last 10 years, so let's make that 20 years. I couldn't find any sources before 2001, though). Nakamura might not have known about Iwatani's motives, but why explicitly stating the opposite, when it's already established that the game works that way, and works extraordinarily well; When Ms. Pac-Man, possibly the first example of blatant sexism in a video game, is already out to cash in on the trend (without the involvement or even awareness of Iwatani)?

Iwatani, on the other hand, could have a reason to tell the story differently than he would have two decades before. I'd never accuse him of lying, but memory is fully capable to form this kind of "invented history" narrative in your mind over the years. If you tell a guy for years that he made a game for women, he'll probably conclude that he did. While that is still very shaky ground to doubt Iwatani's statements, what really fueled my doubt was the way his motivations for creating a ladies' game are described.

How does Pac-Man look in your memory?

Japanese game centers in 1979 were dank, smelly denns of vice just for adolescent boys, a place only the bravest girls dared enter.
Designer Toru Iwatani, a man not interested in video games so much as designing things that make people smile, wanted to brighten up the atmosphere inside the arcades. He wanted to turn the man caves into a place where not only might a guy bring his girlfriend on a date but, Heaven forbid, said girlfriend might even come back to on her own.

Whereas Video Invaders tells us:

Pac-Man wasn't designed for women. Over in Japan, where the game was invented, women had always played all the games - from space battles to car chases - as fanatically and skillfully as the men. By 1980, the question of Japan's games community was not how to attract women, but how to rekindle flagging player interest in general.
Namco's Hideyuki Nokajima describes Pac-Man's genesis. "People were fed up with space games. So we started to dream up games that would make them laugh. For instance, in Japan, puck is the sound you make when you eat something good - like munch.

So, while there's no doubt that a game developer will know his design concept better than anyone else—at least at the time of creation—this rises the question of who'd have a better picture about the situation in 1970s Japanese arcades? Two Japanese guys in 1982 or a Japanese guy in 2011?

Iwatani has showed around his original design document for Pac-Man on a few occasions. Does it contain any references to the supposedly female orientation? It's impossible to tell from the available photos. Now how do we get him to publish hi-res scans of the whole thing?

Iwatani and his Sketchbook, photo taken from Control

Discuss on the Forum.
(I will quote comments made here on the forums, but not vice versa.)


  1. Sad to say, these are just wild interpretations from a guy with too much time in his hands. I know an actual feminist who would first strip the guy of any right of profile anything female, then deny anything in Pacman is like that (gluttony is female, srsly?).

  2. Most feminists I know, are actually just female sexists, but that is a different story.

    That said, "women like food" is a cliche that you find to this day in Japan. There is even some truth to it - go to any medium to upper class restaurant and the audience will be 60% female. Similar food is much larger conversation stone of small talk than I am at least used to.

    Also how you get from liking food to gluttony is a jump from earth to the moon for a Japanese.