Before I was in the picture, my parents had a dog. He was a red chow chow called Sampson and he was the greatest dog that ever happened.
I mention all this because he is my earliest game connection.
It was 1981. My dad did not want a dog, but my mom was angling for one. I was never privy to what other sorts of negotiation might have happened between them, but I do know the last battle. My mom made a bet with my dad. If he won, she had to take him out to dinner. If she won, they would get a dog.
She was never worried; she had gamed the system. There was no way she was going to lose at Pac-Man.
As Scott Pilgrim would be happy to tell you, Pac-Man was originally called Puck Man when it was released in Japan in 1980. Anyone who is now or once was a teenager can tell you that there is no way that name would have worked in the American market; we’d all have grown up playing Fuck Man. Which I guess some of us maybe did, but we probably shouldn’t talk about that. So, it came over to America with its brand new (and now much better known) name.
Pac-Man, as a series, has been through dozens of different iterations, experiments, and platforms, some more successful than, uh, others. Its only rival for ubiquity that springs to mind is Tetris; like the block-dropping puzzle game, there is just something primally appealing about Pac-Man.
That little yellow circle is one of the most influential characters in video game history. For a representative example, in my experience, video games have always included narratives; not every game necessarily has a story to tell you, but that has been something that games have been trying for longer than I have been alive. In a very closely related story, Pac-Man was the first major game to feature cutscenes. Would we have the insane interrobang-laden echolalia of Metal Gear Solid without Pac-Man’s cutscenes? Who can say? I would guess most likely yes, but something had to be first to try to tell a story, and that something was Pac-Man.
There are many other ways in which Pac-Man was innovative, world-changing, even, but the one that matters most to me, at least for the purposes of this post, is the fact that it appealed to women more than any game before it. My mom was 19 years old when it came out over here, and sometime over that first year of its release she played it enough to know, in her own mind, that there was no chance in hell that my dad was going to beat her and that she was going to win her dog. And she was right.
It is strange to me to talk about growing up, but not for the reasons that people think. I have never had any trouble talking about what it was like, but when I tell the more fraught stories from my childhood, people tend to get really serious. I have never really understood it, although from a strict outsider’s perspective I guess I can sort of get it. The thing is, I am not an outsider, I am myself, and I know what is painful and what isn’t. All that said, I’m warning you now that there is some dangerously personal information incoming.
I was born when my mother was 21, a year or so after she won that Pac-bet. Sampson was always her dog first, but he and I had a connection as well. He was my protector. My father was an abusive alcoholic, and I have vague memories of events as well as strong recollections of retold stories of violent physical fights between my parents. Whenever their arguments would escalate, my mom would tell Sam to protect me, and he would. He’d take up a position in the doorway of whichever room was mine at the time and make sure no one came for me, no matter what happened. Later, when we got our second dog (another chow chow, a black one called Moya) and my brother was born, the dogs would split up, one for each of us. They would never let anything happen to us.
Given some of the things that did happen during visits to my dad after my parents had split up (my mom took the dogs, of course), I can safely assume that the protection they offered was in fact more than symbolic. When Sam died shortly before Christmas when I was in fourth grade, it cast a pall over the entire holiday season. (It was marginally lifted a couple weeks later when we unwrapped our Genesis. But only marginally.)
Would my mom have contrived a way to get a dog if she had not mopped the floor with my dad in Pac-Man? Probably. Maybe the connection I draw between Pac-Man and the best dog ever is as tenuous as the one between Pac-Man and Metal Gear. Then again, I see that latter one clearly, so why shouldn’t I credit a game that my mom played before I was born with the dog that protected me, that I teethed on (seriously), whose food I ate (much to his resigned frustration).
Almost from the inception of the medium, one of the major criticisms of video games was that they are a waste of time. It should probably go without saying that this is total bullshit, and without any sort of academic proof I am pretty confident that few people say that any more. That pleases me, because I could never have felt that way; I grew up with fluffy physical proof that there was unqualified good to be gleaned from playing video games.