Tuesday, March 10, 2009

More than Pac-Man With a Bow: Part 1

"One is not born a woman, one becomes one."

- Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

"Honey, don'cha know I'm more than Pac-Man with a bow?"
- Ms. Pac-Man, commercial for Ms. Pac-Man on the Atari 2800

In 1980, Midway purchased the rights to Crazy Otto, a popular hack of Pac-Man that featured added maps and improved random variability. They were faced with a problem: How could they re-market an update to their hit arcade game as an autonomous game in its own right? At the time, they were waiting impatiently for the Japanese company Namco to produce a direct sequel to Pac-Man, thus precluding the independent production of a "Pac-Man 2." How could they suggest difference, without operating in deliberate sequence? From this primordial marketing slop, Ms. Pac-Man was born.

Changing Pac-Man to Ms. Pac-Man was a relatively simple process. They simply added large eyelashes. And lipstick. And a big, bouffant bow. And a beauty mark. One wonders if they came inches away from adding a corset. In case this orgy of hypersexy signs wasn't enough of a clue, the advertisers weren't afraid to spell it right out for you: In an ad for the 1983 Atari 2800 port of the game, a glammed-up Ms. Pac-Man in a stole and high heels boogies about, breathlessly purring "Honey, don'cha know I'm more than Pac-Man with a bow?" while impressing us with her high-kicks. This burlesque show is for our benefit, insisting that rather than being a re-packaged and cynically re-branded product (despite that being exactly what it was), we were being introduced to something new and exciting.

For a character without legs, Ms. Pac-Man has a great set of legs.

Though the use of sex to sell a product is nothing new, what's interesting here is the spartan toolset that developers of the early 1980s had to work with to convey femininity: A splotch of pink could be female lips, or a bow, while a splotch of black could be eyelashes. (In a masterstroke, Ms. Pac-Man's beauty mark is a single pixel.) It's been discussed how many of the design choices behind iconic characters were either accidental or pragmatic - consider Mario's precursor, Jumpman, who wore a hat to avoid pixelated hair, whose overalls helped to distinguish his arms at his side, whose moustache served to separate his nose and lips.

This isn't to directly criticize the toolset available in these instances. A video game, especially in the early days of the medium, can only communicate within a finite set of fields: Between a colorful splat of pixels and a few words of sometimes poorly-translated text, any character representation must be both minimalist and iconic. But the transition from Pac-Man to Ms. Pac-Man is a good indicator of how freighted a gender discourse is bound to be in such an environment. Pac-Man is an androgynous non-anthromorph, but still, with an absence of gender signification, defaults to male. Ms. Pac-Man, thus, must become female... and to do that, she must be gussied up, a derivative Pac-"man in drag," rather than a unique entity.

But rather than being simply an embarrassing chapter in the history of gaming, many of these early females in games have come to set an iconic standard: No longer are they simple pixel formations, but 3d-rendered extrapolations of decades-old ideas. Video gaming technology has progressed at an exponential rate, yet this standard of signified gender continues in three major areas of negotiation: How female characters navigate game-space, how 'female' tropes are represented visually, and how sex, as a notion, is communicated.

In the posts to come I'll be taking a look at a few early female video game figures, to consider the ways in which these areas of negotiation affected their origins and how they continue to shape them today.

- Rook


  1. Part 1!?
    Back to your old tricks again eh?
    You verbose old thug you.

  2. I believe on general principle that things should be called "Part 1" by default, just in case later there's a Part 2. (See: World War 1, Mario 1.)

    George Lucas, of course, refined this logic to its purest form with Star Wars 1, which was Star Wars 4, allowing 2 to be 5, 3 to be 6, then later 4 to be 1, 5 to be 2, and 6 to be 3.

    See how simple that makes everything?

  3. So, I just reread this post and my first thought on seeing the title was "Pac-Man with a Bow and Arrow would be awesome!"

    Unfortunately it was quickly followed by the disappointment of knowing the arrows would go right through the ghosts:(


  4. Despite any inherent drawbacks, I think Pac-Man with a bow could beat Sonic with a gun.

  5. Sonic wouldn't even need the gun. He could just hold a bullet in front of him and run really fast towards his target.