Pac-Man is an international game symbol like no other, having remained in our popular consciousness since the early days of arcade games. In this thought provoking post, Dr Alex Wade explores the broad societal impact of ‘pay-to-play’ mechanisms. With this in mind, we might therefore what the implications of such structures might be for an increasingly marketised education sector?
Yellow. Eyeless. Endlessly hungry. Pac-Man might seem an unlikely cultural icon but, over his 40-year career, he’s morphed into various versions of himself, starred in more than 30 games, spawned an animated TV series and created a million-selling single.
This kind of staying power doesn’t spring from nowhere. Toru Iwatani, the great Japanese game developer and creator of Pac-Man, purposefully set out to make a game that could appeal to women and men in equal measure, a radical aim in a games landscape dominated by the militaristic, even masculine, pursuits of shooting and defending the world from alien attack. But Pac-Man’s enduring popularity and sunny nature hides something darker: its pay-to-play model speaks to our times. Everyone’s invited. Everyone can play. It’s fun. But there’s a cost.
Iwatani’s desire to broaden Pac-Man’s appeal can be seen in its design. The grid-like patterns are evocative of the mazes of early-modern England and ancient Greece, supposedly a ‘safe place’ where the role of women/the feminine is often essential to success. For example, in Athens’ labyrinth, Ariadne weaponises Theseus by giving him a sword to kill the Minotaur. Ariadne also provides Theseus with a ball of thread so that he can find his way out. In doing so, she provides a literal and literary escape from the maze and from the monster’s monomania.
As players munch their way through the 240 dots that comprise the Pac-Man maze, they encounter four power-pills that enable our hero to chow down on scared blue ghosts. Players are urged to escape back to a safe place with their lives intact, echoing modern fairytales: like Ariadne’s ball of thread and Pac-Man’s dots, breadcrumbs are used in the fairytale Hansel and Gretel to guide the siblings to safety. The eating of the breadcrumbs by other animals demonstrates the difficulty of staying safe in a literal and literary state-of-nature. The experimentation and adventure which Hansel and Gretel toy with, a theme common to the safe places of games, can, in itself, border on the gamble of stepping outside of the normal boundaries of everyday life and into the maze which permeates these narratives and structures of games.
But if you’re quick and clever and eat your power-ups at the right time, you can vanquish these ghosts and monsters with adroitness of thought, feminine maturity and child-like inventiveness. Tucked up in bed, listening to the story of loss in Hansel and Gretel, the place where we feel safest is also the arena where we look to challenge the boundaries of that safety. Usually (but not always), there is a happy ending, akin to the experience of Pac-Man operating in the face of insurmountable odds, limited resources and hostile environments.
Here’s where Pac-Man becomes something more – consider Cold War capitalism in the West. A rise in living standards was closely allied to the development of microprocessor technologies used in everything from missile guidance systems to magnetic resonance imagers to arcade games. The Minotaur of Communism was held in check by spending on the warfare state. This thread of global protection against the threat of global destruction was weaved into individual safety nets in Western European countries in the shape of the welfare state. It provided protection to the populace of Western countries against the everyday threats of disease and destitution. This was seen in state spending on universal education, health services and shelter for all.
Yet this came at a price. If you want to get a high score on Pac-Man, you’ve got to follow the game’s rules and objectives. As Martin Amis notes, the “longer a player can play, the more points he can earn, and the more clout he has in the competitive social environment of the arcade”. This notion of competition attained through thriftiness and skill applied equally to the wider social, ethical and political system.
And where better to see the ultimate results of that competition than that post-Cold War capitalism’s spaces of consumption, the mall? While the space Pac-Man occupies is classical in its structure and narrative, it has an equal and parallel orientation towards the modern world. Frictionless and contactless, the smooth spaces that allow Pac-Man to move around the labyrinth away from monsters and spectres resemble the happy, mapped-out shopping centre with its wide concourses and smooth, shiny spaces floors. There is no natural light here, and no time, though there are many signposts telling you where to go to buy. You become something akin to Pac-Man on a power pill, temporarily and irrepressibly able to munch through goods and crunch through credit with the end, both entrance and exit, hidden from the consumer’s view.
But the comedown can be hard to face. It’s easy to get into a shopping centre, but hard to leave. The satisfaction of shopping is almost always accompanied by the slight niggle that, like the classical labyrinth itself, there is something mortal left in the centre of consumption when the red thread of money, or of blood, runs dry.
The means to play Pac-Man mirror an economic model with a high price to pay. In the amusement arcades of the 1980s, where, with tenacity and dedication, one coin could be made to last all day, hard work was rewarded by extended play. (‘I got a pocketful of quarters and I’m headed to the arcade/I don’t have a lot of money but I’m bringing everything I made’, run the opening lines of Pac-Man Fever.) For the children who grew up in the arcades of the 1980s, this is normal and normed behaviour. Want to play? You have to pay.
But for the late 1990s meritocracies of Europe and America, where these children became adults, the pay-to-play economic model was adopted wholesale: a necessary bargain of citizenship were that rights and responsibilities were in check and balance. If you have no job, you have to work at getting one. You have a right to smoke, but a responsibility not to in public. The idea of the umbrella protection of the welfare and warfare state was left behind. Everyone had to eke out that pocketful of quarters and if you didn’t have enough, tough luck: you clearly wasted them elsewhere. Less was more. More must be done with less. This pay-to-play model has had a permanent and tragic legacy, the results of which are being felt today and stretch far into the future.
Now, in our current state of post-Cold War capital, many of the mazes of consumption are open only to individuals who have the code to enter them. Like the initials on a high score table, only those with enough currency to Insert Coin have access to the games that reward the pay-to-play model found in the exorbitant fees of higher education, healthcare plans and private pensions. The enjoyable, if empty, thrill of the modern-day power pill – clothes shopping, the absent amnesia of online purchasing, the post-splurge latte – all these are obtainable by consumers with the requisite credit rating and zeroes in their current account.
For others, who do not possess the code or currency of pay-to-play, there are other mazes to explore. These are not smooth, or easy to move through. There are the endless grids of forms to be filled out for benefits applications. The phone mazes to be negotiated by employment support ‘candidates’. The mesmerising morass of payday loans and the monster-like enforcement of debt repayment.
Most pertinent are those mazes of social housing. That idea, founded at the beginning of the Cold War where the doctor could live next door to the baker, the barber next to the coroner, soon found itself abandoned by the individual pursuit of wealth and state neglect on an industrial scale. The pedestrian-friendly paths became rat-runs for drug dealers: Pac-Men chomping on pills, erratically avoiding the ghostly blue police: the wide open green public spaces a site for the fly-tipping of refuse. Detritus is most widely distributed where money is not. Most chillingly are those spaces between the rich and the poor: the cavities in the cladding where flames are free to channel, but people, trapped in a labyrinth not of their own making, could not escape from.
These are the pay-to-play models where no amount of currency can buy abstinence from the systematic failure of every one of us to Insert Coin into the slots of poverty. These are the spaces that are a shame to us all. There is no happy ending at the end of this maze. Instead, there is the realisation that by not fulfilling a responsibility that we all have to each other to provide safe places for everyone, we have created dangerous spaces from which there is no exit.
Iwatani’s motivation for Pac-Man was to make the game as inclusive as possible, irrespective of age, race, religion, gender. All were invited. The cost was the pay-to-play model. The question we must ask ourselves is, as those labyrinths of despair are cleared from Kingston-on-Hull to Kingston-on-Thames, what game do we go to next? Will we be haunted by the ghosts of the pay-to-play past, or create a safe place of a better tomorrow?
Alex Wade is Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of Health, Education and Life Sciences at BCU. His book, The Pac-Man Principle: A User’s guide to Capitalism is to be released by Zero Books at the end of 2017.