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The Theology of Pac-Man

by John Robert McFarland

Mr. McFarland is directing minister of Wesley United Methodist Church in Charleston, Illinois. This article appeared in the Christian Century September 29, 1982, p. 956. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The younger of our brilliant, honors-division daughters returned from her university at Christmastime with a big, red, raw blister on the palm of her right band. In the solicitous manner of fathers, I demanded to know what had happened to her. She muttered something about some man.

“What?” I cried. “A man did this to you? A man has tortured my little child?”

She turned away in shame. “It wasn’t a man. It was Pac-Man,” she choked out. Then she turned to me with desperation in her voice. “You must help me. Whatever you do, give me no money. No matter how I beg and plead. Pay my bills at college directly. End my checking account. Warn your friends that I might hit them up.”

“What are you talking about?” I screamed. So she poured out the terrible tale of her humiliation. It seems that on the Friday night before Christmas vacation she and several friends, sober students all, had gone to a video arcade. Our daughter has been to Europe, Disneyland, Gettysburg and the Riverfront Stadium. She speaks Russian. Nonetheless, she was ill prepared for the real world, the lights that dazzle and the sounds that beckon. She innocently slipped a quarter into the Pac-Man slot, curled her fingers around the controls, held the bright red ball of the joy stick firmly against her palm, and there she remained -- hour upon hour, quarter after quarter, desperately trying to keep her Pac-Man out of the voracious jaws of four different-colored and deceptively cute-looking monsters; trying to make him eat up the dots on the “table” and down the bunches of fruit which occasionally appeared; and sporadically trying to make him turn the monsters into frightened blue turn-tails by eating “energizing dots” -- all of this in an attempt to build up points for the owner of the increasingly blistered hand.

Before the night was over she had spent all the money she had with her, tried to cash checks, borrowed all the cash her friends had, begged money from strangers, and finally been dragged back to her room, screaming and sobbing, “Just one more quarter. One more. I’ve got it now. I’ve figured it out. I can beat ‘em this time.” Her friends closed their ears. They had all been through it. In fact, they returned to their dorm and formed the first campus chapter of PA (Pac-Man Anonymous)

I was shocked, chagrined, shamed and humiliated. Christmas cookies and peanut brittle lost their allure for a child of Joe Cool, the Ice Man, known to his colleagues as “Dr. Death” because of the level of his excitement at church committee meetings; she had sold her subzero birthright for a heated romp through a video maze.

As the days slogged on in the after-Christmas slush, I knew not what to do. My child was a junkie, and I could not understand or identify with her experience. I could not comprehend how anyone, especially a child of mine, could just lose control that way.

Then one day I was walking through a local shopping center, passing by the gaping mouth of its video arcade, where an oily looking man sat on a stool, an evil smile curling the corners of his serpentine mouth, as he suggestively jingled the quarters in his little leather apron. I glanced quickly around. Seeing no one I knew, I slipped into the arcade and was suddenly surrounded by dozens of moving, lighted, gonging, clanging video machines. They all seemed not only to be watching me as I hurried through the narrow corridors separating them, but to beckon me as well. “Hey, Big Boy, want to go to heaven for a quarter?” “Hey, Honey, you lookin’ for action?” “Hey, Mister, slip me a quarter and we can really have a good time!”

I came to the one marked “Pac-Man” and read the instructions on how to play. I did not understand them. They reminded me of IRS instructions on how to prepare an alternate Schedule C for a 1040-A. Either you are born understanding such things or you are not. The game was already in motion, showing the uninitiated what could happen, and introducing novice players not only to the names of the characters but also to their nicknames. Since I did not understand those either, in my mind they became Hinkey, Dinkey, Parley and Vous, and so they have remained.

Deciding that the only way to comprehend the instructions was to play, I slipped a quarter into the slot. Four little monsters appeared in a cage in the middle of the maze, while Pac-Man appeared toward the bottom of it, eating the dots that populated every half-inch of every corridor of the table. I guided him along, seeing the score rise as the dots were consumed. Suddenly I realized the monsters were uncaged, and converging on Pac-Man! I twisted the joy stick desperately, but they were coming at him from all sides. Coming at him? They were coming at me! I was there in that maze, fighting for survival, a survival that was not to be. As they caught me and I melted down to nothing, a short, sad, awful funeral dirge played.

But wait! The monsters returned to their cage, the consumer dots remained digested and Pac-Man reappeared. I was reborn, still in control. I was in the maze again but I was also outside it, looking on, the aptly named joy stick still in my hand. Cherries appeared near at hand -- a chance for an easy 200 points, and the chase was on once more. This time I understood. I could do it!

I did not do it, of course. My successive Pac-Men ate more dots and avoided the monsters a little longer, but the end for each one was the playing of the same sad little song. When three had gone that way, the board flashed the awful words, “Game Over.” Without thinking, I reached, into my pocket for a second quarter.

With my second game I discovered that there were four big dots which, when consumed, energized Pac-Man, changing him into a monster. The real monsters turned blue and ran at the terrifying sight of the turning worm, the righteous avenger, the passive one becoming aggressive, the meek inheriting the maze. While the monsters were blue I could chomp them with the jaws of Pac-Man and get 200 points each. But, alas, they remain blue only momentarily. Just as I was about to catch Hinkey he began to flash back into his old color. I turned, but too late, and the sad song played for me once more.

When my quarters were finally gone, I started to run to the man at the door. He had quarters while I had only useless dollars. I must make a monetary exchange.

Then I realized . . . It was happening to me, too. Just as my “chomper” (in the argot of the game) had been consumed by the monsters, I had been consumed by Pac-Man. And my tale is not singular. If truth be told, many an otherwise upright citizen slips into many a video arcade with a sweaty palm full of quarters and a surreptitious glance over his shoulder.

Why is this so? Of all the video games, why has Pac-Man captured the imagination, and the quarters, of so many? Because it is based on the Christian understanding of life, that’s why. Pac-Man is a phenomenon of the industrialized countries not just because it is part of the advanced technology of electronics, but because those are the countries most thoroughly saturated with the Christian story. Pac-Man is based on the biblical narrative, its story the same one Jesus told in a different way. Pac-Man is existence, captured in the bleeps and blips of the electronic board. It is, in short, life.

The little white dots that Pac-Man gobbles up are days, the regular chronology of existence. You get points for downing them -- not many points, not big points, but you get something just for going through the maze. With the control stick you can go any direction you wish, though of course you have no choice but to stay within the confines of the maze itself.

John S. Dunne says that there are three strangers that invade our lives: the world, mortality and sexuality. I would add aging as a fourth. Perhaps these are the monsters that pursue our hero, Pac-Man.

When these variously colored monsters appear at the center of the maze, you do not automatically and immediately know that they are monsters. The instructions may tell you they are, others may have warned you about them, but they look so innocent, so benign, so cute. They even have nicknames, for Pete’s sake! Demons -- I mean monsters -- do not have nicknames. It is, interesting to note that Pac-Man and the monsters are very similar in appearance and chomping ability, and are all rather lovable. Of course, demons always disguise themselves to look lovable, to look as much like their prey as possible.

Despite their resemblance to one another, each monster is different from the others in behavior. They move at different speeds and follow different patterns through the maze. If you cannot distinguish between them as the game progresses, you are much more likely to get caught. Naturally, with four monsters and only one Pac-Man, the odds are hardly even. The patterns of the monsters are bound to converge on Pac-Man sooner or later, and it is usually sooner. At such times, Pac-Man’s only salvation is in one of the four energy dots that transfigure him into a superman and make the monsters run for their lives.

Monsters, however, do not scare for very long. Those religious experiences of life, those times when we are so spiritually supercharged that demons quake at the sight, do not last very long, and the monsters know it. Soon they begin to flash, meaning they are going to turn back to their usual colors. Normalcy will soon return, and Pac-Man had better get back to eating as many dots as possible, to run up the score before the monsters come again. It is worth noting that the longer the game goes on, the faster the monsters move, and the shorter their blue periods are. It is just like what happens as one advances in the spiritual life.

Occasionally as Pac-Man makes his way, cherries appear in the maze, and if you are good enough to get into the advanced stages of the game, other types of fruit also show up. If your Pac-Man can eat them, you get big bonus points. The problem is that you never know when or where they will appear, and they usually lure Pac-Man away from the safety of the energy dots, out to where the monsters are freewheeling through the alleys. You might call the fruits opportunity, or you might call them temptation.

If Pac-Man manages to outwit the monsters long enough to eat all the dots in the maze, there is a short intermission and even a little show in which all the characters cavort about harmlessly. It is a plateau, a short rest, before another maze appears, and life goes on. It would be interesting to compare the various mazes to Erik Erikson’s stages of growth or James Fowler’s stages of faith, though I haven’t been able to do so because I am stuck in the beginning mazes. It is clear, however, that the successive mazes of Pac-Man in some way bear witness to life as it moves from one stage to another.

I suspect that Pac-Man was developed by those in the Wesleyan tradition. Some sort of “prevenient grace” predisposes humans with quarters to enter into the maze and “to go on to perfection.” But there is a Hebraic strain, too. An adaptation of the game is a switch to silence its electronic sounds allowing the player to “Be still, and know

The clincher, however, that relates Pac-Man to life is the price one pays. The unadept pay a high price in quarters; the adept require less money, but pay in time and concentration and Pac-Man elbow!

Why does Pac-Man appeal? Because it mirrors the patterns of reality. Like life, it presents us with days of frustration and moments of salvation; it includes pursuit by demons and rebirth for another try; it makes us attempt to survive through maze after maze. It includes the hope that pulls one on, and the sad song at the end when one finally steps away and another takes one’s place at the controls. Pac-Man is the story of life as we hear it in the Judeo-Christian tradition; it is the most thoroughly theological of all the video games.

When the Century pays me for this article, I would like the money in quarters.


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