Parallel processing and Pac-Man

I remember that I used to be good at Pacman. I played it three or four times a week at least on an arcade game in our local sports centre. I used to have the networks of paths and opportunities nailed: I knew in what order to eat each dot and when to eat the super, flashing dot which would unleash my super-powers and allow me to gorge on ghosts.

I played it again for the first time in about thirty years this week here: I missed the ‘wakawakawakawaka’ sound as Pacman ate the dots for starters and I was awful at controlling Pacman with the cursor keys. I kept over-shooting turns and not turning away from the ghosts quickly enough.

This are attempts three and four:

Multiple attempts beyond this didn’t lead to game-play which was very much better.

Thirty years on, then, and all my knowledge and skill about the game are gone. However, on reading the chapter “Video Games” from Greenfield’s ‘Mind and media: the effects of television, video games and computers’, I realise that, perhaps, I never was really very good at Pacman. For example, I never appreciated that ‘Each monster has its own characteristic behavior’ (p.99); I was so busy focusing on ‘me’/Pac-Man that I wasn’t able to note and analyse the ghosts’/monsters’ behaviour. I also didn’t recognise that ‘The relative speeds of the monsters and Pac-Man are different in different parts of the maze’ (p.100). My parallel processing skills, which Greenfield defines as ‘taking in information from several sources simultaneously’ (p.101) are lacking now and, it would appear, weren’t much better when I was a child playing the game in the arcade. When I play now and, I guess, when I played then, I am/was ‘watching Pac-Man’s behaviour alone’ (p.102) and therefore failed to appreciate the ‘interacting dynamic variables’ (p.102) of Pac-Man.

Greenfield’s analysis of computer games is fascinating as an historic snapshot of a response to the nascent medium of computer games. I am probably  around the same age as Mark, Greenfield’s son (however, I was never able to complete a Rubik’s Cube.) We take for granted, now, the fact that we are afforded a participatory role in visually dynamic media but Greenfield highlights the fact that video games were ‘the first medium’ (p.90) to afford us this possibility.  In terms of the appeal and popularity of games, Greenfield cites Malone, who ‘found that the presence of a goal was the single most important factor in determining the popularity of games’ (p.91). It will be interesting, as we progress through this course to ascertain whether this is still the case: what other factors now impact on a game’s appeal? Malone’s exploration of violence and the gender disparities between the appeal of ‘aggressive fantasy’ (p.94) are also considered. Again, thirty two years on, what evidence is there on the impact of solitary, ‘violent’ gaming on individuals (compare ‘Darts’ with ‘Call of Duty’!). Transfer is key here: what negatives and positives from the gaming experience have an impact beyond the world of the game? Another observation which is pertinent is Greenfield’s reference to Eric Wanner, who had ‘suggested that video games could be much more interesting if they provided for creation’. The popularity of games such as Minecraft (and The Sims, Second Life and Little Big World) suggests that the appeal of creation is, indeed, a powerful factor in determining the appeal of games. Finally, and reflecting Karen’s musings on gaming and addiction, I thought that this was a pertinent insight: ‘Perhaps the most valuable thing we can learn is not how to make the games less addictive but how to make other learning experiences, particularly school, more so.’ (p112).


Greenfield, P.M., (1984) “Video Games” from Greenfield, Patricia Marks, Mind and media: the effects of television, video games and computers pp.86-114
Malone, T., (1981) “What Makes Things Fun to Learn? A Study of Intrinsically Motivating Computer Games”, Cognitive Science (5) 333-370
Wanner, E., (1982) “Computer Time: The Electronic Boogey-man,” Psychology Today (16) 8-11