August 17, 2016

Video Games as Art?

On May 22, 1980, a Japanese video game designer named Toru Iwatani invented a hugely popular video game known as Pac-Man in Japan, although they originally called it "Puc-Man" in that market, but the U.S. distributor felt the name might be the target for graffiti artists who'd try and rename it "Fuc-Man" or something similar, so they suggested wordsmithing to the game's title, hence it became "Pac-Man" in the U.S.

For anyone who is old enough to remember it, Pac-Man was, for a brief window of time, the biggest video game anywhere on the planet, even spawning a lame pop song "Pac-Man Fever" by Buckner and Garcia.

Along with that, there was an even lamer Hanna-Barbera cartoon, and an entire library of books about how to master the game.  Kids were wasting their entire allowances at arcades $0.25 at a time to play the game, and there were countless toys and t-shirts, etc.  Then, Atari came out with a home version, although most people felt the original Atari 2600 version was a horrible rendition even considering the limitations of the processor on the Atari 2600 machine (Atari later redeemed itself somewhat with its 2600 version Ms. Pac-Man, incidentally).

On May 21, 2010, Pac-Man was honored with a Google Doodle which introduced a new level of office time-wasting (for a day, anyway).  I've enclosed a screenshot of that below (you can click on it to be taken to the original page which includes the game itself, though I'm not really a good html programmer), a shortcut to the historical Google Doodle's site for Google's version of Pac-Man can also be visited at

Google Doodle version of Pac-Man (click to play)

The sheer idea of being able to play a game like Pac-Man ... for FREE ... at one's desktop during lunchtime would have been simply mindblowing to kids back in 1980.  Now, kids of 1980 find the idea that you can download the entire thing on your phone, complete with all intermissions, and graphics that make Atari's 2600 version look downright pitiful, all from a device that fits in your pocket development the kind of stuff they really dreamed of as kids some 30 years ago, and many worked to make those things happen.

But the cultural impact of Pac-Man was incredible to say the least.  It also defined a generation of kids (including myself) as one of the most influential video game(s) of our youths.  But popularity aside, does that mean it's art?

According to New York's influential Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), the answer was yes when it added a number of video games to its collection in 2011.  According to MOMA's website (see for details):

"Are video games art? They sure are, but they are also design, and a design approach is what we chose for this new foray into this universe. The games are selected as outstanding examples of interaction design-a field that MoMA has already explored and collected extensively, and one of the most important and oft-discussed expressions of contemporary design creativity. Our criteria, therefore, emphasize not only the visual quality and aesthetic experience of each game, but also the many other aspects-from the elegance of the code to the design of the player's behavior-that pertain to interaction design."

I should note that NPR acknowledged the unusual addition to a museum that is really better known for its displays of the likes of Andy Warhol and Keith Haring.  Have a listen below, or by visiting

These days, arcade games are less of a draw than games that can be played on mobile phones, or devices like XBox and PlayStation.  While Pokemon Go, Angry Birds, Candy Crush and others all had their day in the sun, there will no doubt be others that keep people entertained in the future.  What these are remains to be seen.  But the first genuine "blockbuster" video game was and always will be Pac-Man, which you may observe was long ago incorporated into this blog's template (see above, unless you're doing so phone a phone, as there's a separate template for computers and phones in most cases).

Author P.S., January 30, 2017:  On Monday, January 30, 2017, there was news that Masaya Nakamura, whose company was credited with the creation of the Pac-Man video game had passed away (the actual game was created by an employee named Toru Iwatani).  See the news story at for details.

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