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PAC-MOM: A Practical Rethinking of the “Classics”

Annina Rüst

#gameDesign

#mom

#foodInsecurity


Introduction

This is the PAC-MOM title screen. PAC-MOM is a feminist parody of PAC-MAN. This is the screen that the player sees when the game first loads. Against a black background, the PAC-MOM logo in yellow against a red background rests centered at the top of the screen. Underneath the logo there is a subtitle in blue text that reads “A game about gender, work, and food insecurity by Annina Rüst. Beneath that to the left, there are two characters that visually resemble PAC-MAN, but are intended to indicate a mother and child nested into each other. To the right, there is a “PLAY” button in yellow text on blue background. The player can choose to play the game or click on blue text below the PLAY button in order to explore sources and credits.
Image credit: Annina Rüst. Share however you want.

In this recipe, I proposing using game re-design to create an alternative view of “classic” video games from a feminist perspective. To illustrate this technique, I am describing PAC-MOM, a digital game that I created to counter and expand the popular 1980s game PAC-MAN. I am offering this practical rethinking of a “classic” game as a recipe to challenge and rethink a canon of games that are uncritically revered by game enthusiasts and often recreated with minor modification by individuals and organizations.


The Recipe

A scene from the PAC-MOM training level. In white text at the top of the screen “Moms are the sole or primary breadwinner in half of all families with children under 18 in the US”. Below there is a pathway indicated by straight and dotted lines. The scene depicts how as the player advances PAC-MOM, the floor under PAC-MOM increasingly disappears. When the floor has disappeared entirely, PAC-MOM falls through the floor. This illustrates the fragile existence of many moms who are the sole or primary breadwinner of their family. By Annina Rüst. Share however you want.
Image credit: Annina Rüst. Share however you want.
The PAC-MOM level selection screen. Against a black background there is a heading in yellow text constrained within a red rectangle that says “PAC-MOM level seletion. Underneath the heading it says in white text: “Play the training level to find out why PAC-MOM has to work harder for food pellets than PAC-MAN! … or play the main level. At the bottom left corner in white, there is a button for volume control. Next to it in the middle in yellow text over a blue rectangle there are two buttons where players can choose to play the training level or the main level.
Image credit: Annina Rüst. Share however you want.

In her book Coin-operated Americans Carly A. Kocurek describes how video game arcades became a space claimed by boys and young men in the US in the 1980s.1 A game common to 1980s video game arcades was PAC-MAN. PAC-MAN is classified by game scholars as an eating game.2 I created the game PAC-MOM as a parody of PAC-MAN. It is a game about gender and food insecurity. PAC-MOM takes place in a situation where accessing food requires PAC-MOM to work a disproportionate amount more than PAC-MAN. In addition to having to work more for the same pellets, PAC-MOM has to avoid a set of powerful ghost-enemies including patriarchy, misogyny, racism, ableism, and many more.

The PAC-MOM character customization screen. Here, the player can customize their own PAC-MOM. At the top of the screen the title is set in yellow text against a red rectangle. The text says “PAC-MOM character customization.” Below the title is more text in yellow that says “How much longer does this PAC-MOM have to work for the same amount of food as PAC-MAN?” In smaller script to the right of this text there is extra text that reads in parentheses “drag the cherry to adjust the percentage) Beneath the text there is a scale between 0 percent on the left and 100 percent on the right. The player can select a percentage represented by a Cherry icon. This does not just include customization of the game character herself and how much more she will have to work but also of her enemies. This includes classism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia and many more to illustrate that an individual’s experience can be determined by multiple intersecting aspects.
Image credit: Annina Rüst. Share however you want.

Every discipline has its canon of “important” works. The longer a canon exists, the more immutable it becomes. Instead of a calcified collection of works, I am proposing a continuous refiguring of works in a canon to encourage continued questioning of a discipline’s history. Instead of worshipping on the altar of the “classics”, we should be creating alternative views of works seen as “historic”. Below is a set of instructions for this process.

Steps

  1. Find “classic” games (or other media artifacts) that are part of the “canon” in a specific genre.
  2. Identify conceptual aspects in these games that seem culturally antiquated and are ripe for re-interpretation.
  3. Modify the rhetoric of the chosen game to create an outcome that reveals something about social inequities and intersectional identities that the original game is unable to do.
  4. Test your concept with an intersectional audience. Integrate feedback.

Tip

The ingredients of humor and irony can help make hard truths more palatable and easier to digest.

Reflection Prompts

My questions for creators of this kind of project are:

  • How can you make a game parody that is more than just ironic?
  • How can you modify the rhetoric of a classical game to expand what it is and how it works in culture?
  • How can new classics be created that examine the past, communicate contemporary reality, and help us create a better future where a multitude of feminisms exist and are taken seriously in game development and in society more broadly?

  1. Carly A Kocurek (2015) Coin-operated Americans, University of Minnesota Press. 

  2. Frans Mäyrä, 2008, An Introduction to Game Studies, Sage Publications. P. 70. 

The main PAC-MOM maze is pictured (in the aesthetic style of the traditional PAC MAN game.) This shows PAC-MOM in yellow, at the center of the maze. She has to avoid red, blue, and green colored ghosts labeled “Patriarchy”, “Racism”, “Transphobia”, among many more. She has three lives. This is indicated by two PAC-MOM yellow icons on the lower left corner of the screen.
Image credit: Annina Rüst. Share however you want.
This is the PAC-MOM “you lost” screen. This screen offers useless patronizing advice to PAC-MOM. The text reads: “Sorry, PAC-MOM, You worked so hard but you lost anyway! Maybe you should been more confident? Maybe you should have smiled more? Maybe you should have changed the way you speak? Maybe you should have ‘leaned in’ more?” Maybe you should have just been yourself? Maybe you should have had better work-life balance” Inspiration for this screen is drawn from self-help literature directed at women in the workplace. There are two blue buttons with yellow text at the bottom of the screen. The one of the right is labeled ‘Play Again’. The button on the right is labeled ‘More Useless Advice’.
Image credit: Annina Rüst. Share however you want.

Q&A

What is the context or background that inspired your recipe?

This recipe is inspired by my game PAC-MOM, a parody of the popular 1980s arcade game PAC-MAN. I wanted to create a game that addresses social inequities and intersectional identities. PAC-MAN is classified as an “eating game” by game scholars. I therefore created a parody, PAC-MOM, to communicate my ideas about motherhood and food insecurity. I also realized that “classic” games lend themselves to re-interpretation. I therefore decided to create this recipe because I think that this mode of game re-creation is transferable to other games and might help other creators generate ideas.

Which community are you offering the recipe to?

I am offering this recipe to the game development community. Game developers often have a good sense of the history of our field. I am offering an example that re-examines this history. By re-designing a historic game, I am imagining a feminist future that could have been. I want game developers to see our field’s history with different eyes, where every game is up to critical, speculative, and possibly utopian re-interpretation.

How does your submission relate to intersectional feminism?

My recipe is about designing alternative views of “classic” or “historic” video games. The example that I am giving is PAC-MOM, a reinterpretation of PAC-MAN. PAC-MOM is a game about gender, work, and food insecurity. Food insecurity is a complex intersectional issue. It affects single mothers most. It also affects women of color disproportionately due to the gender wage gap and related intersectional factors. As part of the game, I created a screen where the player can customize their own PAC-MOM. This does not just include customization of the game character herself but also of her enemies. These include classism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia and many more to illustrate that an individual’s experience can be determined by multiple intersecting aspects.

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