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Pac-Man and the Gender Question

Growing up I was a huge fan of the Super Nintendo Ms. Pac-Man game. Since coming of age in this gaming world I have noticed that a lot of women claim Ms. Pac-Man as a feminist icon in gaming. My gut reaction is to agree. Of course Ms. Pac-Man is a feminist icon! As Gigglesugar says, “Ms. stepped out of her husband’s shadow to prove that women can make something of themselves and hold their own in this treacherous, monster-ridden world we live [in].” In many ways she’s right; the Ms. Pac-Man sequel is a much more difficult game than the original Pac-Man and as an interesting comparison to “why” women like the Wii Fit, “Ms. Pac-Man eats constantly and kicks ass, without even smudging her ruby red lipstick.” How’s that for going against gender “norms.” However, in my quest for answers I found some surprising takes on the little yellow almost-circle we all know and love.

The history behind Pac-Man as a whole is a pretty poignant gender commentary in and of itself. Toru Iwantani, the creator of Pac-Man, claims to have made the game specifically with women in mind. “All the computer games available at the time were of the violent type—war games and space invader types. There were no games that everyone could enjoy, and especially none for women. I wanted to come up with a comical game women could enjoy” (Iwantani). He knew he wanted to make a game that women would like, so to do research he eavesdropped on women in cafes to see what they were talking about. Mostly, he said, it was fashion and boyfriends and neither of those would make a good game. (umm, just an aside: WHO was he listening to?!?!) Then they started talking about food and he decided that “eating would be the one thing to concentrate on to get the girls interested” (Lewis). It is very insulting to have someone lump all the “female” interests into a few tiny categories that are “not the stuff of a good video game” (Lewis). It is clear that the gaming industry had (and sadly still has) very little idea of what girl gamers really want or need.

Although, Iwantani readily admits he intended to target the game to women, the protagonist of the original Pac-Man is still male . . . or is it? Some feel that they “never really associated gender to the original Pac-Man character” assuming he was either male, by default, or more probably gender-neutral (GameChronicles). Clearly, most of the gaming community did not agree with Pac-Man as gender-neutral, as HE has always been given male pronouns. Although it is useful to point out that male pronouns were the default “gender-neutral” pronouns for quite a while, with the full Pac-Man history behind us it is obvious he is and will continue to be read as male. Still it is nice to know the gender-neutral feelings are out there.

Standing alone the fact that the original Pac-Man game features a male protagonist is a sad representation of the video game industry’s aforementioned lack of understanding of the female client, but grouped with the sequel Ms. Pac-Man, this oversight becomes an asset. With the release of Ms. Pac-Man came a better updated version of a much loved game and probably one of the first relatively equal male-female gendered game-character comparisons. Ms. Pac-Man is capable of doing everything (and more thanks to the nifty game updates) that her male counterpart does. She is not weaker in any way, shape, or form. Virtually the only difference between her and the Mr. is the bow and red lipstick. Interestingly, the Pac-Man body is not gendered in any capacity, causing some to speculate that Ms. Pac-Man could just be a cross-dressing or transsexual Pac-Man (, GameChronicles)!

Another Pac-Man gender question resides with the ghosts. Three of the ghosts, the blue one, the red one, and the pink one, keep their original names in all of the Pac-Man games. However, the orange one changes notably has a different name in both Ms. Pac-Man and Pac-Man Jr. In the original Pac-Man the orange ghost is called Clyde, but with the release of Ms. Pac-Man Clyde is re-christened as Sue. Was this an attempt to more equally represent both sexes? Maybe, but from my point of view it doesn’t seem likely for two reasons. For one, Sue is later renamed again to be Tim in Pac-Man Jr.  Also, there is record of a truly female ghost (meaning she had the bow) in Pac-Man.

Pac & Pal is an obscure Pac-Man game only released in Japan. This game features an exclusive character: the green ghost Miru (Pac & Pal). Like Ms. Pac-Man, we know she is female because of her trendy hairstyle. The existence of Miru shows that if any of the other ghosts were meant to be female, they too would have sported a hairbow in order to abide by the Pac-Man laws of what it means to be gendered. Interestingly, in both these cases of clear genderization, Ms. and Miru, the only thing that denotes their difference from the other “male” characters are surface characteristics. Could this imply that Pac-Man only includes gender and lacks different physical sexes entirely?

Unfortunately, Miru met an early demise and never made it to any other Pac-Man game. She was even replaced in her own game in a later version by Pac-Man’s dog from the television cartoon. The game was appropriately renamed: Pac-Man & Chomp-Chomp. And as Drew from Back of the Cereal Box says, “If that’s not a slap in the face to early gender equality in video games, I don’t know what it is.”

Ultimately, women did get the short end of the stick in the Pac-Man franchise. This truth, however, only speaks further to why Ms. Pac-Man is such a feminist icon in gaming. She beat the odds and holds her own in an all male world. The early success of Ms. Pac-Man proves that female protagonists in games do not have to be physically “sexy” to be just as successful as their male counterparts. So the next time I get asked who my hero is, I think we all know what my answer will be.

One Response
  1. March 20, 2009

    I’m going to push you a little to take it to the next level, which might need to be a longer paper.

    First, I’d like to see a little more digging into the creation of Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man. Was Ms. Pac-Man created because the original missed the mark in terms of appealing to women? It’s be interesting to tease out the relationship of the creation of the game to its reception a little more.

    Second, I think you can push a little on how people view the gender of the Pac-Man characters and what that says about the gendered nature of the game and of our interaction with it. So, you could dig a little more into the sites you reference (is Ms. Pac-Man trans? I’m so intrigued by this!). Another way to go is to find out what people’s reactions were to the game, both at the time and in retrospect. What are the numbers in terms of men and women who play Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man? Might give you some interesting insight.

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