Google PacMan: Stirring The Soup Of Our Cultural Memory
On May 21, 2010, people woke up, turned on their computers, launched their internet browsers, and were surprised to find that Google’s logo on its homepage had become a fully playable Google Pacman. The special Google doodle allowed people (well, mostly office workers who were supposed to be writing or filing some report or doing some office-related job) to play as Pacman and Ms Pacman simultaneously.
(And because we love you so very very much, we’ve gone to extraordinary lengths to recreate Google Pac Man right here on GoogleTricks.com. Click here to
kiss a few hours of your life goodbye play Google Pacman.)
It was Google’s tribute to the 30th anniversary of the classic, world-famous video game (May 22, 2010), although the doodle stayed on the search engine’s homepage throughout the weekend (until May 23). The result, unintended or not, was approximately 4.8 million hours of “losses in productivity” as millions of people were so enthralled with the playable doodle that they ended up playing it for hours—or at least, until the boss appeared beside them, shaking their head in disapproval.
Such is the power of this little video game to enthrall millions of people. It seemed to have brought people back to a happy place—a place filled with the laughter of children, where it was always sunny, where the slightly burnt smell of the overheated arcade machine and the loud 8-bit music and sound effects of the game mingled interminably in that deep, primal part of your brain. Google Pacman made millions of people remember their childhood or adolescence in the way only something as pervasive as Google can. At the very least, making Pacman eat those squishy “ghosts” was therapeutic.
Google Pacman: Cultural Nostalgia
My own experience with Pacman started more or less at the same time as everybody else’s. My first encounter with the video game was through one of Atari’s tabletop coin-operated arcade machines. It was sometime in the middle of the 1980s, and I was just a strapping kid whose main preoccupation was watching cartoons, such as Transformers, Voltron, and, yes, the Hanna-Barbera TV version of Pacman. The “proprietor” of the arcade machines had the genius idea of setting up his business just a few meters away from our school, in a building that was largely made of bamboo.
It was a tropical setup, and the location also served as some sort of cafeteria or a snack bar (serving fruit shakes and sandwiches, and if you still had some spare change, you could spend it all on the arcade games). It was obviously a very profitable venture—until the school board petitioned the local government to shut down the establishment. But before the place was shut down, all us kids had a great, frenzied time spending all our coins and figuring out how to outrun the ghosts or eat all of them.
Space Invaders was then the first big hit, attracting schoolchildren in droves. When Pacman came in the local scene, the kids at first had no idea what to make of it. But then the more enterprising (or “braver”) children went ahead, slipped their coin into the slot, and just began pushing the joystick around. It was a no-brainer, anyway—Pacman’s gameplay appealed to us in some sort of a common-sensical way.
The first time I discovered that “magical” bamboo house with its arcade machines was during one sweltering hot lunch hour. I had just finished eating my lunch at the school cafeteria, and decided to kill time by strolling around the school’s immediate environs. I noticed that other schoolchildren were “marching” toward a single destination. My curiosity aroused, I merely walked toward where everyone else was going. Observing from the outside, you’d never have known what the bamboo house contained within: it looked like an ordinary house, or one of those establishments that sold souvenir tropical-themed products for tourists.
Inside, however, it was completely different: there was a distinct sense of urgency and excitement, mostly revolving around the main noisy clusters of kids milling around two table-top machines that produced that distinct “chomp chomp chomp” sound. You had to struggle elbowing your way through that throng just to get in front and see what the fuss was about: one kid playing furiously on what we would later know as Pacman, a dwindling stack of coins beside him, his jaws open in a “zombie” slack. He was completely “in the zone.”
Weeks after Pacman came, and as soon as the lunch bell rang, children and teenagers would troop to the “bamboo house” to spend all their lunch money. Yes, I mean lunch money: many kids, myself included, would often skip lunch just to spend our money (and the entire lunch hour) trying to eat all those little yellow pellets and ultimately the big power pellet and get back on those nasty ghosts.
The main goal was simply to survive for as long as possible, but the other kids, anxious to have their turn on the arcade machine (it was a severe imbalance in supply and demand that often ended up in schoolyard fights), would do their best to distract the player enough to “die” early. You were lucky if you even survived past level 10. When we had run out of money, we’d spend the remainder of our time in the sidelines discussing should-have-beens, boldly declaring our resolve to “get ‘em next time!”
When Pacman cartridges for the family computer became available in our town, we’d spend entire weekends at a friend’s house who was “lucky” enough to have parents who had the magnanimity to buy their kid a cool Pacman game. I remember one particular instance when I and my friends were still at some friend’s house playing the video game and squealing in laughter just hours before our graduation ceremony (from grade school) was about to commence.
Multiply this little personal Pacman experience in millions of households all around the world, and you’ll get it when we try to insist how Pacman is not just a simple old-school video game: it’s a much cherished experience shared with your closest friends or siblings. The game embodied with it a treasure chest of mental imagery and emotional rollercoaster, inevitably associating the game with some relatively carefree period in your life.
Perhaps it is fair to say that Google Pacman transported those of us who lived through that distant halcyon era of old-school video games back to the days of our childhood or adolescence. Google’s tribute was not as much as a tribute to a video game, but a good-natured “nod” to something many of us care about.
Google Pacman: Fast-forward
It was no wonder then that when Google Pacman became online on May 21, 2010, the whole world experienced a certain drop in productivity. Pundits everywhere even attempted to put an estimated number representing the said widespread productivity losses: some valued it at $120 billion. On the Friday the doodle went online on Google’s homepage, many companies or organizations tried temporarily blocking access to Google’s website. At the end of the weekend, however, it was decided that the productivity loss was actually “not very significant,” at it was spread out across the whole world and made only a minimal impact on individual organizations.
It is surprising how a ‘little something” like the Google Pacman could make such a huge societal impact. Whether or not Google achieved something positive with the doodle, Google Pacman was determined to be popular enough to deserve its own page. Even today, you can still access it on www.google.com/pacman.