As the CNN tribute rightly points out,
“This was the first time a player took on a persona in the game. Instead of controlling inanimate objects like tanks, paddles and missile bases, players now controlled a ‘living’ creature,” says Leonard Herman, author of “Phoenix: The Rise and Fall of Videogames.” “It was something that people could identify, like a hero.”
It was the first time most of us had ever adopted a digital persona, primitive as it was. But perhaps its primitiveness was part of its power, allowing for easier identification (see the great Understanding Comics). In the years following, game heroes took on more distinct forms, imbibed with more and more personality: Link, Mario, Gordon Freeman, et al. Part of the fun of playing these games–and really, part of the fun (and I suppose danger) of the digital world itself–is this taking on and playing different roles. I can be one persona on my blog, another on Everquest, a third on IM. In a broader sense, I suppose we play different roles nearly everywhere we go online (and maybe even in all life). I’m a shopper on Amazon, a stock trader on Ameritrade, a searcher on Google. (I think there’s a lot to explore in this sort of role-directed design.)
But what Pac Man and his ilk can teach us is that we’ll follow and identify with these digital beings, these pixel versions of the self, in all sorts of unfamiliar, alien settings that really don’t even make much sense (You mean I eat that big dot and then I can eat those ghosts?). Imagine applying the game-like principles of pac-man to something that does make sense, like stock trading.
Twenty-five years of the little yellow pie-chart guy and we still haven’t come to terms with what games are all about and how we can use their parts in things that aren’t games per se. We’re still like pac-man, running frantically around a maze, pursued by phantoms.