Pacman – from Clueless to Useless

I started my game play with Pacman (see Wikipedia article) using a free web-accessible version at

This is a record of my experience and observations as I went along:

  1. I sit looking at the loading screen, frantically hitting the cursor arrow keys, stabbing at them… Pacman sits still and ghosts converge and that’s it – “game over”! I try again and again, using the numeric pad cursor moving keys, trying the typical game play WASD key equivalent, hitting spacebar, even stabbing the function keys. No joy. My Pacman stays still.
  2. Time to read the instructions… So I re-enter the game from the outside and make sure I look at all the on-screen instructions. Not much help. I am reminded of how difficult it is for anyone first entering any new game or environment and how clueless one can be without some level of guidance or support to get over the very basic things like motion of an on-screen character. Everyone struggles with this especially in sophisticated environments like World of Warcraft and Second Life.
  3. After spend some time thinking I ought to be able to work things out… realising its for exactly for this sort of thing that we have been asked to look at Pacman as a starter game… I decide that basic instructions like what keys to use really ought to have been on the entry page and not an assumed skill. There are a lot of assumed things in game environments which can inhibit progress and learning.
  4. So, a Google Search is called for… to see if Pacman has its own “lore” for how to move the Pacman character on screen. I am simply pointed at the keyboard arrow keys, which I have been frantically stabbing with no movement. Ah.. it dawns… A slower PRESS of the key or HOLD the key down may be needed… more like a console game controller, and not like a single short keyboard-like key press. Not a usual mode, and, to me, and odd use almost like a stream of repeating moves. But even that’s not right I realise when I try it. There is a delay in starting the move and then Pacman keeps going until you hit another key to change direction.
  5. I quickly adapt and can move Pacman about, but I am slow to react when it needs a direction change. Practice is needed for this manual and hand eye coordination skill. A few more games does the trick at least for basic motion.
  6. Now I start to watch for the incoming ghosts and do simple movements to run ahead to void them. Chases like that are not successful, and I get cornered.
  7. Now I start to look at the whole game screen and the pathways, I see the incoming ghosts as converging and start to see regions of the game screen I can move to where the paths of the ghosts would be convoluted to reach me.
  8. I am doing some path predication and looking at single ghost paths, but quickly start to look at multiple ghosts and how they will likely converge, so I can avoid the “pincer” movements to trap my Pacman.
  9. I know the “fruit” rewards gain points, and there are other on-screen valuable items like power ups. So I have in mind moving towards them wherever the ghost avoidance priority for me allows.
  10. My scores are increasing, and my game play is lasting longer. Now I am already wondering what is next and when to stop. I have no “high score” or target in mind. There is no social factor to encourage me to go to a certain point. I am just driven by wanting to play enough so I can provide input to this set of observations, and I already feel I have gone far enough. I see no intrinsic reason to continue. Game Over!

Stage 2 – Reading Patricia Greenfield Chapter on “Video Games”

After playing Pacman for a while and getting to a point that I thought gave me an insight as to its nature, I then read Patricia Greenfield’s chapter on “Video Games” as suggested (Greenfield, 1984). What struck me right away was the description of the various sophisticated constraints and induced Pacman and ghost behaviour I had not spotted at all. It showed an entire layer of the game was there which I had not realised… a common feature in complex games but it seems also in those that at first sight also seem “simple”.

Greenfield refers to Tom Malone’s work (Malone, 1981) on intrinsic motivation in playing and gaining skills in video games for education. This was a paper I had already found through my early reading for my MSc dissertation. Tom is someone I have worked with on process ontologies (Lee et al, 1998). Malone found that the presence of goals was the “single most important factor” in determining the popularity of games to players. I can relate that to my lack of interest in Pacman, as I had no clear goal, or socially interesting target (see my experience point 10).

Greenfield (1984, Chapter 7, p. 103) points out the nature of games which require the induction of behaviours that are constrained by multiple interacting variables and how dynamic such environments can be. I tend to like to know in advance at least the basics of movement an interaction when I start playing a game or using a virtual worlds environment. I often go to the trouble of looking at the starter guide rather than just diving in. I even will enter, and quickly find a quiet corner away from social interaction for a short period until I can at least do the basics.


Patricia Greenfield (1984) Mind and Media: The Effects of Television, Computers and Video Games”, Chapter 7, “Video Games”, pp. 86-114, Fontana Paperbacks.

Jintae Lee, Michael Grunninger, Yan Jin, Thomas Malone, Austin Tate, Gregg Yost and other members of the PIF Working Group (1998) The PIF Process Interchange Format and Framework Version 1.2, The Knowledge Engineering Review, Vol. 13, No. 1, pp. 91-120, March 1998, Cambridge University Press.

Thomas Malone (1981) Towards a Theory of Intrinsically Motivating Instruction, Cognitive Science, Vol 4 pp. 333-369.

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