It’s hard to imagine a world without Pac-Man, the arcade favorite turned global cultural phenomenon, as relevant as ever, forty-plus years after its conception. But how much do you really know about the yellow-hued icon’s origin story? From its 1970s Tokyo days to today, a comprehensive exhibition pays tribute to the game’s history, design and legacy. Featuring artifacts, advertising materials and even playable arcade cabinets, “Nom Nom: 40 Years of Pac-Man Design and History,” is on view at Chicago Gamespace, a gallery that exists at the intersection of video-game history, design and art, providing a behind-the-scenes look into the game’s creation as well as a walk down memory lane.
“For me, Pac-Man is intriguing and relevant because of how the game and its sequels came to embody video games in the early 1980s,” says Tim Lapetino, who curated the exhibition alongside Jonathan Kinkley of Gamespace. “It was one of the most successful arcade games of all time, so we wanted to make sure to cover not only how it influenced the video-game industry, which was just coming into its own, but also how the game captured the public imagination. Video games were just emerging into the broader culture, and Pac-Man had a huge hand in making that happen, being accessible and approachable for everyone.”
Lapetino, a designer and geek-culture historian who is the co-author of the upcoming “Pac-Man: Birth of an Icon,” lets us in on a little known fact: “The historical Pac-Man has multiple story threads that run right through Chicago, and those ties to the video-game industry are often forgotten. The city has had, and continues to have, a rich history of video-game development, and Midway Manufacturing was instrumental in making Pac-Man the hit and pop culture sensation it was,” he says. “The original game was made in Japan, but it took the marketing smarts of Midway’s team to present it to the U.S. in the right way, along with the vision to turn it into a licensing bonanza, which really accounts for the broad awareness the game still has.”
From arcade-game cabinets, to retro Atari game consoles, to a Mr. & Mrs. Pac-Man pinball machine, “Nom Nom: 40 Years of Pac-Man Design and History” assembles a wide array of arcade games, each providing its own playing experience, as well as artifacts and memorabilia—action figures, apparel and collectibles. “It was important for us to think not just about history in this exhibit, but how we could ensure that people could engage with the game and actually play it in a variety of incarnations,” says Lapetino. “To my mind, an exhibit on Pac-Man that doesn’t allow a visceral experience of grabbing that joystick and chomping a few dots misses the point. While Pac-Man grew into a pop-culture meme, an iconic symbol, and an entertainment brand, it all began with that game. We had to make sure that the original experience was available to people—and it’s fun!”
But how does one explain the game’s timeless appeal? “I think the ongoing appeal of Pac-Man comes down to simplicity. The game design is elegant, spare, and yet still difficult. While it’s clearly old, it doesn’t have many of the trappings or whiz-bang graphics of later games that might age it now,” says Lapetino. “I liken it to special effects in movies over the years. The original special effects of ‘Jaws’—that big mechanical shark, real water, and all that—have aged better than the more advanced computer graphics of something like ‘Sharknado,’ which isn’t even ten years old. Also, I think Pac-Man has endured because it’s both approachable and challenging. Anyone can play it, but there’s another level for expert players. It falls under the category of ‘easy to learn, but difficult to master.'”
Of his personal experience with Pac-Man and the elusive Ghost gang, Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde, Lapetino says: ”For me, Pac-Man transcends video games. I grew up playing the game in Pizza Hut and on home consoles. I watched the cartoon and saw the toys on the store shelves, so it will always be a connection to my childhood. But decades later, it was surprising to me that six year-olds are still aware of the character,” he says. “Professionally, as a creative director and writer, I’ve seen some of how Pac-Man has had a lasting impact on the pop-culture entertainment world—specifically licensing and marketing. The character broke open the barriers between the worlds of video games, toys, TV, and all that, kind of writing a new playbook for how to develop a single character across all kinds of media. Today, companies hold the reigns of their intellectual property tightly, but Pac-Man reminds me of a time when pop culture was a bit more like the Wild West, which is organic and ultimately, a little more human.”
Through May 30 at Chicago Gamespace, 2418 West Bloomingdale, Saturdays and Sundays 1-5pm, $5, Kids under 12 get in free.
Greek-born Vasia Rigou is a Chicago-based art critic and pop culture journalist, largely on the subjects of contemporary art, design, and fashion. She moved to Chicago in 2013 to study Arts Journalism at the School of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC,) where she was awarded the New Artist Society Merit Scholarship. She grew up to appreciate art after years of carefully planned, culture-filled travel itineraries and museum-hopping around Europe with her family. During this time, she received a bachelor’s in English Literature, in her native Athens; a master’s in Media, in Nottingham, UK; and studied foreign languages—English, German, and Spanish at the University of Salamanca, Spain. Her writing—reviewing museum exhibitions, gallery shows, art fairs, fashion shows, and music festivals among others—has been published nationally and internationally both in print and online. In 2017, she founded and now serves as editor-in-chief of Rainbowed.—an independently published website focused on the visual and performing arts, digital media, and popular culture. When she’s not writing about art or looking at art—wine in hand, she keeps up with Chicago’s creative entrepreneurial and startup community, makes lists for pretty much everything, drinks immense amounts of coffee and takes cross-country road trips every chance she gets.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: www.rigouvasia.com