The Ms. Pac-man arcade game is one of the best-selling and highest-grossing arcade games ever made. Released just two years after the hugely successful Pac-man, Ms. Pac-man was introduced with mildly different game dynamics and a beautiful pink bow on her head. Through careful examination of Ms. Pac-man and her gendered and androcentric creation we can better contextualize the highly-gendered outrage of players of the modern game Rust. Rust is a beta-version survival game that recently released an update which randomly and permanently assigns the race and gender of a player’s avatar. Using these two artifacts I explore how digital identity has changed over time, how one’s digital identity is affected both by the gender of the player and the gender/sex of the avatar and the effects gendered technology has on women in the video game industry.
Before we can understand the creation of Ms. Pac-man and the effect it has had on video games and general culture, we must accept gender as a lens of historical analysis and examine how Ms. Pac-man exists within this framework. Gender has always played a significant role in our lives and should not be ignored when considering contributions to history. When studying any field, it is important to understand the sociocultural contexts surrounding its development, including gender, class, and race. Gender is an especially important lens because it affects all cultures, races and classes. Throughout history, gender and power have been inexorably linked. According to Joan W. Scott in “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis“, “gender is a primary field within which or by means of which power is articulated” [Scott, 1069]. Through the study of gender, no matter the race, class, or culture, one can begin to frame and examine a number of the power dynamics at work. Conversely, by failing to acknowledge the interaction between genders when studying history, one fails to examine a pervasive force on human behavior. Scott argues that ignoring gender in historical studies ignores power dynamics and societal forces that inform the actions of both men and women, and contribute to cultural practices, norms, and gender roles. Those in power are inherently motivated to manipulate and construct social norms and rules, like gender, in a manner that allows them to maintain their power. This can be achieved through explicit laws and rules or through widespread manipulation of cultural messaging. While the modern age has seen the breakdown of many explicit gender divisions, gendered cultural messaging, especially in video games, is still widely accepted as normal, and considered hardly worth mentioning.
To intelligently critique the simplistic gendering of Ms. Pac-man by adding a bow and lipstick to Pac-man we need to thoroughly examine the historical context of her creation. Ms. Pac-man was released in 1981 by the American company Midway, based on a modification to the Japanese (Namco) designed Pac-man. The original Pac-man was one of the first arcade games that drew in large numbers of female gamers and Midway saw Ms. Pac-man as an opportunity to profit from a new and extended fan base [Electronic Games Magazine (EGM), 1982]. A Midway spokesperson even spoke of Ms. Pac-man as a “way of thanking all those lady arcaders who have played and enjoyed Pac-Man” [EGM]. Interestingly, the game mechanics for Ms. Pac-man were created by a small computer company called General Computer Corporation (GCC) as a Pac-man package called Crazy Otto [Arcade Museum]. To avoid copyright violations, GCC chose to sell the rights to Crazy Otto to Namco’s American distributor, Midway. In the hands of Midway, Crazy Otto quickly transformed into a more ‘feminine friendly’ game: a female version of the popular Pac-man. In one move, Midway popularized and propagated an extremely androcentric trope often used in video games since, that Anita Sarkeesian has named the Ms. Male Character Trope. Midway had the opportunity to thank their female gamers by creating a brand new, independent female character but instead chose the easier marketing path and piggy-backed on the success of Pac-man.
Midway chose to create a female character, but define her completely in terms of her relationship to a male character. The developers had an extended conversation on the different possible relationships between Pac-man and Ms. Pac-man, but seemingly never considered created an unrelated character. Based on a cut-scene that depicts Ms. Pac-man having a child with Pac-man, and the thoughts of the time on out of wedlock children, they were forced to change the name of the game at the last minute from Miss Pac-man to Ms. Pac-man after deciding that Mrs. Pac-man didn’t sound quite right [GCC Talk]. Throughout all of the discussions about the name, no where is it mentioned that they considered creating a character with an entirely separate story line, or even simply making a new character that is friends with Pac-man with a different name and different identity. This has had a lasting impact on gaming culture, as it showed that a highly popular video game can get away with creating simple and problematic female characters without repercussion.
While popular culture is littered with examples of female characters being defined by their relationship to male characters, Ms. Pac-man is special largely because she came first and has become one of the most recognizable figures in video games. In fact, Nina Huntemann refers to the funding of Sarkeesian’s video project as emphasizing “that the work feminists and their allies have been doing since the first quarter fell into Ms. Pac-Man is needed now more than ever” (Ada Journal). Today, as in the past, there is a lack of women in the gaming/computer industry, consolidating decision-making in men. This androcentric approach to video game character creation is yet another example of men controlling the tech industry and creating it in their image. In the chapter of her book TechnoFeminism named, “Male Designs on Technology” Judy Wajcman quotes Maria Mies and writes, “Technology is not neutral but is always based on ‘exploitation of and domination over nature, exploitation and subjection of women, exploitation and oppression of other peoples'”[TechnoFeminism pg 21]. Ms. Pac-man has taken on the name of Pac-man and will forever be tied to his existence. She is forever subjected to Pac-man since she cannot be discussed without being seen as a derivative of his success.
Examining the creation of technology holistically, many of the same trends as in video game character development can be seen. Since the technology sector is largely populated by men, the products they create tend to assume the average user is in fact a man; even children are noticing this trend. This affects everything from video games to industrial machinery. According to Wajcman, “The result is that machinery is literally designed by men with men in mind – the masculinity of the technology becomes embedded in the technology itself” [TechnoFeminism pg 27]. Examining the computing and video game industry this has far-reaching effects on how women and men interact with technology and computers. Amita Goyal in “Women in Computing: Historical Roles, the Perpetual Glass Ceiling, and Current Opportunities” summarizes it by writing, “Males, compared to females, have been found to have more positive attitudes toward computers and have more confidence in their ability to program computers” [Women in Computing, pg 41]. This disparity, without purposeful interruption, creates a self-perpetuating cycle of men developing technology for men and women being subjected. In the life cycle of Ms. Pac-man this can be seen in a Midway spokesperson’s reference to ‘lady gamers.’ Never would he imagine referring to ‘gentleman gamers’ or any male equivalent because the implicit assumption is that the default gamer is male.
In “Women and Gender in the History of Computing” Janet Abbate makes the reader question this paradigm asking, “What has typically been the relation between the designers and users of computer applications? How do the dynamics of this interaction affect the usefulness of the program?” [History of Computing, pg 6]. Since men are designing the games with the assumed player being a straight, cis-gender, white man the product becomes definitively less useful and arguably detrimental to users who don’t fit this mold. This can take shape in a variety of ways from overt character sex/race selection to more nuanced effects such as the body language and the male gaze. This assumption has led white, male gamers (a majority of vocal gamers) to expect representation in the video games they play and the culture surrounding them. This not only limits the creative possibilities in game creation, but leads to harassment and outrage when things are different. With this representative, androcentric context the hateful outrage surrounding Rust‘s groundbreaking decision seems inevitable.
Oddly enough, however, men have been playing as women since the time of Ms. Pac-man and it has come with much less complaint. Whether it was Ms. Pac-man in Ms. Pac-man, Princess Zelda from the Zelda series or Chell in the hugely successful Portal series, men have played as women in the past with fervor. The difference between these games and the much bemoaned change to Rust is the intersection with a player’s digital identity. In the games mentioned above, everyone plays as these women, so clearly it says nothing about the person playing. An avatar’s sex in Rust is tied directly to a player’s SteamID and consequently their digital identity. Steam is an online gaming platform that allows users to connect their SteamID across a number of different games. This allows friends from one game to easily connect with one another in a new game without having to have contact outside the video-game construct.
As technology becomes more engrained in our daily lives the lines between our digital selves and our physical selves continue to blur. Donna Haraway theorizes about this blurring of lines by introducing cyborg-theory in her essay “A Cyborg Manifesto.” She theorizes that we are all cyborgs, a blending of the technical and the organic and that these lines are constantly becoming less clear. Throughout time “the relation between organism and machine has been a border war” [Cyborg Manifesto, pg 292]. Haraway envisions the cyborg as the end of all gender and the inevitable end of the path we are on. She writes, “the boundary between physical and non-physical is very imprecise for us” [Cyborg Manifest, pg 294]. It this blurring of lines, this breakdown between once disjoint worlds of the digital and physical that has so thoroughly affected our notions of a digital identity. We can no longer be separated from our digital selves and because of that, people become uncomfortable when their digital self does not ‘match’ their physical self. Some interesting work is being done to explore the connections between gender dysphoria and role playing games. Members of the trans-community can use these games as a chance to create an avatar that matches how they see themselves.
This difference is, minority groups in gaming have had to adjust to this disconnect since they began gaming. If a woman only played games in which she could play as a woman, the list of games would be short. Similarly, if a person of color only played games in which they were represented by the avatar, even fewer games could be played. The white male gamer has grown accustomed to seeing his likeness in every game he plays and Rust disrupts the notions that a (human) character must represent the player. The female avatars in Rust are completely the same as far as game-mechanics are concerned so we must consider gender and gender-identity as a driving force behind this outrage.
Scott reminds us that gender is a category for power, and this particularly holds true in the technology sector. Women are seen as the ‘other’ and are therefore inferior. I am inclined to believe that were a man to feel misrepresented in Rust in a way that he perceived to make him appear better or stronger, there would have been very little backlash. In, “Doing gender in cyberspace: The performance of gender by female World of Warcraft players” Lina Eklund explores the choices of women in a highly gendered world. One of the gamers Eklund interviewed said
“I probably chose it so that in some way I could identify with it, to bring out the evil girl, since I am one [a girl]. Actually, I don’t think I could have got into the role in the same way if I had chosen a male Rogue . . . For example, when you choose sex you had to make a decision, whether you were going to identify with the character and go in for the part or just playfully bound around and not take it as seriously” [Doing Gender in Cyberspace, pg 329].
When given the chance, many of these women chose an avatar that they felt represented their physical self, even though many of these characters are not human. I want to draw particular attention to the sentence: “When you choose sex you had to make a decision, whether you were going to identify with the character and go in for the part or just playfully bound around.” This is a defining sentiment of what differentiates games like Rust from the likes of Ms. Pac-man and the Zelda games.
In games where the point is to take it ‘seriously’ and you are surrounded by ‘real gamers’ the avatar becomes an extension of who you are. The game is no longer a way to pass the time, or a form of entertainment; it is an extension of your life from the physical realm into the digital. A key point about the Rust change that hasn’t been mentioned to this point is what characters were before the gender-assigning update. The interesting fact of this outrage is: the player has never had a choice of avatar. At original release, every player was assigned a nondescript white man differentiated only by penis-size. Oddly, there was no outrage at this, no one demanding a change, yet, presumably there were a number of players who were not properly represented by this avatar and played anyway. The difference is, these users not represented by the white-man have become accustomed to non-representation.
Through the bland and unimaginative creation of ‘othered’ characters like Ms. Pac-man we continue to encourage the idea that the default gamer is a man (specifically a white man). This leads to a self-perpetuating cycle of underrepresentation of females in games and gaming. Goyal writes, “Gender role socialization may negatively impact females’ interest in and expectations for success with computers. Broadening gender roles may enable women to more easily become more active participants in the computer industry” [Women in Computing, pg 41]. We have socialized, through characters like Ms. Pac-man, women to believe their role in games and gaming is to support their male counterparts and that they are defined only in relationship to males. Similarly, we are socializing men to expect representation in games and to react poorly when they don’t feel that same representation in another place.
The creation of strong, independent female characters in addition to or in replacement of male characters will encourage women to play ‘serious’ video games will normalize for white men that they do not, in every game they play, need to be represented by their on screen avatar. It is the continued creation of detrimental characters like Ms. Pac-man that discourages women from entering gaming and consequently gives white men a platform and the power to disagree so vehemently with any move that prevents them from feeling represented.
Expanding the scope, these issues affect gender interactions in daily life. White men expect to see their physical selves represented in video games, they also expect to see their physical and political selves represented by those in power. The creation of characters like Ms. Pac-man focuses femininity and womanhood on the addition of bows and jewels, not adding a backstory or different character traits (besides throwing tantrums). These video games are helping to teach our children that femaleness, and subsequently womanhood, is an external trait. It means looking pretty and “properly” feminine and not much else. These bland “put a bow on it” characters are enforcing gender relations detrimental to everyone.
The Ms. Male Character trope—beginning with classic games like Ms. Pac-man—leads to boring and unimaginative female characters while simultaneously telling any female gamers they are not the norm and that their personhood is defined by their female signifiers, their external appearance, and their relationships with their male counterparts. Since Ms. Pac-man was created, this trope has become the norm and affects most games made today. Since this practice is so widely accepted, it must be vigorously and regularly discussed for any change to occur. It has created a gaming culture in which, white male gamers are outraged when they feel unrepresented. Rust is daring to challenge these norms and it is the responsibility of other game makers to follow suit. It is human nature to gravitate towards people similar to oneself; by changing the way gender is portrayed in the video games we play, we can affect the way gender is expressed in the physical world, and our comfort level in interacting and thinking about its significance.