I never cared much about Pac-Man. I enjoyed playing it as a kid, but I hadn't thought much about what went into making it. This changed when I read Frank Cifaldi's article "A Real Ladies' Pac-Man" in 1up's feature magazine 1up Presents. Here Mr. Cifaldi explains—likely based on creator Toru Iwatani's talk at GDC2011, which is definitely worth a look, despite the somewhat overburdened synchronic translator in the first half (be sure to start the video from the beginning after switching the audio, or the synching might get all messed up)—the five steps that made Pac-Man the first video game with an explicitly female target audience:
The truth, though, is that every minuscule detail that went into the making of the original Pac-Man was laser-focused on just one thing: attracting women.
The initial concept, so goes the story, originated from the observation that women loved food, and thus Pac-Man was designed as a game all about eating stuff:
In 1979, trying to tap into the female mind and come up with an irresistible concept for his next game, Iwatani spent a lot of time listening to women to find out what they were interested in.
Page from 1up presents
Mostly they talked about romance and fashion, he says-neither of which were particularly compelling gameplay concepts-but a eureka moment came when he heard two ladies talking about eating desserts. Girls, he thought, love eating.
"Cool," I thought, "I didn't know that." And went on with my life, keeping in my subconscious the new-found truth about the forebear of Barbie Horse Adventures and Cooking Mama. Then I bought a discarded library copy of a really old video game history book called Video Invaders by Steve Bloom, and my world view was shattered all over again.
Video Invaders Illustration, by Howard Cruse
Written in 1982, when Pac-Man was still hot in arcades, Bloom of course didn't have direct access to the wisdom of a Japanese game designer locked away in Namco's basement (as was the common practice back then, according to my vivid imagination), so he talks to Hideyuki Nakajima (whose name he transcribes as Nokajima) and some guy called Yoko Yama. Nakajima led Namco's US operations at that time, later he should become owner of the Atari Games Corporation and found Tengen. I've got nothing on Yoko Yama other than the book cites him as a representative of Data East, Yokoyama might be his actual surname, maybe Bloom got it wrong or he was calling himself Yoko Yama in America.
At any rate, Bloom got quite a different story from Nakajima. The book agrees with the modern day Iwatani/Cifaldi duo insofar as Pac-Man has been wildly popular with women and brought big changes to the arcade clientele in the US, so much that in in result:
Though it clearly was not intended that way (as we will see), Pac-Man is even now hailed by some as the first "women's" video game.
But what is that? "Clearly not intended that way?" Well, while it's easy to conclude "original developer voice > overseas managing guy voice," let's consider for a moment the amount of time that lies between both accounts: Almost 30 years. It turns out Iwatani has been telling the story for a long time, though, mention of it first appears in the 1988 book TV Games: Denshi Yuugi Taizen. As forum user Kobushi cited it: "He talks about how the whole concept of Pac-Man was based around eating, and how he wanted to make a game that even women could enjoy, with a kawaii character design and name." Nakamura might not have known about Iwatani's motives, but why explicitly stating the opposite, when it's already established that the game works that way, and works extraordinarily well;
When Ms. Pac-Man, possibly the first example of blatant sexism in a video game, is already out to cash in on the trend (although without the involvement or even awareness of Iwatani)?
Iwatani, on the other hand, could have had a reason to tell the story differently than he would have immediately after making the game. I'd never accuse him of lying, but memory is fully capable to form this kind of "invented" narrative in your mind over the years. If you tell a guy for years that he made a game for women, he'll probably conclude that he did. While that is still very shaky ground to seriously doubt Iwatani's statements, what really fueled my suspicions was the way his motivations for creating a ladies' game are described:
Japanese game centers in 1979 were dank, smelly denns of vice just for adolescent boys, a place only the bravest girls dared enter.
"Invader House" in 1979
Designer Toru Iwatani, a man not interested in video games so much as designing things that make people smile, wanted to brighten up the atmosphere inside the arcades. He wanted to turn the man caves into a place where not only might a guy bring his girlfriend on a date but, Heaven forbid, said girlfriend might even come back to on her own.
Whereas Video Invaders tells us:
Pac-Man wasn't designed for women. Over in Japan, where the game was invented, women had always played all the games - from space battles to car chases - as fanatically and skillfully as the men. By 1980, the question of Japan's games community was not how to attract women, but how to rekindle flagging player interest in general.
Namco's Hideyuki Nokajima describes Pac-Man's genesis. "People were fed up with space games. So we started to dream up games that would make them laugh. For instance, in Japan, puck is the sound you make when you eat something good - like munch.
So, while there's no doubt that a game developer will know his design concept better than anyone else—at least at the time of creation—this rises the question of who'd have a better picture about the situation in 1970s Japanese arcades? Two Japanese guys in 1982 or a Japanese guy in 2011? At any rate, photos of Japanese Game Rooms at the time, betray a much brighter atmosphere than Iwatani would have you believe.
But Kobushi holds even more treats ready for us that put question marks to even more parts of the Pac-Man creation myth, like the Pizza-inspired design of the protagonist:
Iwatani with his sketchbook, photo by Control
But if you really want to start getting into conspiracy theory, you can read about Tomy's Packman piggy bank, first released in 1974, a full five years before Pac-Man was created (BTW Packman the piggy bank is spelled exactly the same way as Pac-Man the game in Japanese.) Packman was a pretty popular product in the 70s, enough to merit a comeback production run in 2005. Although there were a variety of colors and face designs, some of them look really similar to our game hero.
Also, in 1976 Tomy released a tabletop game (a physical game, not a video game) also called Packman. It was later released in America under the name "Mr. Mouth."
Iwatani has showed around his original design document for Pac-Man on a many occasions these past few years. Does it contain any references to the supposed orientation towards a female audience? It's impossible to tell from the available photos. Now how do we get him to publish hi-res scans of the whole thing?