1982: Women, Pac-Man, and the Arcade Revolution

Updated on March 3, 2019
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I hold a Masters in Public History, and specialize in telling the hidden stories of women and objects from ancient times to today.

Recently, I came across a 1982 article from Electronic Games magazine: “Women are the Arcade Revolution” by Joyce Worley. My initial reaction upon reading this was pretty negative. Despite being written by a woman, the article appeared almost sexist.

But any good historian knows that one piece of evidence is never the full story. So who was this Joyce Worley? And why was there a revolution in 1982?

Joyce Worley Katz, Pioneer

(L-R) Bill Kunkel, Arnie Katz, Chris Kohler, Joyce Worley Katz, and Al Riccitelli at the Classic Gaming Expo 2002 in Las Vegas. Photo by Chris Kohler.
(L-R) Bill Kunkel, Arnie Katz, Chris Kohler, Joyce Worley Katz, and Al Riccitelli at the Classic Gaming Expo 2002 in Las Vegas. Photo by Chris Kohler. | Source

Joyce Worley Katz was a gaming journalism pioneer who passed away in 2016. Born in Missouri in 1939, Joyce began her career as a science fiction enthusiast. She eventually earned the nickname “High Priestess of Fandom” at File 770 and served as co-chair of the 1969 Worldcon. She published numerous fanzines, helped organize a variety of fan groups and conventions, and founded the Ozark Science Fiction Association. (You can read a collection of her fan fiction here.

In 1981, she founded Electronic Games magazine with her husband Arnie Katz and friend Bill Kunkel. Joyce served as its senior editor from 1981 to 1985. The journal opened up a new frontier of entertainment journalism, which many modern critics credit as their inspiration. She served as a senior editor at other gaming publications during the 1990s, before retiring from the field.

Now, I understood who Joyce was in the context of industry and video game history. I was better prepared to analyze her article, taking into account that this pioneer of video game journalism likely lived through some pretty heavy sexism herself.

Arcades in the 1980s

“Women have officially arrived in the world of electronic gaming. They’re not just there for decoration, either. These females can zap a centipede or blast an asteroid as well—and sometimes even better—than any man.”

Right on, sister.

Joyce’s article claims that the original arcades were “shabby, even down-right dirty establishments situated on the backstreets of town.” Now, I wasn’t even alive in 1982. But as a historian, I have to take her comment to heart. The only reference I have is from watching The Last Starfighter, which features teenager Alex Rogan playing Starfighter outside of a small-town grocery store.

1982 was the Golden Age of arcade video games, as the number of video-game arcades in North America reached a peak of 13,000. Most of these were in supermarkets, restaurants, liquor stores, and gas stations. While these were very public venues, safety might have been a question. As recounted by Peter Hartlaub, he was robbed by young teens while playing a Dig Dug machine on Fisherman’s Wharf in 1982. By 1986, he was playing at an arcade in a mall, which he describes:

“Like most arcades of the time, it was a musty womb-like chamber, with a small entrance that spilled into a huge cavern of light and sound and worn industrial-grade carpeting. […] The arcade had a good vibe, which meant there wasn’t a lot of supervision (I don’t remember seeing a single employee) but the regulars self-policed pretty well.”

1980s photograph of an arcade.
1980s photograph of an arcade. | Source

Would such a place have kept girls away? Maybe. But I did find evidence in a Quora thread that girls were at the arcades. As Julie Wherry recounted of her early 1980s childhood in Alabama,

“I could make 2 quarters entertain me for hours. Back then, when you played Double Dragon and Street Fighter every weekend, you found ‘cheats’ by serendipity and observation, not by Google. And the moves to defeat Abobo and Akuma became muscle memory…”

Other comments mention arcades as being scary, dark rooms that attracted bullies or as part of summer holidays at the British seaside, played alongside fairground rides. It seems that atmosphere may have been a factor in some places, and men more often write memories of arcades than women. So we have to go with another clue – Joyce’s use of the word “officially.” This acknowledges that women were already part of the arcade scene, but not on a widespread or well-known level.

By now, I was concerned less with the somewhat sexist language and more with what the world of 1982 looked like for female gamers. Joyce’s article cited an Electronic Games study that revealed the median age for female players was 26, with most gamers spending 2 to 5 hours per week playing coin-op and home arcade games. What’s interesting is that today, the median age for a player is 35and the average time spent playing per week is 6.3 hours. So, in the past 34 years, video games have statistically remained the realm of working adults.

Joyce’s article also mentions various gaming tournaments with female winners. This included Jody Abramson, who was “among the winners” of an electronic skiing competition in 1981, and Ok-Soo Han, a Korean immigrant who beat Julie Winecoff in the women’s division for Centipede. (For more on Ok-Soo Han, check out All In For a Quarter’s blog post about the Atari/TGI Centipede competition.)

Girl in an arcade, 1980s.
Girl in an arcade, 1980s. | Source

The Real Revolution: Recognition

So women were present in the early 1980s gaming world. But why would there be a revolution? What occurred that had Joyce writing about female inclusion?

The answers were in the last part of Joyce’s article, where she stated that Pac-Man’s success was largely due to female gamers. Because of women, Pac-Man was able to set record earnings in 1981 – and a follow-up game, Ms. Pac-Man, was planned as a way for Midway to pay its “debt to lady arcaders.”

And other sources confirm Joyce’s assertions. In an article on Geek.com published last January, the creator of Pac-Man (Toru Iwatani) stated that he wanted to reimagine the shoot-em-up style arcade games into something more cute and female-friendly. Instead of shooting up baddies, players would eat little monsters. The game appealed to a universal need (food) while curbing the violence of success with cute monsters and a little round face.

But the article also references a study that was in Joyce’s article, where women surveyed by Electronic Games stated their next two favorite games: Bezerk and Space Invaders, the very games that Iwatani thought were keeping women out of arcades.

Let’s face it. Girls like to shoot as much as boys do. So, maybe Pac-Man got more women into arcades because the reframing of violence as “cute” gave them permission to publicly love video games.

Within two years of Pac-Man’s release, Namco sold 400,000 cabinets worldwide and grossed an estimated $2.5 billion in quarters. Following on the success, American developer Midway developed Ms. Pac-Man – the first female protagonist in video game history. The sequel was a huge hit, and remains the most successful American-produced arcade game in history.

“It may come as little surprise, then, that Ms. Pac-Man today is viewed as the historical catalyst in attracting women to a traditionally male-dominated hobby.” – The History Bandits

Yet, as The History Bandits go on to explain, Ms. Pac-Man wasn’t the catalyst. The original game – Pac-Man – should get the credit. Pac-Man’s protagonist isn’t male or female. In fact, Iwatani himself has stated that the character was asexual, allowing it to appeal to gamers of all genders: “rather than defining the image of Pac-Man for the player, I wanted to leave that to each player’s imagination.” This made Pac-Man the first video game character onto which players could superimpose their identity. Until the release of Ms. Pac-Man, there was no recognition of Pac-Man as being male or female – it took the sequel to force us into assuming Pac-Man was male.

30 Years Later…and We’re Still Having This Discussion

As much as I cringed reading the article for the first time, I now view it as a gateway into much wider discussions. Joyce’s assertion of a revolution – in terms that women were entering video games for the first time – isn’t necessarily true. But what does come through in her article is a shift – albeit one still framed in male-centric language and perhaps with underlying tones of irony.

1982 was a turning point in terms of recognition. For the first time, female gamers were acknowledged in the gaming magazine, marking public entry to a male-dominated world through a game that was intentionally gender-neutral. Pac-Man had been an invitation to everyone. It called out to the world, saying, “Here – come see for yourself. Gaming is awesome.”

Pac-Man demonstrated that all kinds of people, including but not limited to women, wanted to play games. It was proof that female gamers existed en masse, and that games that allow for superimposing our own identities onto the protagonist would be hugely successful. Pac-Manbecame the catalyst for a revolution in which the male-dominated games industry would acknowledge that they weren’t the only players in the room.

It’s interesting to note that only a decade later, the gaming world had turned into a boys’ only club once again. The video game crash of the mid-1980s had resulted in a new industry – one more male-centric than its predecessor, with increasingly public refusal to acknowledge female gamers. And Joyce knew it. She expressed worry over the shift from “games for everyone” to a hyper-violent boys’ club. She wanted a future in which “online gaming would make women ‘feel less threatened by on-lookers who might tease or criticize their performance in a game.’”

She wanted the world of 1982 to come back, with all its promises for a more inclusive game room.

I wonder what Joyce would think of the industry today, and whether she’d advocate for another game like Pac-Man: one intentionally gender-neutral in order to embrace gamers of all shapes and sizes.

© 2018 Tiffany R Isselhardt


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