Last year I bought one of those joysticks loaded with several arcade games you plug directly into your TV set with.  It had Pac-man, Dig Dug, Rally-X, Bosconian, and Galaxian.  All of those are classics from the video game craze of the eighties.  I played them quite a lot, and have many memories both good and bad from that time when Pac-man led the breakthrough of video games into my consciousness (and likely the mainstream as well).

I was no stranger to Pong, or Combat (a tank game), and I’ve already written about Sea Wolf.  Pinball games were part of my growing up as well.  My folks and I would frequent bars and grills all over the place, and I would inevitably end up playing something for a quarter or two just to get brief thrill of fun.  I even remember a shark attack game I played, which shows up briefly in the movie Jaws.  Good times, crazy experiences.

The joystick I bought stinks, more or less.  It’s too sensitive and too long for the games, and the games themselves are turned up to what I think are difficult levels from what I remember.  I’m annoyed because it interferes with the authentic experience of what the games were like.  Still, playing Pac-man on my TV in the comfort of my own home brings me back to that fateful day me and my dad went to the local bowling alley with seven bucks and played Pac-man like crazy.

But what got me thinking was an article in Boing Boing about the mega-high score gamers who still meet and compete.  I think those dedicated enthusiasts are on to something when they talk about the meditative exploration and systematized analysis of the games.  There’s both mysticism and science at work within the innards of the video game.

On the surface, the video games are pure survival.  But the high scorers take it beyond that and have discovered that beyond certain boundaries (of which not all have been reached in all video games) the game becomes an abyss of the unknown.  The creators of the video games themselves marvel at the doors they have opened, and the players who plunge the depths to bring back insights.

For example, there’s a limit to how far you can go on Pac-man.  After a certain score the game croaks.  The last “bonus fruit” Pac-man gets to eat is a key.  A key to what?  Playing long enough to croak the game causes you to enter a meditative state of non-being.  Is there a formula, a move you can make at a certain point where the game will do the unexpected, something even the creators could never have guessed?

In a sense, video games are just wastes of time, or an activity to be frowned upon.  Youngsters should be doing things more productive (that is, getting them ready for their future roles as workers and consumers).  But I don’t buy that aspect totally.  I find that playing a video game is a lot like reciting meditative mantras.  You are performing a ritual that causes you to enter a trance of non-being.  Might playing video games also be a form of high culture?

I can feel when I’m struggling with a game.  I’ve had a bad day, or some problem is eating my thoughts.  I feel possessed by an effect that pounced on me recently.  As I play, I get the feeling that I am “working a complex out”, untying a psychological knot as it were.  I never noticed this before, but now I think that article confirms for me something I’ve felt for a long time but never said it aloud.

Video games are civilizing influences and a sign of general improvement in humanity.

Yes, even the violent, heavily sexualized games with despicable content.  They are instruments for making you hyperaware of your own capacity for aggression.  To the degree that the game play is fun (and that means well-designed), you become more at peace with yourself.  When you play with and against others, you are relating with fellow human beings along the lines of a social object that you share.

When people get together they start to form systems that work.  Sometimes systems fall apart, but other people take those lessons and try a different approach.  At its heart, a video game is an experience inside a working class, every day establishment where people can get together and have a reason to interact.  That is where culture, and civilization are born.

There are centers of power that will try and control this.  They’ll dumb down the games, turn them into instruments of consent-manufacture, and try to emphasize the “degenerate” elements so hot button topics can be pushed (“save our children from this violent communist menace”).  I don’t think that will work.  Fun and socializing are the fronts of the new 21st century struggle for freedom.  What doesn’t feed those needs will be adapted to and cast aside for what is fun, and social.  A crummy game that causes atomization of people won’t survive, not without cost to its masters.

And the cost of business keeps going up.  Someday the price for hegemony over survival will be greater than the wallets of that quality and then natural selection pays a visit.

But meanwhile, I’m looking at Pac-man and I’m emphasizing with the ghosts.  They are working together, in their individual ways, to stop a rampaging lone intruder from eating all the resources up.  Pac-man is all about “the high score”, or how much points he can rack up before the ghosts succeed.  You can outmaneuver them long enough to get to the “limit” of reality.  But the cost is always another quarter in the end.

In Pac-man, there is a phenomenon called “the intermission”.  When you complete a certain number of screens you are treated to a brief video display of Pac-man and the ghosts in some humorous vignette.  In one, a ghost gets his (or her) ghost outfit caught on a nail and a piece “rips” off, showing what looks like a foot.

“The only winning move is not to play.”  That’s a quote from the movie Wargames.  Perhaps Pac-man isn’t a “man” at all, but an unconscious eating force that threatens the reason of the ghosts and their ordered, cooperative structure.  The ghosts wear “veils” to keep us from seeing the truth – they are the “humans”, civilizing the instincts and in some cases mental illnesses of Pac-man, who represents the person playing the game.

Is there any more apt metaphor for enlightenment?  You must play the game of selfish eating until you “die” enough times to the idea that the world revolves around you.  Only then can you take the lesson learned from the sacred programming text of unconscious unity and live your life as a human being.

Take off your shroud, and look yourself in the mirror.  You had a psychic fever, driving you wild.  You played a video game until you were all right again.  Welcome back to humanity.