Why arcade Pac-Man players literally grabbed onto the game

By Kyle Orland

Actress Eva Longoria shows off the standard "left side" cabinet grip in a 2007 photo.
Enlarge / Actress Eva Longoria shows off the standard "left side" cabinet grip in a 2007 photo.

Did you ever notice that the left-side panel of classic, unrestored Pac-Man arcade cabinets tend to have a distinct wear pattern on their outer finish? Arcade researcher and historian Cat DeSpira did, and she's written a wonderfully detailed examination of the distinct and largely unremarked-upon arcade playing stance that led to this relatively consistent pattern.

Picture yourself in a really intense Pac-Man session on an original standing cabinet. If you're like a large majority of the population, your right hand is wrapped around the game's single control: a joystick centered in the front of the machine. But where do you put your left hand when there are no buttons or secondary controls to occupy it?

Maybe you rest that hand on your side, or place it gently alongside the cabinet's control panel. But as DeSpira notes, it's more likely that:

As you’re playing, you’re jamming that joystick left and right, up and down, movements that shifts your right shoulder forward and back, rocking your body side to side. When the going gets tough, and the ghosts start closing in, all of this rocking motion compels you to lean into the game and, whether you realize you’re doing it or not, you’re going to grab onto the game.

You actually need to get a grip... on something. You’re either going to lean hard against your left palm as it rests on the control panel which isn’t comfortable for very long or, like most people, you’re going to grab the side of the game and hold on tight.  You have to or you’ll lose your balance. You can’t take the sharp corners smoothly and quickly without doing this, either. You need the extra stabilization to move Pac-Man around the corners accurately.

DeSpira backs up this playstyle observation with dozens of archival photos, from the '80s heights of "Pac mania" and beyond, showing players gripping the side of the cabinet as they play. There are a few shots of Pac-Man cabinets with distinctly worn sides from thousands of players using that same stance, too.

Consciously or unconsciously, it seems arcade Pac-Man players tend to make use of their physical environment to aid their gameplay. It's a phenomenon that seems obvious once it's pointed out, but it's largely invisible even to players that may have done it habitually for decades. It's also a phenomenon that seems relatively unique to the Pac-Man series and a few other classic games that only featured a single joystick and no button controls (like Q-Bert).

These are the kinds of authentic historical details that players might miss playing games like Pac-Man via a modern port, a PC-based emulator, or even on a MAME cabinet with a non-standard joystick location. And, DeSpira notes, it's also the kind of historical detail that gets lost when arcade cabinet collectors "restore" old cabinets by repainting them or pasting stickers over the original side panel art.

As she puts it, "Because it’s been a fad for years to make your old arcade games look brand new, people are ashamed of games that retain their original finish and patina. The apology should be the other way around... Why anyone would want to destroy something that reflects a cultural phenomen[on] in gaming boggles my mind."