HIS INNOCENCE WAS lost cleanly and quickly in a college hangout in the South. It was a slow Saturday and the place was empty. Students were away at the Kentucky Derby. A platoon of electronic video game machines stood idle along the walls. Their lights blipped aimlessly, invitingly.
He put a quarter in a slot. A computer calliope played joyous music in 12/8 time. A smiling little yellow face popped up on the screen. He took the joystick, guided the little yellow face through a maze. Whucka-whucka, glomp-glomp, said the machine. Colored monsters darted from a cage. An orange ogre menaced. A red monster ate him. Whucka-whucka, said the machine.
He put in a second quarter and a third. Whucka-whucka, glomp-glomp. The little yellow man zipped up and down the maze. Monsters ate him each time. Glomp-glomp. He poured more quarters into the slot.
The idea was to avoid the monsters and run up the score. There was no knowing it then, but he had taken the first steps toward bondage. He had become a slave to the Pac-Man.
The pain began in the right elbow and it worried him. He was, after all, a man of middling age, and discomfort of this kind was not unexpected. But this was a new and different hurt.
Arthritis, he thought. Bursitis, his friends said. See a doctor, they advised. It was important -- his typing elbow, his tennis elbow, his jump-shooting elbow. But he feared a doctor's probing and he ignored his friends.
Then the light of dawn appeared.
A woman who dabbled told him, "That is what happens. You get these pains and your hands get sore. You'll get a callus on your finger from the joy-stick. My arm has hurt so bad I couldn't sleep nights. Had to sleep with it stretched out on a pillow. . . ."
A bit later, an editor handed him a wire service article. Doctors were finding similar elbow and shoulder maladies among video game devotees. It was an ailment of the times. Another, more reassuring story landed on his desk. It said the military was using video games to improve recruits' eye-hand coordination.
That was soothing (it showed a social purpose), but by now the pain had moved to his shoulder. His sleep was interrupted. He would toss restlessly, trying to ease the pulsations. There was no shaking it. It was the price of his addiction. He had fallen alone; he would whip it alone, he told himself.
The mania did not make him proud. Adults played the game, but it seemed a child's diversion. So he played, but he didn't tell his friends. Something else he didn't talk about: He resented kids who easily outscored him; even resented their presence in the video arcades.
He was drawn by the lights and the sound. He liked the noises, whucka-whucka, glomp- glomp, the calliope. He especially liked the bonus fruits that popped onto the screen as a score increased: cherries, berries, peaches, apples, grapes. He laughed aloud when he got his first apple. Hot-lick players could get bells, thunderbirds and keys. He once watched a boy, maybe 12, line the bottom of the screen with keys. He was incredulous and he began disliking the kid.
He became furtive. He arranged cash purchases to assure he got quarters in change. He put $5 bills in the subway ticket machines, knowing an avalanche of quarters would come back. He would step out to the drugstore for a soda (even when the refrigerator was full of them) and drop a quarter into the Pac-Man.
Always, he had quarters. His pockets bulged and coins clinked when he walked. Lunch hours, he tramped 14th Street, Upper Connecticut, F Street, wherever, looking for an idle Pac-Man machine. He came to know the location of every downtown Pac-Man.
Not all of this was in vain. His score improved as he became more adroit with the joystick. But he pondered the mania, juggled it, rationalized it, cursed himself. Finally he decided it was the challenge that gratified. He wrote a good news article, he got little feedback. He bettered his score, he was pleased. Nods of approval from other players had meaning.
He drew another analogy. A new personal high score (they came slowly) rushed the adrenalin. He became an aging Jim Palmer throwing a two-hitter; a creaking Elvin Hayes going up for one more slam-dunk. He was a player! He was the human spirit putting technology to rout.
Now he was pushing 30,000 consistently and he felt good about it. At the dentist's he read a magazine story about a celebrity Pac-Man tournament. The winner had 59,000 points and he got his own machine as first prize. Good Lord, he thought, he was reaching tournament class. Then he read the rest of the story. It said the world record was in the millions. He was crushed.
He got a book that told how to win at Pac-Man. It laid out patterns that promised higher scores. He tried to memorize the patterns, intricate steps for outwitting the computer. The night he memorized his first pattern he dreamed about it.
The patterns worked and his scores increased. But the book warned that technicians would add computer chips to alter patterns and outwit players. He began to sense it was a plot to wrench more quarters from him. Another story said that Americans were putting $5 billion a year into video machines. His theory made more sense.
He lost all grip the day they put two Pac- Man machines in the company cafeteria. Employes he'd never before seen queued up at the machines. He made friends with some of them. Collegial nods of approval became important.
He arranged odd lunch hours to avoid the queue, but so did others. He wondered when they did their work. He came in early (only for coffee, of course), and he played the machine. Others did, too, and he wondered how they explained late arrivals at their desks (missed the bus? babysitter ill?).
It had become a mass mania. There was no point in even naming the company. It would only hurt solid people. Glomp-glomp. He wanted to stop talking about it. Glomp. . .