Return of Pac Man

The munching blob that captured the spirit of an era.

It's 1982. Next to a letter suggesting that Tron, the arcade game, should be read as a "Jungian myth", the journalist Bill Freda quietly announces a new epoch: "In days gone by, the national pastime was baseball. Today, it is Pac-Man." Freda's column appeared in the 30 August issue of InfoWorld ("the news weekly for microcomputer users"), when the Namco corporation's Pac-Man franchise was just two years old. Pac-mania was in full swing.

In April that year, the Goldman Sachs analyst Richard Simon predicted that Atari would sell nine million units of the game by Christmas. Its advent in May 1980 had ushered in what aficionados now call the golden age of arcade gaming, till then only intimated by the Space Invaders craze of the late 1970s. American teens were soon spending over 20 billion quarters a year on video games, translating to approximately 75,000 hours of continuous play. In Japan, the sudden popularity of arcade parlours reportedly caused a national shortage of ¥100 coins.

Freda's declaration of Pac-mania's "epidemic proportions" was no exaggeration. Months after its release, game centres became more common than convenience stores in many American towns. According to Eddie Adlum of RePlay magazine: "Even a few funeral parlours had video games in the basements. I believe churches and synagogues were about the only types of locations to escape."

Pac-Man's profits, meanwhile, quickly surpassed the earnings of 20th-Century Fox's Star Wars, which was the highest-grossing film to date. The video-game format had found its first bona fide pop icon. Stanley Jarocki, then vice-president of the US software distributor Midway, said in an interview with Time magazine: "I think we have the Mickey Mouse of the 1980s."

Thirty years on, it seems curious that a concept so simple could have inspired such devotion and excitement. A two-dimensional, yellow blob moves along a grid, eating nondescript dots or fruit while evading ghosts. And that's it. There's no narrative and no resolution -- not even an end sequence to reward you for your time. Those who try to complete each stage of the game are met with a "kill screen": an unplayable, glitch-ridden half-grid that betrays the limitations of a simple circuit board.

The programmers, it seems, never expected players to reach level 256 -- or that anyone would even want to. Yet six gamers, so far, have reached the fabled finish line. As recently as 2009, David Race "clocked" each stage in an unprecedented three hours, 41 minutes and 22 seconds.

Controversy once raged over whether the kill screen could somehow be negotiated to gain access to further levels, but even after a $100,000 bounty for proof that a 257th level existed was issued by the Florida-based hot sauce manufacturer Billy Mitchell -- himself a record-holder for achieving the first perfect game of Pac-Man -- no gamer came forward. "I have reached the 256th screen hundreds of times and cannot get through," said Mitchell in 1999.

On 5 December 1982, however, an opportunistic Ronald Reagan attempted to ride the craze and sent a presidential letter of congratulation to Jeffrey Yee, who had reported a new record of 6,131,940 points. Other players were sceptical: Yee's score would only have been possible if he had somehow beaten the kill screen.

In late May this year, Google celebrated the 30th anniversary of Pac-Man's Japanese release by hosting a basic version of the game on its home page. The retro tribute proved so popular that the search engine giant has since decided to make it permanently available -- which may be bad news for businesses. According to the software analysts Rescue Time, internet surfers around the world wasted almost five million work hours playing the embedded game during the course of one day.

Pac-Man is, on the other hand, the purest product of the hyper-capitalist, 1980s mindset: a fantasy of the consumer who does nothing but eat and acquire ("rampant consumption", says the games writer Siva Vaidhyanathan).

No wonder Reagan's interest was piqued. With the Tories back in No 10, and a sequel to Wall Street on the way, perhaps no other game will better sum up the spirit of the coming decade.

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge