Jeff Pickles's quest for Pac-Man perfection
The end was near. Jeff Pickles had been standing in front of the weathered Pac-Man machine for more than three hours, guiding the yellow puck through the same maze over and over and over again, gobbling up every dot, power pellet and piece of fruit in his way. He was sweating, shifting his weight from foot to foot; his hand kept cramping. There were only two possible ends to this pixelated dance: Either Pickles would steal every point and become one of the few to boast a perfect score on the game — or Pac-Man would die trying, collapse in on himself and disappear.
"This is such a great game; this doesn't happen very often," the 33-year-old Pickles reminded himself. "If you mess this up now, there's no telling the next time you'll get this far again."
The right half of the screen was an impenetrable mess of text and pixels: The game's makers had never intended Pickles to get this far when they introduced Pac-Man to Japan nearly 34 years ago. Running blind in the 8-bit morass, Pickles needed to hunt down every possible dot to reach what had been determined to be a perfect score of 3,333,360 points. Missing even one would mean failure. The ghosts were closing in, the pressure was on.
And he was late for a Christmas party.
It was at this point that Pickles's wife of seven years, Marika Lorraine, walked into the 1up in LoDo. In the precious seconds between levels, Pickles had texted her that he was working on a long game — but she didn't know how long it might be. She'd seen her husband get four hours of game play out of a single quarter. "There are a lot more expensive hobbies out there," she notes. But she also knew that her pellet-chomping hubby could whiff it at any time. "Any moment, there was the chance that he would explode," she says.
The minute she laid eyes on Pickles at his machine in the back of the bar, though, she knew it was over. He'd just taken his hands off the cabinet and raised a solitary fist in the air.
"He didn't say anything; it was just quiet," Lorraine remembers. "And I look at him and say, 'Did you do it, was that it?' He turned and he looked at me and said, 'Yeah!' I gave him the biggest high-five."
"As I'm searching for the last dot is when she shows up," Pickles says. "It was perfect."
On December 13, 2013, Jeff Pickles became the eighth man in recorded history to achieve a perfect score on the original Pac-Man arcade game. In the process, he joined the odd club of competitive video-gamers, a category that includes everyone from Starcraft players with thousands of screaming fans to the guy trying to beat the record score on Sinistar.
He's not the first person to prove his Pac-Man mettle, or the fastest. But Jeff Pickles's Pac-Man victory was unique — and, in a way, an accomplishment he's been working toward his whole life.
Jeff Pickles was born just between the time that the Japanese version of Pac-Man was released, in May 1980, and the date that Midway brought the game to the States, in October of that year. The late Toru Iwatani, creator of Pac-Man, had said that he designed the bright colors and cartoon characters of Pac-Man to appeal to people who didn't normally play the war and sports games that then dominated the fledgling arcade market. He succeeded.
From the moment the Pac-Man cabinet was released in America, the game became a smash hit across all walks of life. "It's one of the most popular games of all time, next to Space Invaders," says Jourdan Adler, owner of the 1up arcade bars. Along with the Rubik's Cube and yuppies, it was a cultural phenomenon, with breathless media reports painting a picture of a country stricken by yellow fever. It wasn't long before the little guy grew legs and got his own Saturday-morning cartoon — along with playing cards, lunchboxes, breakfast cereal and anything else he could be stamped on.
In 1981, the New York Times went in search of an explanation of Pac-Man's popularity: "As one player, a snack bar manager who averages seven to eight hours of video game play a week, explains it, 'It is so simple, but it has no relation to reality. It's different from space games, tank games and war games. The motivation is eating. This creature moves and eats dots.'"
The abstraction of Pac-Man was, and remains, a huge part of its appeal. Each dot must be collected in order to advance. Round power pellets enable Pac-Man to turn the tables and eat his ghostly pursuers. Fruit and keys provide bonus points. It didn't take long for dedicated players to see the patterns in the seemingly random paths of the ghosts and the layout of the maze. And while the arcade fad of the '80s soon faded, Pac-Man never really went away.
"I played it in arcades as a kid, maybe when I was like four, five, six," Pickles recalls. "But after the Nintendo Entertainment System came out, I was like, 'Screw this, I'm going to play this instead, and I don't have to leave the house.'"
One day decades later, while they were tossing back beers at the 1up, a friend bet Pickles $20 that he couldn't beat his high score on the bar's Pac-Man machine. Pickles took the bet and crashed — hard. "He beat the crap out of me that day. That was the first time I had played it since I was a kid," Pickles recalls. But a spark had streaked across his mind.
After Pickles lost his bar bet, he went back to Pac-Man again and again, nudging his score higher each time. Watching online videos of perfect runs and the moves of a fellow Pac-Man player, Pickles quickly caught on to the prevailing Pac-Man ideology. "Wait a minute! He's grouping his ghosts," he remembers thinking. "He's making them so they fit in the width of a ghost and a half, going for the pellet, and eating them all in half a second."
And there were more puzzles to solve. "All the ghosts have their own personalities," Pickles says. "Red always seeks you out. Pink always goes four spots in front of you." Inky, the blue ghost, tracks Pac-Man's position to get himself in front of his mouth. When the orange ghost, named Otoboke — "stupid" in Japanese — gets within eight squares of the player, he runs away.
Although YouTube videos, online dossiers and forums can show a player the path to a perfect game, getting to 3,333,360 points requires more than rote memorization. One player has estimated that a perfect run requires making 29,000 perfect corners.
Hot-sauce kingpin and arcade legend Billy Mitchell was one of the first to discover the secrets of Pac-Man, back when a perfect game seemed an almost impossible dream. "Everything is perfect timing," Mitchell told Oxford American magazine years after he was recognized by Guinness World Records for his perfect game in 1999. "When you don't execute, it alters your routine and puts you in a dangerous situation. You can't mess up once. Just sit there and try to touch your knee 29,000 times and you're going to miss eventually."
With practice and coaching from fellow arcade disciples and Pac-Man perfectionists, it didn't take long for Pickles to pick up on the patterns of the game, the agonizing tango between man and ghost. "'New goal: I gotta be the baddest Pac-Man player in Denver,'" he remembers vowing. "Which at that time felt like such an accomplishment."
And also the culmination of a lifetime obsessed with patterns and systems.
Even as he made up his mind to chase the Pac-Man record, Jeff Pickles's life was growing more complicated in other ways. His struggle to communicate and connect to people was intensifying, damaging his marriage. In a series of thoughtful writings posted to his blog, Pickles described himself as "an emotional brick wall."
As he assessed his current problems and past history, Pickles wondered whether he might be autistic, and perhaps even suffer from Asperger's syndrome. Asperger's now falls under the collective title of Autism Spectrum Disorder, which is a developmental disorder that manifests itself in myriad neurological symptoms, from repetitive behaviors and serious self-injury to the struggles with communication that Pickles had regularly confronted. "I've always known something was different about me, and I've never understood why people don't think so analytically," Pickles says now.
He'd grown up an only child in St. Louis, born to parents who had difficulty conceiving. He was the "miracle baby who they expected to be perfect," Pickles says, yet differences and difficulties set him apart at an early age. "I had some speech issues in preschool that, through the ASD lens, probably would have raised some red flags," he explains. "I started seeing a psychologist around age twelve for depression, but at that point it was still well before Asperger's was in the clinical lexicon, and autism was still stigmatized to include only the worst and/or most stereotypical cases. So there was no reason to suspect anything." Still, from early on, he'd seen patterns in everyday life, especially in the maps he'd carry around. When he was six years old, the Pickles family took a car trip to Florida. He sat for hours, looking at the map of the state in his hands, then piped up. "I just say, matter-of-factly, 'We're lost,'" he recalls. His father initially blew him off. "He's like, 'Okay, fine, we'll stop at this gas station to get directions.' And sure enough..."
Lorraine met her future husband when they were both students at the University of Missouri, and she quickly realized that he saw things differently than other people. "Some of the things he's really good at, he just sees — it's intuition for him," she says. "He'll get upset because other people don't see it the way he does."
By the time he was in his early thirties, seeing things so differently was creating major difficulties. Finally last summer, Lorraine suggested that they go into counseling and try getting a professional diagnosis of Pickles's condition. The focus on his issues made the first session a rough one. But by the end of the day, Mike Foster, a clinician who specializes in families dealing with autism, felt comfortable saying that Pickles was on the autism spectrum — and that he had Asperger's syndrome.
As a clinician, Foster couldn't give a professional diagnosis — "semi-pro," Pickles calls it. But that day was still a turning point in Pickles's life, as he was finally able to put a name to what had made him feel different from other people. "My entire life, if there was a problem, I just assumed it was me. Everyone else was normal, right?" he says. "It took until very recently to realize that I didn't think like everybody else. I assumed everybody's mind worked the same way."
So did just about everyone, until Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger began researching a class of children who exhibited some unusual behaviors. "A lack of empathy, little ability to form friendships, one-sided conversations, intense absorption in a special interest, and clumsy movements," he wrote in 1944. British psychiatrist Lorna Wing brought Asperger's research to the English-speaking psychiatry community in 1981 and named the condition he'd identified after Asperger, but Asperger's syndrome wasn't officially classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the last word on psychiatry, until 1994. By then, autism was a commonly accepted condition, and Asperger's and other, less severe forms of autism were put under the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
There was a lot of room under that umbrella. As Temple Grandin, the autistic Colorado State University professor and author, writes in her book The Autistic Brain, "[Asperger's syndrome] quickly gained a reputation as 'high-functioning autism,' and by the time the revision of the DSM-IV appeared in 2000, diagnosticians were using Pervasive Developmental Disorder and Autism Spectrum Disorder interchangeably. At one end of the spectrum, you might find the severely disabled. At the other end, you might encounter an Einstein or Steve Jobs."
After decades of research, the American Psychiatric Association now sees Asperger's and other related disorders on a single continuum. "People with ASD tend to have communication deficits, such as responding inappropriately in conversations, misreading nonverbal interactions, or having difficulty building friendships appropriate to their age," the APA wrote in a 2013 fact sheet on ASD. "In addition, people with ASD may be overly dependent on routines, highly sensitive to changes in their environment, or intensely focused on inappropriate items."
Recent estimates put the rate of people with ASD at around six cases for every 1,000 people around the world, but diagnoses have been increasing as more information about the disorder is uncovered. Influential people have been diagnosed with autism, and as they go public, Americans learn more about the disorder. Grandin, for example, took her feelings of confusion and anxiety and put them to work revolutionizing livestock-handling processes. And then there are TV characters like The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon and Community's Abed, people whose obsessions and quirks mark them as likely Aspies.
Pickles considers himself a person with high-functioning Asperger's syndrome — though he hates the term "high-functioning," he says. "The best way to describe it is, there's no filter. Everything that is stimulus is coming in, and that gets exhausting after a while."
But when Pickles is installed at the 1up's Pac-Man cabinet, the pounding music, the lights, the conversations of fellow patrons all become white noise, and he's in the zone. And when the Kong-Off, the biggest event in gaming, came to the 1up LoDo last November, Pickles believed he had perfected his technique and was looking to earn his place in Pac-Man history. Jourdan Adler and Richie Knucklez, another arcade owner and star of the upcoming documentary The King of Arcades, put on the annual competition as a celebration of classic games, including Pac-Man.
But while Pickles had recognized his condition, he wasn't ready for the contest. "At the Kong-Off, it was nerves or something. It just fell apart," he remembers. "I did not have a good game at all."
Pac-stardom would have to wait, but as Pickles hobnobbed with arcade fanatics of all stripes, he recognized a sort of kinship with them. "The best way I could describe [the autism spectrum] is like the color spectrum. Red would be your normal. Violet would be severe Asperger's," he explains. "You look at that continuous scale — where does red end and orange begin? If red is normal and purple is severe, the reddish-orange would be like Asperger's." Scanning the crowd at the contest, he guessed that 25 percent of the competitors could be on the spectrum. "I think there were a lot of people there that could be between that red and yellow," he says.
Pittsburgh's Charles Ziese wasn't at the Kong-Off, but he understands how the autism spectrum could play into gaming. Diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome when he was ten years old, he took to video games as a refuge. Today the holder of a number of speed-run world records on home-console games like Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Crash Bandicoot, Ziese has found his gifts manifesting themselves in different ways from those of Pickles. "I do use patterns to figure out how you are supposed to get past challenges in games," Ziese says. But while he doesn't have the eye for enemy behaviors crucial to Pac-Man mastery, Ziese does feed off the patterns in boss fights and platforming obstacles.
"Gaming is a refuge in the sense that one can feel accepted through a common pastime, like football or watching movies," he says. "And it can remind me that life isn't all dark."
Competitive gaming has always attracted people who don't fit into the mainstream — from Billy Mitchell, the larger-than-life king of the sport, to Knucklez, who runs two arcades in New Jersey and fronts a punk band called Knuckle Sandwich. The Kong-Off owes its existence to the 2007 documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, which captured the struggle between Mitchell, the then-champion of Donkey Kong, and Steve Wiebe, an underdog practicing in his garage. "The documentary reached so many people and hit them on such a level," says Knucklez. "Billy's cockiness and arrogance in the movie made people feel like, 'Well, I can do that.' It made people want to challenge themselves as much as challenge the machine."
Though both Pac-Man and Donkey Kong have their followings, Pac-Man has failed to produce a superstar on the level of Wiebe or Mitchell. And then there's the finite nature of Pac-Man, where speed has replaced score as the measure of a star player. "It's getting to the point now, where instead of trying to get a perfect Pac-Man, they're trying to get the fastest," says Knucklez.
The appropriately named David Race of Texas is currently on top of the Pac-Man world, having achieved a perfect run in just over three and a half hours — and the proof is on YouTube. By comparison, Jeff Pickles's perfect game took just under four hours.
Knucklez and crew are in the process of developing a Pac-Off to be held in conjunction with the Kong-Off at the 1up LoDo, a celebration of everything yellow and hungry. Billy Mitchell "came to me with the concept of the Pac-Off, and said, 'What do you think?'" recalls Knucklez.
"What I foresee for what I call the Pac-Off is not going for a perfect score," he explains. "So what we're going to do is get an example of every Pac-Man machine that's out there, and have them play, say, an hour on each title and have them combine their scores."
The early success of Pac-Man led to a veritable menagerie of spin-offs and sequels, some instant classics, others damned to obscurity. In 1982, Midway released Ms. Pac-Man, gaming's first stab at gender equality, which eventually became the most successful arcade game of all time. Ms. Pac-Man's maze designs and ghost behaviors were an improvement on her husband's, but the game itself is prone to reset without warning, making it hazardous for high-score chasers. The couple's inevitable progeny, Baby Pac-Man, is a bizarre cross between a Pac-Man maze and a pinball game. And 1984's ugly, clumsy Jr. Pac-Man proved so controversial that it hastened the end of the partnership between American publisher Midway and Pac-Man creators Namco. The 1up has examples of all of them. "At the 1up downtown, we like to have the whole family together," Adler says.
If the Pac-Off is as big a success as the Kong-Off, the most popular arcade franchise of all time may finally have a real modern-day cult following.
After Billy Mitchell completed a grueling six-hour Pac-Man game and became the first person to get a perfect score, he famously declared, "I never have to play that damn game again."
Now that Jeff Pickles is a member of the 3,333,360 club, he's still not sure how far he wants to take his talents. His winning machine has a turbo chip installed, which means this Pac-Man's movements are faster than in the vanilla game. Pickles is only the third person to get a perfect score on Turbo Pac-Man, but the game is disdained by arcade purists who think it too easy, despite the breakneck pace. For his part, Pickles doesn't think he can slow down with the original. "It's just so boring by comparison!" he says, laughing.
A month to the day after he got a perfect game, Pickles snagged another one on the same machine, proving his victory was no fluke.
Since that first perfect game, life has gotten better for Pickles. Perhaps not coincidentally, he was one of the only people to get a perfect Pac-Man score in a live arcade setting — no pomp, circumstance or bouncers, just the possibility of the guy on the Galaga machine bumping an elbow and ruining his chances. Now that the pressure is off, he can focus and communicate more efficiently; putting a name to his condition has changed his thinking, and he can better deal with his "stimming," repetitive behaviors and tics like toe tapping and leg shaking. "It's kind of a blank check to be more of a dick," he says. "I think I'm getting better at explaining myself."
And he had to do some explaining to his wife after his every-Friday visits to the 1up became a point of contention. "I used to get jealous of Pac-Man," says Lorraine. "He gets off work early and I make my own hours, so we could spend that time together. For a while I was really feeling like, 'Why is this stupid game more important than me?'
"But then he explained it to me one day when I went down there," she remembers. "For him, it's a lot like meditation. He can get in the zone, do the pattern and clear his mind. Once he explained that to me, I didn't have a problem with it at all. For me, it would be like going to yoga. Then it became kind of fun. 'Oh, he could get the perfect game. This could be something.'"
Something that actually helps his condition, even though there's no cure for autism. "It's just a different way of thinking, a different way of wiring the brain," says Pickles. But by dropping in his quarter and taking hold of the little red joystick, he can escape the constant stimuli of real life.
And ultimately, the double whammy of Asperger's and Pac-Man helped strengthened Pickles's relationship with his wife. "It created a way for us to be able to open a dialogue that was needed," Lorraine says. "The way I look at it is, we're learning each other's language."
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