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Mastering the mazes of Pac-Man helped guide me through a traumatic childhood – and as an adult, gaming healed the wounds left behind

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Scott C. Jones is the host of the Heavily Pixelated podcast, which you can find on iTunes or on his website,

I’m 49 years old. I am, without a doubt, a middle-aged man now. Curious as this may sound to some of you, I still play video games almost every day. Playing games isn’t a hobby; it’s part of my life’s work.

I was introduced to video games when I was seven years old. Games were bright, colourful, fun. But what I liked most was the fact that I could control what was happening on a TV screen. TV was the place where important things happened – where Neil Armstrong walked on the moon; where Muhammad Ali KO’ed Sonny Liston; where president Reagan was shot outside of a Hilton in Washington. If I could control a pixelated tank, a space ship or a pellet-eating Pac-Man on the TV screen, then I had a tremendous amount of agency, too.

This realization never left me. In fact, over the years, it only seemed truer and more important. Now, decades later, I have a career that is centred on video games. My closest friends are gamers. I’ve written for magazines, newspapers and websites about games and technology. Games have fed me, clothed me and put a roof over my head.

I have heard the detractors, the “experts” who point a disparaging finger at games, blaming them for violence, calling them “murder simulators.” Would that it were so easy to isolate the cause of acts of crime and cruelty. Humans have a knack for making their inventions serve them in whatever way suits them best. For a seven-year-old, a video game can function as a necessary escape hatch, a lesson in the strategy of survival.

I know that video games exist in many different permutations. Some are more graphically violent than others. Regardless, my heart has an allegiance to them all. Parents now rail against Fortnite, just as earlier generations railed against Mortal Kombat, Duke Nukem and Doom. I know video games will probably never stop being maligned, chased into metaphorical old windmills by metaphorical villagers bearing metaphorical torches. This pains me deeply.

It pains me because video games saved my life.

Listen: "I'm really cookin' now, eating everything in sight / All my money's gone, so I'll be back tomorow night," proclaims the 1981 hit novelty song Pac-Man Fever by Buckner & Garcia.

I grew up in upstate New York in the 1980s, about three hours away from the Canadian border. My three absurdist obsessions were magic, space travel and Pac-Man. The summer of 1981, a Pac-Man machine had arrived in the back corner of our local gas station. Arcade machines were still oddities, then. It was as tall as an adult, with a TV embedded inside, arranged at an irresistible 45-degree angle. On the front of the banana-yellow box, just below the TV, was an apparatus called a “joystick.”

That year, Pac-Man Fever – a wretched piece of music that I unquestionably loved – was perpetually on the radio. The song’s message was simple: Insert 25 cents into the nearest Pac-Man machine and bliss was imminent.

My family was working class. In winter months, my mother’s metal crochet hooks clacked constantly in the evenings as she produced a steady stream of homemade blankets, which she sold in town for extra money. Spare quarters were rare as hen’s teeth for us. To make matters worse, we lived in a rural part of the state, in the deep woods, miles from the filling station that housed the Pac-Man machine.

Unable to actually play Pac-Man, I did the only thing I could do: I checked a book out of the library that had the game’s maze laid out like a treasure map, and I studied it.

The book was called Mastering Pac-Man (authored by Ken Uston). Each diagram in Mr. Uston’s book revealed a secret through-line that was the foolproof path for getting through the maze safely. I studied the maze maps obsessively, making copious notes in the margins – two lefts, then a right, another left, then eat the power pellet. I took my Pac-Man studies seriously.

My dream was simply this: that one day, I’d find a quarter. I’d drop that quarter into a Pac-Man machine. And, in this fictional moment, I would experience a perfect moment of glory. I imagined myself standing at the machine, deftly working that joystick. Strangers would gather. Hey, everybody! one of the strangers would exclaim. There’s a kid over here playing Pac-Man! And he’s really giving it to those ghosts! Go, kid, go! You’re incredible! I felt cleansed, imagining this. Cleansed of the sticky gloom that hung over my head. I had a lot of nightmares back then – nightmares filled with a pair of wooden eyes, always looking down, a kitchen chair with a missing leg. And other things, too.

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Years earlier, there had been a house in the woods behind our house, set back about 100 yards off the road. It was submerged beneath an undulating, blue-green sea of stunted pine and was perpetually half-finished for some unknown reason, still wrapped in tar paper. It looked like a sinister Christmas present. To reach their tar-paper house, the owners had to drive a lengthy dirt driveway that ran adjacent to ours. The driveway was lousy with stones. We could hear the people who lived in the half-finished homestead coming and going – rocks in the pitted driveway clattering like bowling balls under the tires of their lurching pickup.

A family lived there, inside the tar-paper wrappings: a skinny man, his plump wife and their two infant daughters, no bigger than a pair of thumbs. The man was a few years younger than my father. He’d served in Vietnam. Photos of the man, wearing formal military dress, decorated the interior walls. My father, in private, described the man as “squirrelly.” His description seemed accurate to me: the man was jumpy and nervous, like a squirrel.

Some evenings, at dusk, we could hear the squirrelly man firing his rifle into the pine trees behind us. My parents looked at one another across the dinner table. What could the skinny man possibly be shooting at, they wondered. Then my father grinned. “Maybe he thinks Charlie’s still out there, skirting the perimeter,” he said.

When you’re 45 minutes away from the nearest outpost of civilization, you tend to lean on people more than you normally would – even if they’re squirrelly, even if they fire guns at dusk for no apparent reason. My mother became godmother to one of the family’s thumb-sized daughters, in part because of sheer proximity. You trust people more than you should sometimes. You trust because there is no one else around.

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One brisk afternoon in September, when I was 7 or 8, the squirrelly man took me on a walk in the woods. I was flattered to be invited. Here was an adult who was paying attention to me; an adult who was being kind to me; who was asking me real questions about my life: “What do you like about magic?” (I like it when people are amazed by the things I can do.) “Do you think you’ll ever actually go to space?” (I’m pretty sure I will. I’d like to find a rock on the moon and bring it home with me.)

I was so preoccupied with answering the man’s questions that I didn’t realize we had come upon an abandoned mobile home. The squirrelly man acted as if we had discovered it together – as if we were a pair of seasoned explorers on a great adventure, and our luck had taken a turn for the better. He pulled a polka-dotted handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his face. The home was in bad shape; the walls and roof had caved in. The structure resembled a wrecked ship. It was obvious that something terrible had happened. “Gosh!” the squirrelly man said. “Will you look at this place? I wonder what’s inside …”

I was curious, too. “Can we take a look?” I asked.

He began to pry open the door. The jamb was badly warped. It was metal on metal, all the way. The howl was unnerving, like a banshee’s scream.

Then the howl abruptly stopped. The mangled door was open now. A thick darkness hung inside. A waft of stale air blew from the doorway as if the ship-wrecked trailer was exhaling.

“After you, partner,” the squirrelly man said. I peered into the darkness. I hesitated for a moment. I looked back at him over my shoulder. “Well, go on,” he said. He grinned at me, as if I was being silly. “Don’t worry. I’m right here. I got you, buddy.”

That was it. I stepped forward into a darkness that I’m still trying to find my way out of more than 40 years later.

Watch: "More games, more fun," promises a 1977 commercial for the then-new Atari 2600 console.

The Atari 2600, despite its cheap woodgrain sticker, was a magical object to me. The word itself – ah-TAR-ee – sounded like a word that had come from another galaxy. I wanted an Atari 2600 more than I could remember wanting anything else. My parents, naturally, dismissed the Atari as an expensive piece of trash that would distract me from my schoolwork.

Then my uncle swooped in like a flatulent angel (he farted often), and impulsively purchased an Atari 2600 for himself, which he graciously agreed to loan to me every month or two. The mere thought that I could now play the mythical Pac-Man in my own living room? From my own couch? This was exciting news, to say the least. I would finally be able to practise the intricate moves that I was studying in the Mastering Pac-Man guidebook – left, right, another left, power pellet. I could rehearse for the perfect moment of glory – which, I felt, was becoming more of a reality all the time.

Then came one of the first great nerdy heartbreaks of my life: over the course of one agonizing afternoon, I discovered that the patterns in Mr. Uston’s Mastering Pac-Man did not work on the Atari 2600 version of the game. They didn’t work at all, despite my countless, futile attempts. Of course Mr. Uston’s patterns wouldn’t work; the book was written for the arcade version of Pac-Man. The Atari 2600 Pac-Man was a subpar approximation of the arcade version. It was ugly. It was crude. The 2600’s memory was so limited that all four of the ghosts could not appear onscreen at the same time. (Atari’s solution was to make the ghosts flicker.) I later learned that the 2600 version of Pac-Man was programmed in just four months by a single overworked Atari employee named Tod Frye.

The Atari 2600 version was not the real Pac-Man. No matter. I sat in front of the TV in our living room for hours, foolishly trying to get the mazes in Mr. Uston’s guidebook to bend to my will, to co-operate with me, to be what I wanted them to be. I kept obsessively searching for the “safe spots” in the maze that Mr. Uston’s book said existed; the mysterious places where Pac-Man himself became invisible to the patrolling ghosts. Because this is what I did when I was a kid, for better and for worse: I found silly things, like safe places in a pixelated maze, to believe in; and I had a very difficult time accepting that those silly things didn’t exist.

I still do this today.

A 1982 ad for the Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man, "the new video computer game everyone's talking about." Limited memory and a rushed production made the game a cruder approximation of the original.

There were pieces of abandoned furniture inside the mobile home. There were old toys, too: a brightly coloured telephone on wheels, featuring a pair of eyes that peered downward at the floor, as if the telephone couldn’t bear to watch. I studied these objects as the skinny man took things from me. My eyes clung to the objects – a kitchen chair with a missing leg, a rusted-out jack-in-the box – my life-preservers during a storm. I focused on those things as I waited for it to be over.

Once he was finished with me, the man became sullen and withdrawn. The easy banter that had been there on our walk into the woods? It was gone. Now, he was curt. He’d lost all interest in space travel. “You’d better get home,” he said. “It’s getting late.”

He hustled me through the woods, back to the edge of our property. He straightened up my clothes for me, tucking in my shirt absentmindedly. Then he grabbed my shoulder with one of his hands. The man was stronger than I expected him to be. He stuck one finger of his other hand into the centre of my chest. He looked me in the eyes and spoke slowly and carefully. “If you tell anyone about this, anyone at all,” he said, “I’ll know right away. I’ll know, and I will come find you.”

I understood that this was a threat, that the man obviously meant what he said. I couldn’t reconcile this grim, business-like moment – I will come find you – with the playful walk into the woods an hour earlier. None of it made sense to me. Having said what he needed to say, he turned and stalked off into the pine, heading back to his tar-paper-covered dwelling.

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I returned home with a secret that I hadn’t had when I’d walked out of the house an hour earlier. The secret made me feel bloated and oily. I felt as if I’d done something wrong, but I couldn’t say what it was exactly.

I went through the motions of being me. I felt as if I was watching myself from above. I sat at the dinner table with my family. We filled our plates and began eating, as we always did. That’s when we heard the gunshots again. Each shot sounded like a sudden inhale of breath, followed by a more leisurely exhale: ker-POW, ker-POW, ker-POW.

My father stopped chewing. “Sounds like old Charlie must be patrolling the perimeter again tonight,” he said.

My mother frowned at her plate. “I wish he wouldn’t shoot that gun so close to our property,” she said. “Will you talk to him about that, Bob?”

My father rolled his eyes. “We’re in the woods,” my father said. “People do what they like out here.”

The squirrelly man lured me into the woods again, back to the shipwrecked mobile home. He lured me with a barrage of questions. “Isn’t it too cold on the moon?” he asked. (I’ll bring an extra sweater, so I should be okay.) The skinny man guffawed when I said this. “You’re a really funny kid, you know that?” he said. “I like that about you. Your sense of humour.” When I heard the man’s laugh, I hoped that the rest of the walk wouldn’t take a turn, the way it had the last time. That things would turn out differently.

They didn’t turn out differently. Once the questions were over, after he stopped laughing, he took what he wanted from me again.

After a few months of this, the bloated, oily feeling became unbearable. The walks inevitably ended the same way. My hope that things would turn out differently was pointless.

So I decided that I didn’t want any part of this anymore; I didn’t want to feel it anymore.

I did what I presumed was the right thing to do: I told my mother what was happening to me. I told her everything, point-blank – told her about the shipwrecked mobile home, told her about the walks in the woods. I told her that the squirrelly man was taking things from me, things that I didn’t want to give him.

I didn’t know how else to describe it, really.

My mother was preoccupied with peeling an onion on a newspaper at the time. She was an imposing Polish woman. I’d seen her anger – felt her wrath – just once. After telling her a lie, I ran from her and hid myself underneath my bed. She picked up the bed with shocking ease. I had no idea she possessed such strength. She threw it against the wall as if it was a pile of popsicle sticks. She grabbed me by the ankle and hauled me off the floor, as if I was a rabbit she’d caught in her garden. I never forgot that show of strength, the experience of having her powerful hand clasped around my ankle.

As I explained everything to her, I braced myself for that wrath again. I looked forward to it, in fact. I wanted her to do to the man what she had done to me. I wanted her to snatch him up as if he was a rabbit she’d caught in her garden.

But there was no wrath. None whatsoever. She did not transform into the powerful creature I’d seen before. Instead, she peered at me with an indifferent look in her eyes. She shook her head from side to side, slowly. “I think you must be mistaken,” she said. She set the onion down on the newsprint. “Those people are our neighbours,” my mother said. “That man is a friend of the family. He was in the military. I know that man. He wouldn’t do something like that to you.”

I was dumbfounded. “But, Mom …” I said.

She said one more thing I’ve never forgotten. She said, “And one more piece of advice? Don’t be melodramatic all the time. It’s not flattering for a man to be so melodramatic.” She frowned at me in a theatrical way.

Then she picked up the onion off the newspaper. She resumed peeling.

My mother didn’t believe me. She did not believe me. She didn’t believe me, and so she would not help. She would not help. So I was alone.

I tripped over my own feet as I was leaving the kitchen. I stumbled, as if I didn’t remember how to walk. I went to my room and closed the door. I barricaded myself inside. Asking my mother for help was the only card I’d had to play. I had played it, and it hadn’t worked. And knowing that it didn’t work meant that I was unquestionably vulnerable now. I wished that I could go back and undo that previous 10 minutes. I wished I hadn’t told my mother. If I hadn’t, at least I could have held onto the illusion that she would help me.

I despaired long before I knew what the word “despair” even meant. I did not understand why my mother – my own mother – didn’t love me enough to stand up for me, to protect me when I needed her most.

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Decades later, the questions still dog me. Am I not worthy of her love? I sometimes think when I brush my teeth in the mornings. When I look in the mirror, I think, What is it about me that is so unlovable? That is not worth believing? Not worth protecting? Asking these questions has become an organic part of who I am. It’s a dead-end alleyway in my psyche, an alleyway that I’ve been involuntarily wandering down, over and over again, for decades, hoping to find the exit. Every day, I reach the same dead end. Every day, I turn back, retrace my steps and I walk it again.

I don’t know any other way to be anymore.

I wish that I knew another way to be.

On Saturday nights, my family went to the dilapidated church out by the lake. I knelt and prayed and took communion along with everybody else. I read my Bible, hoping for a self-righteous comfort of some kind. But the Bible baffled my eight-year-old brain.

Mastering Pac-Man was more useful to me. I was becoming, years later, a scholar of mazes. This is the way out, Mr. Uston’s book said. It taught me that there was, in fact, a safe path through the labyrinth; that there was an opaque logic beneath the pixels. All I had to do was put in the time to study; study and learn, and eventually I’d be okay again. Study and learn, and maybe, against all odds, I’d find my way out of this.

Watch: The intro to the 1982-83 Pac-Man animated series, produced by Hanna-Barbera. It introduced American viewers to spinoff characters with their own games, like Ms. Pac-Man and Jr. Pac-Man.

I went to great lengths to steer clear of the squirrelly man after I had failed to convince my mother that I was in trouble. I stayed indoors for an entire summer. If I had to go outside, had to, I stayed close to the house. I stayed close to the adults. When I hauled the garbage cans to the road on Thursday mornings (Thursday was garbage day), I wore my father’s overcoat and my father’s work boots. I made myself as imposing as I could. This illusion, I thought, would protect me.

I kept this up for months. Then, unexpectedly, the squirrelly man and his plump wife and his thumb-sized daughters packed up their belongings and moved away. New people eventually moved into the house. Unlike the squirrelly man, the new owners set to work finishing the house. In a few short months, the spectre of the tar paper house was gone. In its place stood a house with proper aluminum siding and framed windows and with a landscaped front lawn. I immediately wondered, quite seriously, if I’d imagined all of it – the walks in the woods, the conversations, the threats, the dismantled trailer. Maybe Mom had been right, I thought. Maybe I made a mistake …

I buried all of it down at the bottom of my unconscious, as far down as I possibly could. And that’s where it stayed for the next several decades. I only began to accept the fact of it in 2015, when, after decades of failed relationships, I realized I had met someone who I did not want to lose. Whatever work was needed for us to stay together, I had to do it.

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More than 40 years after the abuse, 40 years after I asked my mother for help, she apologized. We went for a walk near the campgrounds where she and my father live in the summer months now. My mother told me it was her “greatest regret,” not helping me.

I didn’t feel much of anything when she said this to me. These were the right words, of course; they were words I had always wanted to hear. But they were, in the end, just words.

I was hoping for some kind of long-awaited existential relief. I didn’t get that. At least not right away, I didn’t.

Then she told me two things that I didn’t expect to hear that day. The first thing was this: She told me that there was an article in the local paper recently that the squirrelly man had been arrested for molesting children.

This man, after all these years, was still molesting children. He was still hurting kids, the way he’d hurt me.

“I saw it one day when I was clipping coupons,” she said. “I clipped it out of the paper for you. I’d planned to mail it to you. I think it was my way of saying, ‘You were right, Scott. I was wrong.’ But then I threw it away.”

I seethed with anger as we walked along the lake. I asked her why she’d thrown the damn clipping away. Because I would have liked to see that clipping.

“We can’t hang onto things like this for our whole lives, Scott,” she said. “At some point, we have to move on. We have to leave these terrible things behind, and get on with things.”

Anger bubbled inside me like white-hot lava. We could have stopped this monster forty years ago, I thought. We could have stopped him from hurting others, the way that he hurt me. If only you’d listened to me, you fool, I thought. If only you’d believed me, Mom …

I felt violence inside me. Tasted violence in my mouth. I resisted the urge to shove my mother straight into the lake.

It was then that my mother told me the second thing that I hadn’t expected to hear that day. “I was molested, too,” she said. We stopped walking. She looked down at her feet and kept talking. “It happened when we lived on the farm,” she said. In the middle of the night, in the drafty farmhouse, while she slept in the room upstairs with her brothers, the hired hand came to the room. The hired hand was an old drunk. He sexually abused her. “It happened to me a lot,” my mother said. She was angry now – angry and sad, too. “It happened to me more than one time.”

When she said: “It happened to me more than one time,” part of me wondered if she thought that I was molested once, wondered if she was, yet again, diminishing what happened to me, the way she diminished it when I was a child. I had to work hard not to extrapolate the worst from that sentence. There’s part of me that consciously knows I have to keep moving forward, have to keep giving my mother the benefit of the doubt. If I don’t do that, if I give in to the worst possible interpretation, then I’ll never find my way back to her.

And I want to find my way back.

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In August, 2018, I went looking for the shipwrecked mobile home in upstate New York to see if it was still there, to see what’s left after all these years. I thought that maybe I’d feel something there, maybe find some answers, perhaps have a “breakthrough” or something like that. The trailer was, of course, gone. In the spot where the mobile home had been, there was now a fresh bloom of forest: a spray of verdant, waist-high ferns, a copse of blue-green Spruce saplings.

I stood under the shadow-filled surface of the dense pine sea again, down in the forest’s murky depths. It was an unseasonably cold weekday afternoon in August. I wanted to feel something; I waited for an emotional reckoning of some kind, for something of significance to rise from the depths. Nothing did. I didn’t feel much of anything that day.

Is this the place? I thought. Is this the dark heart of it all? I should be feeling something, shouldn’t I?

I waited for another minute or two.

Still nothing.

Then I headed out of the old woods, back to the car, back to the rest of my life.

Watch: A 5 1/2-hour playthrough of the arcade version of Pac-Man shows what happens when a player reaches the highest possible score, 3,333,360 points. The game doesn't technically have a final level, but it glitches and becomes unplayable once the level counter runs out of room.

I never realized why a tattered copy of Mastering Pac-Man sat on my desk all these years (forever wedged between The Elements of Style and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life). Never consciously knew it was there at all until I began writing this story.

Mr. Uston’s book is such an organic part of who I am that I accept it unconsciously, the same way my lungs accept air. This childish video game – a crude maze filled with colourful ghosts and dots that need to be eaten; this irreverent bit of pop culture – means much more to me than I realized. During an anxious stretch a few weeks back, I found a YouTube video called “Pac-Man - Perfect Game 3,333,360.” It’s a whopping 5 hours 27 minutes long. The video is a patient, perfect, beautiful dismantling of the game. It is incredibly soothing to watch. It absolutely thrills me when the player pauses in the mysterious spots on the board where Pac-Man appears to be vulnerable. He’s not vulnerable; he’s there, right in front of my eyes, even though the ghosts swoop menacingly around him. My heart lurches with pure joy each time the player in the video settles into one of these invisible safe spots.

Pac-Man can still soothe after all these years. Other games can, too. It was Pitfall, Super Mario Bros., Zelda, Half-Life, Portal and The Last of Us. It was Firewatch, it was Limbo, it was Bioshock. Games have provided me with lucid, technicoloured approximations of my life, again and again.

When I got sick in 2013 with a life-threatening illness (a heart infection called endocarditis), suffered a stroke because of it (or, a series of strokes, more accurately) and had open-heart surgery to correct it, of course, games were there. I’d overcome incredible odds to survive. After 10 weeks in rehab, the first thing I did when I returned home was to take on the hardest game that I could find. If late-stage endocarditis didn’t bloody well kill me, what chance did FromSoftware’s Bloodborne honestly have?

Games provide me with metaphoric outlets, symbolic opportunities that give me genuine relief in my time of need. Games have kept my head above water, far more than I realized. They have served as a pixelated balm on old, deep wounds. They have provided me with mazes, again and again, and given me opportunities to find my own way out of them.

For my birthday this year, my mother unexpectedly crocheted me an afghan. It was a shade of blue – cerulean, my favourite colour. I didn’t realize that she still crotcheted. I pulled the blanket out of the package in my apartment in Toronto. I telephoned her, thanking her, and joking that I was a grown man now, and that a blanket was not necessarily an appropriate gift for a man my age.

I thanked her again for her ridiculous gift. I hung up the phone, then tossed the afghan on the bed.

It’s warmer than I expected it to be. I don’t think a night has passed since that I haven’t slept underneath it.