"Get all the dots," the young boy said. "Get them, and you'll beat it. I've beaten it."

That is the usual kind of banter that surfaces when I latch on to the venerable video game, Ms. Pac-Man, after a day of ice skating. A crowd of small fry comes to see how well an old man can do at the kid's game. I don't get no respect.

"You can't beat it," I responded. "It just goes faster and faster and eventually, you die; sort of like life. You do as well as you can. But it always gets you, no matter how good you are." The message was lost on the youngster intently looking at my maneuverings with the joystick, sometimes giving approval; sometimes not.

Why does a technology game born in 1981 still have appeal for all ages? After all, the original Pac-Man isn't still around in such numbers.

In both games, the player (a yellow face in profile) tries to eat all the dots before being killed by four named ghosts (Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde). Pac-Man had a pattern, a complicated one, but one that teenagers with enough quarters could learn. And if they could execute consistently, they racked up incredible scores. Ms. Pac-Man, however, is more varied. There are patterns, but they change. A Wikipedia article describes it this way: "The ghosts have pseudo-random movement, which precludes the use of patterns to beat each board."

But the child's question notes the biggest challenge: how to play. Do you try to eat all the dots as quickly as you can? In that case, you survive, but get few points.

If you quickly go for the power pills--one in each of the four corners that enable you to "eat" four pursuing ghosts--the scores multiply for each ghost eaten, 200, 400, 800, 1,600 points. That's 3,000 if you hit them all in succession after using one power pill. But go for the pills too quickly and the monsters come back to life and you're doomed because you can't clear the board of all the dots.

No, the most successful strategy is to eat at least one fourth of the dots for each power pilll. Learn how to draw the ghosts so they fall into your lap when they are a nice "edible" blue," and before they revert to their original collars and become inedible. Clear the board, get the most points possible, but above all, manage the game to move to the next level. Sometimes, that means settling for fewer points when the patterns don't hold.

This is what planning in business, in daily life, anywhere, is all about. It's about learning how to balance out different approaches to doing things in order to maximize results. There are patterns, but they aren't inflexible. It's about allocating resources. It's about the ability to formulate plans, and knowing when the best result isn't achievable.

The arcade game is still about reflexes and responses, the purview of the young. But it is also about deduction and strategy, something that comes with age. Usually, the kids tire of watching: They figure old people can't play and when it turns out they can, they quickly lose interest.

As I like to say, old folks can do pretty well in a modern age, if only sometimes.

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