As an undergraduate at Appalachian State University, I learned to play video games—or at least one video game--with my friends Robert Huffman and Tim Lesch. After more than a few pocketfuls of quarters, I became a fairly good Ms. Pacman player, the type of guy who played long enough to annoy you if you were waiting to put a quarter in yourself. While I was not one of those players who wanted to move on to other games (indeed, I was disappointed when Robert and Tim moved on to Donkey Kong and other games), I understood what it was like to become slightly obsessed with a game and to have it slightly alter the way I saw the world.
As evidence: one evening, after a full day of Ms. Pacman, I went to see a play—The Prime of Ms. Jean Brodie, it was—performed by ASU’s Theatre. In the first act, I watched one of the characters exit stage left. My immediate impulse? I looked to stage right to watch her reenter, just the way Ms. Pacman would have done had I been controlling her with a joystick. After the third or fourth time this happened, I remember thinking, “I’m obsessed. I need to lay off Ms. Pacman.” The next day, I loved telling that story to whoever was around watching me play another game.
When I went to see the new documentary, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, I expected that it would primarily be about obsession, and about grown men obsessing about something we think of as the domain of teenagers. While obsession is indeed one part of this story (e.g., some of the players are described by their family members as being obsessive-compulsive, and a daughter of one of the players observes that some people ruin their lives chasing after video game world records), the film is so much more than what one would expect from the subject matter.
If you haven’t already read about the film, the main storyline follows Steve Wiebe, a science teacher from Seattle and a family man who began his pursuit of the all-time Donkey Kong world record while he was laid off from Boeing, and Billy Mitchell, restauranteur, Floridian and the current record holder. On paper, the story is about Steve’s attendance at video game championships in pursuit of the record and a show down with Mithcell.
If that the total subject matter of the film, I wouldn’t recommend it as strongly as I am here. Instead, this is a moving film about numerous topics. First, in Steve Wiebe, we have an all-around good guy who has never reached the top of the heap in any venture. Always second place, always “coming up a little short,” as even his familty tells us. At first, I didn’t want to like the guy—he seems too sheepish, too insecure for my taste. By the end of the film, though, I challenge you to have harsh feelings toward Wiebe.
Second, in Billy Mitchell, a video game champion since he was 17 in the late 1970s, we have an interesting, arrogant mystery man. At first, his flash and self-assuredness is intriguing and fun: you want him to remain champion. By the end of the film, however, it becomes more and more difficult to like him. As he becomes more and more dodgy and seems trapped by his own stances, you find your emotions turning against him in ways that you might not expect.
Third, you learn a great deal about the inner workings of the classic gaming world, and it’s shockingly interesting. Take Twin Galaxies, the world arbitrator of classic video gaming, and its TM-practicing president, for example. Twin Galaxies and the entire gaming community take the rules of their sport deadly serious. Indeed, a story on their webpage about Wiebe will tell you a little something about how seriously they take world records. If the record is not set at a public and sanctioned event, for example, Twin Galaxies dissects the video tape of the victory and takes apart the machine itself to make sure that it has not been tampered with. (More, a “referee” is assigned to count every point scored to make sure that the machine counted them accurately). Being told that the Twin Galaxies staff receives no salary for their work makes the labor even more fascinating.
Fourth, a large portion of the film deals with the thirty year relationships many of these gamers have shared. As a result, as Wiebe attempts to enter this community as an adult, he discovers a long web of mistrust, interpersonal plots, and horror stories. While the viewer may wonder what is at stake in these battles at first, the film answers those questions. As with any other activity, this is about pride, about making some mark in history, about seeing dedication (any dedication) pay off through recognition. If you forget that these guys are battling over video game records, the human element of the story will move you.
Finally, it’s simply a more stylish film than I expected. Director Seth Gordon, who was a cinematographer on the Dixie Chicks’ Shut Up and Sing, not only keeps the story moving at both a logical and a fast pace (remember, we’re watching guys playing video games), but he lets you understand the hand-eye skill such gaming takes through a fascinating segment in which images of Wiebe playing drums are intercut with his game playing and images of him diagramming game sequences. That one particular scene could have gone on for 30 minutes, and I would have been pleased.
Whether or not you’ve ever played video games, whether or not you’ve ever had a dream of finding yourself in the pages of the Guiness Book of World Records, this is worth your time. My recommendation: click over to Netflix now, and put it in your queue.