In one of his books Neil Strauss says something about male psychology. You can take literally any task in the world, give it grades, rankings, and scores, and men will become obsessed with it. What’s the point of martial arts? To learn how to defend yourself? Probably. Most of the guys at your local McDojo are there to attain a higher belt level.
Donkey Kong is an arcade game released in 1981. It runs on a 3MHz CPU, a 224×256 resolution, and the game mostly involves dodging barrels thrown by a gorilla. But because there’s a world record at stake, grown men play it obsessively.
This documentary covers the war to set the top score in Donkey Kong. For many years, the highest score was held by a hot sauce entrepreneur called Billy Mitchell. Then, in 2007, an unemployed schlub called Steve Wiebe set a new record, causing a scandal in the community.
I mistrust King of Kong as a documentary. Its events seems too perfect, too movie-like, too different to real life. But it’s interesting. Lots of battling egos. I liked the way it captures the exhaustion of extended gaming marathons, with the players’ brains grinding themselves to mush. It’s not barrels or fireballs that kill the players at this level, it’s their own fatiguing mental circuits.
Wheels spin within wheels. How do you verify a high score in a videogame? Is a videotape enough, or do you need to perform it live at a “meet”? Is it possible that Steve Wiebe is playing on a “fixed” board that makes it easier to score? Is he being shafted by Twin Galaxies, the organisation that verifies videogame scores?
This movie could cause a psychoanalyst to start climbing the walls. Billy Mitchell in particular seems to have missed his true calling as a cult leader. He’s creepy, charismatic. He doesn’t speak, he asserts. Steve Wiebe seems much more down to earth, but his obsession with the game is only slightly less odd. There’s other memorable characters, like Walter Day, the incongruous head of Twin Galaxies, and Brian Kuh, a weird yes-man in Billy Mitchell’s corner. He doesn’t seem like a guy who has ever spoken to a girl, although he might not be a virgin if you take my meaning.
Probably the most bizarre person in this movie is Roy Schilt, “Captain Awesome”, who talks about his world record in Missile Command like it’s the Pulitzer Prize, and wonders why he hasn’t appeared on any TV shows yet.
And it does seem like a peculiarly male obsession. What’s one of the most popular games among women? The Sims, which has no goals, no scores, no competition. You win when you decide you’ve won. But men seem to need an element of contest in their games. Put them in suburban homes, put them in suits, give them haircuts (a poor one, in Billy’s case), and it doesn’t matter. Only the dead have seen the end of war.