Where will gaming go next?

By Carly Vaughn

In what has to be the best idea ever, Nashville has a new classic-gaming-themed bar/restaurant called Two Bits. It’s right on Demonbreun Hill and I had no idea it was there until this weekend. As a concept, it’s one I’ve seen before. There’s a bar called Penn Social in Washington DC with a similar kind of idea, but that one is mostly focused on board games or games like shuffleboard or cornhole.

Two Bits has some really great classic arcade games, most notably Donkey Kong Jr. which I failed at miserably. There’s also a Ms. Pacman and a Space Invaders machine, along with some newer games like Mortal Kombat II (which I was great at). All of these games are free to play, so I got to try my hand at Donkey Kong Jr. over and over without having to feed in any quarters. But the best part were the old gaming systems they had hooked up to TVs hung over the booths in the back. They had an old N64 with Super Smash Brothers and it was amazing to play with friends like I had when I was younger.

Not only was this a really fun place to hang out and eat fried pickles, I think it speaks to the fact that gaming, even arcade gaming, is not an exclusive culture anymore. It’s being coopted by everyone from t-shirt designers to bars, and I wonder if the widening of the barrier to entry is kind of scary to anyone really engrossed in gaming culture. If developments like this mean that anyone has access to a game like Donkey Kong Jr., does that make its mastery less impressive? If bars let anyone play games like Super Mario Bros on NES, does that cheapen their cultural value?

We were talking about how there are no really literary gaming novels out there yet last class. But I think that’s going to change soon. As gaming becomes more mainstream and accessible, someone will write that Great American Gaming Novel we’re all waiting for. Until then, head over to Two Bits and enjoy the fruits that are already being harvested from gaming’s increased popularity.

The Evolution of Video Games and the Diminishing Relevance of Failure

By Thomas Adams

In class, we began discussing failure in video games. The most common version of failure in video games in gameplay failure. Gameplay failure is when the player fails to complete a task that he/she must complete in order to progress in the game. This could be failing to solve a puzzle (e.g. Portal), dying to enemies (Halo), or even losing a match against an opponent (League of Legends).  I will breakdown the evolution of games over time and show how failure in video games became less harsh and more importantly, different.

Thinking back to early video games, we have to look at the arcade genre. Because of the video game infrastructure at the time, these games were meant to be played at an arcade, not in your home. As such, these games were meant to be played for a few (but possible several) minutes at a time to allow for others to have a chance to play as well. Thus, the games had to be developed in such a way that allowed for meaningful gameplay progression, but also had a “hard-capped” end. For example, Donkey Kong allowed players to play the game for as long as they could, while they still had enough lives left. Of course, the game increased in difficulty and most players could never really play too long.

As companies began developing in-house consoles, like the NES, the gameplay paradigm followed. Many games for the NES still had a very “hard-capped” ending. Super Mario Bros., for example, had a similar structure to Donkey Kong. The player could progress as far as he/she wanted until they ran out of lives or beat the game. Having played the game myself, it is very disheartening to see yourself progress really close to the end, and then lose your last life. That’s it. Game Over. Now restart from the beginning.

As technology grew in the 90s, games could become more sophisticated. Developers could begin creating non-linear story lines and program 3 dimensional worlds. Take the Nintendo 64 games for example. Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64 both became more forgiving when a player failed. Simply getting hit by an enemy didn’t mean death. Players began having health pools to take more than a few rounds of damage. Players also still had multiple lives. However, these two games in particular still had “Game Over” screens when a player completely died for the last time. (here is one for Banjo-Kazooie). As you can see, these game over screen are very disheartening and showing the player the results of their failures.

Fast forward another 10 years to the 2000s and even today. Technology has allowed us to put more content in games than ever thought imaginable. This new emphasis on content and story-driven games allows developers to be extremely forgiving with gameplay failure. This is mutually beneficial for both players and developers. The players get to continue their game without harsh penalty while also getting to access all the cool content that the developers spent millions of dollars on. It only makes sense, right? Why would a company spend that much resources on game content if the punishment for for gameplay failure was never getting to experience any of it? Nowadays, with huge thanks to advancement of technology, failure is almost irrelevant because of the willingness for developers to be forgiving and the perseverance of players in order to progress in those games.

Limitations of Genre in “King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters”

I read some critique of the King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters. Although the film grossed over $700,000 globally (not bad for small-budget documentaries) and achieved critical acclaim (Rolling Stone calling it “roaringly funny”) others had their concerns. After some poking around, most critique falls into one of two categories:

1. Subject matter: many critics disliked the movie because they found the topic of video games inaccessible. Ann Hornaday, a film critic for the Washington Post, opens her critique with the question “what is more tiresome than watching somebody play video games?” This type of critique has nothing to do with director Seth Gordon’s movie making ability or the strengths/weaknesses of storytelling, but dismisses the film for its subject matter alone. While I don’t think this is a very salient argument, Hornaday does have a point: King of Kong will most likely not attract non-gamers, regardless of the actual mechanics of the story or art of the film.

2. Unoriginal themes and “lack of depth:” Hornaday criticizes Gordon’s “all too familiar formula” and says that the film’s “structure … has become increasingly hackneyed with the glut of competition documentaries” (She cites Mad Hot Ballroom and Spellbound as probable inspiration for Gordon.) Other critics think the film relies on stock characters and overused themes which make the film one dimensional and unoriginal. Blogger Paul Dean agrees that the story is a simple “story about good pitted against evil.” However, Dean doesn’t think this is necessarily negative, but rather essential to writing a compelling story about video gamers, which most of the world is unfamiliar with.

These types of critiques struck me because they were extremely similar to the type of critique that Lord of the Rings (and the fantasy genre) typically receives: either people can’t connect with the subject matter, or they find the themes elementary. I had not thought of King of Kong as a “fantasy” because of its documentary quality, but now I’m not so sure. Examined under the same critique of fantasy, it appears that Gordon does prey on elements of fantasy storytelling to create his film: he sets up an unfamiliar world, describes the rules of that world, and forces the audience to connect with the characters despite their unique reality. King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters is not a fantasy film, but it invites the audience into a sort of virtual world. To do this successfully, the filmmakers used techniques of fantasy storytelling, and thus are met with similar criticisms. For me, this was an awesome exercise in the possibilities and limitations of genre (documentary, fantasy) and I’m curious to see how some of these critiques are either dodged or manifested in other mediums (film, written narrative, video games) as we move through the course.

-Emma Baker 


King of Kong – Can a Fistful of Quarters Buy Friends Too?

At the very beginning of the documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, the characters and the world of the movie come off as absurd. How can the lives of these grown men revolve around something as juvenile as arcade games? Isn’t that a bit pathetic? But after the film takes us further inside this social sphere of competitive gaming, we can see that their social circles and the people in them don’t operate that much differently than any other sects of society. Sure, their interest and focus might be far outside what mainstream adult society would deem “normal”; however, the players make up a community that–like any community–place a certain social value on their achievements, judging and accepting each other based on this value.

In the world of competitive gaming, we see that high scores operate as their central “social currency”, if you will. When the players gather, they are known for their best scores at each of their respective games. The most elite players are those with the world records of each game, and we can see in the movie how they tend to congregate and form a rather exclusive social circle.

Steve Wiebe, however, is an outsider trying to break his way in. We see this very clearly at the scene in the restaurant when Steve and one of his friends show up to dinner and are pretty openly excluded by the group of veteran world record holders. He is the challenger, trying to attain his own social value, or “currency”, by gaining the new high score in Donkey Kong. Billy Mitchell, the current record holder of the game, is portrayed throughout the movie as willing to do anything to keep his title. This title is his primary source of value. It’s what gives him a sense of fulfillment and belonging, as it is the foremost judgement of worth within this social sphere of competitive gaming.

So while the obsession of attaining a high score in such a juvenile game as Donkey Kong might seem absurd on the surface, we really have to consider the incredibly different social setting in which these players live and socialize. We must take into account the fact that these high scores are what give these players worth and value when they might not be able to attain that in any other aspects of their life. So while mainstream society chases more traditional symbols of achievement, such nice cars or houses, those in the world of competitive gaming chase high scores and world records. With King of Kong, we can see that on the most basic level, the rivalries between these players is really not that much different than, say, rivalries between athletes or between bankers on Wall Street.

– Logan W

It’s Called Sportsmanship Buddy

True competition is not found on the football field or basketball court. You won’t find it in the MLB, NFL, or NBA. Instead, real competition is found in the arcades, or at least that’s what King of Kong: A FistFul of Quarters leads me to believe.  In fact, I can say that out of all sports related movies I have seen, I have never seen more competitive people portrayed than the arcade game players in that movie. 

I have always been a competitive person and therefore try and stay as far away from it as possible. I don’t let myself get caught up in the winning vs. losing of it anymore. However, when I was little and would lose a soccer game I was the girl who refused to shake the other team’s hands. However, after doing so, I would be quickly reprimanded. When it comes to competitive team sports, the idea of sportsmanship is so important to the appearance of the team that seeming overly competitive is inappropriate.   This is why while watching King of Kong, I was so baffled by Billy Mitchell’s blatant rudeness. For example, the way he chooses not to acknowledge Steve Wiebe but instead simply makes offensive comments he knows Steve will over hear. I couldn’t see a how a public figure like himself could allow himself to be seen in such a way. There is a difference between what one may think in their head and the way they act in public. There is a difference between what their innate competitive nature urges them to do and what their reasonable side knows is appropriate.  When you have a video camera on you, it’s probably in your best interest to seem polite and respectful of others rather than egotistical and unscrupulous. Maybe that’s something learned through team sports. Maybe that’s something that can only be understood once you have had the idea of sportsmanship repeatedly drilled into you.  When you know you and your team are going to be judged based on your words and actions to other teams, you think twice about them. Billy Mitchell apparently was never taught that lesson while Steve Wiebe who played organized sports for years had. I guess every movie needs a protagonist and an antagonist and Billy Mitchell did a fabulous job of making himself the one to hate.

After watching King of Kong , I will never question video games as a completive sport again. Like they said at the beginning of the movie, people often think of gamers just sitting alone playing the game. To me, playing an arcade game was about competing against yourself and seeing how far you could get. Maybe that’s because I never stood a chance of actually succeeding and reaching a high score. Now, I understand video games players to be some of the most competitive people I have ever witnessed, and I will never question the competition again.


Little Torture Devices of Antiquity

Tyler Gilcrest

My experiences with arcade games are definitely not as extensive as those of other people.  I was no arcade rat.  Part of this is because there was no arcade like the amazing Funspot that I could spend my days at.  Part of this was the fact that arcade games had lost much of their grandeur by the time I rolled around on the gaming scene.  And part of this was my parents unwillingness to give me quarters that were only to be subsequently eaten by  “those machines”.  Nonetheless, I was able to play some arcade games.

Arcade games were and still are always fun initially.  Arcade games are simple and easy to sit down at and start playing.  They have lights and sound that entertain the gamer as they start playing.  The simplicity is fun for me because there’s practically no learning curve.  But that’s basically all they have.  But after a little while of playing, they definitely lose their appeal.  Now I may be someone who is easily frustrated, but after a while arcade games just genuinely anger me.  As the game gets progressively harder, it finds new and creative ways for me to die.  “That barrel appeared out of nowhere!” or “This game just hates me” are common utterances I might make (even though I know full well it’s just my lack of skill that caused my downfall).  Getting beat is never fun, especially when it’s a 8-bit polyphonic simpleton arcade game dealing out the punishment.  And the fact that all the time it’s eating my money just kills me.  I forget, in the heat of battle, that there is no possible way to beat this game.  All I can do is try in vain to get close to the ridiculously high scores set by some other loser who spent even more of his time, effort and money on this machine.  Eventually I’ll give up against the arcade beast.

 Maybe that’s why I like console games more.  Console games and arcade games start out at different levels of difficulty in the very beginning.  Console games usually start with more of a learning curve than arcade games.  A lot of the time, console games have controls and stories to which the player will have to orient themselves before playing.  Arcade games, in their simplicity, can just throw you at the bottom of Donkey Kong’s tower and say, “Don’t get hit by barrels or flames, go.”  I can handle the learning curve at the beginning of the game if I can beat the game later on.  Console games have an end.  They have a credits screen and a message of congratulations for your achievements.  Arcade games just kill you over and over and say, “Continue? :20” (waitng with an open mouth to eat your twenty-five cent piece).  Even Steve Wiebe gets to the “end” of Donkey Kong gets killed.  There’s no reward, no congratulations.  It just gets tired of letting him play and kills him.  Another thing about arcade games is the level of difficulty they reach.  If you graphed difficulty as a function of progress in the game, arcade games would be an exponential function whereas console games would probably only be a straight line (that might even plateau from time to time).  If console games were as hard as arcade games, no one would ever pay $60 retail for them.  That’s why the arcade only charges a quarter, because no one would ever subject themselves to such torture for any more than that at one time.  They make money because suckers feed them quarters in pursuit of the impossible.  Anymore, I see arcade games as fun little torture devices of antiquity.

Boredom or Entertainment

   By:  Matt Almeida

        In my mind there is no question, I would choose a console or online game over a arcade game any day. Throughout my life I have had experiences with both and I certainly enjoy console and online games more because they differ from arcade games in numerous ways. Console and online games are fun and entertaining for an extended period of time unlike arcade games. Arcade games are enjoyable at first but in my mind this is only temporary. I can sit down and play an arcade game but after a while it just gets boring. Arcade games are difficult and are designed, for the most part, for the player to lose. After all arcade games are most commonly found in arcades where people pay to play. The only way an arcade can survive and be successful is if people continue to pay, play, lose, and then pay to play some more.

            There are many elements to arcade games that make them different and less enjoyable than those games on consoles and online. Although technologically speaking arcade games are usually fairly simple and straightforward, there are many complicated and complex aspects to them that make them extremely difficult. As I said they are designed to be hard so the player will lose and play again. Not only do arcade games involve difficulty but they are also usually laboriously lengthy. The games don’t always change that much but they go on for a while and incorporate many things that require strategy to become good at. Here is where the problem lies. I would rather have fun and enjoy gaming then extensively plan and strategize to be successful. As seen in The King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters , arcade games require extensive practice and strategy to master. Although some arcade and online games require strategy,  it is not nearly as extensive, boring, or monotonous as with arcade games.

            Simply put, arcade games get boring and on top of that are somewhat anti social and provide very little reward. You can only say you’re a winner at an arcade game if you set some sort of high score. This can be achieved through practice and if practicing and having this goal at the end of the tunnel sounds fun and entertaining then maybe arcade games are for you. For me, however, they are only fun for short periods of time and the thought of sitting in front of Donkey Kong for hours and hours by myself is not a fun thought at all.  Console and online games simply are more fun, incorporating more entertainment, action, and a multiplayer social aspect that arcade games don’t necessarily have. I can play with other people in my home or from my home on the internet with online and console games.  I could play these  games for hours as they always provide something new. Every game has its core aspects and qualities but each play seems a little different than the last. Each game brings something new and unique and the entertainment is constant. Console and online games are new and cool. They are “in” now and are leading the industry with new technology that leaves arcade games in the dust. Perhaps it is just that console and online games are the games of our generation as for me they are simply just more fun and fun is what I want out of a game.