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

Competing with Kong

Competitive gaming remains a niche market. Tournaments held for games now have prize pools of millions of dollars, but this is nothing compared to the stakes of athletic competitions where professional players make millions yearly regardless of whether their team wins. This is the result of a huge number of factors, but several very important ones are illuminated in King of Kong.

The competitors in King of Kong are not the most charismatic: compare them to an athlete and anyone could tell which is which. This is a small part of the problem: society at large pays athletes so well partially because the athletes are admired. It is much easier to admire an athletic and charismatic athlete than a socially awkward gamer whose athletic skill lay largely in his (her?) fingers.

Another noteworthy obstacle to competitive gaming that exists in King of Kong but is not focused on is variety. There are so many games (even 20+ year old arcade games!) that interest in gaming is far too divided for gamers skilled in only a couple games to make any serious money. There are many high-paying competitive sports: maybe 10 that make a lot of money. In King of Kong a tournament held at Funspot has competitors playing in over thirty games. It would take an impossible number of competitors to fund professional gamers (people who play games for a living) for all these games, and nowadays there are far more games in which to compete.

A final problem is time. This problem will obviously solve itself, but in King of Kong it is obvious that more time was needed for a true competitive environment. Needing to show up in person to compete, for example, is a problem that has now been mainly solved: final rounds are still often done in LAN settings, but at least qualifiers can be done through the internet. Cheating  through hacked gameboards is long gone: games are too complex now for that, and cheats are usually incredibly obvious.

Finally there’s the problem of making the games interesting to watch. Donkey Kong is clearly a competitive game, and the intensity with which it was played was interesting to watch in King of Kong, but only a select group of people could sustain interest in watching every second of every playthrough in the movie: it would be grueling. Games need to be appealing even to those not especially familiar to the game itself, just as anyone can watch and be amused by a game of soccer.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: the day is not far away when professional gamers will garner as much attention and money as athletes. It will just take time and a shift of the industry, with lessons taken from sports and even, perhaps (but unlikely), from King of Kong.

~HungryRug

What King of Kong Taught Me

In King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, the gamers devote their entire lives to the games they love. They spend long hours at the arcades and in their homes, constantly trying to achieve higher and higher scores. From this documentary, I learned about a whole new perspective about competitive gaming that I had never experienced before. By this I mean I gained a whole new appreciation for the world of competitive gaming and those who participate in it. Although I would not devote my life in this manner, I now don’t view this world as had previously seen it.

The world of competitive gaming is very similar to the world of competitive sports, even though they appear to be very different. For instance, in both worlds, the participants train long hours, memorize complex patterns, and must master certain skills in order to be successful. The difference simply lies in which skills and traits must be exercised in order to succeed. In sports these traits typically include strength, agility, and other athletic attributes. On the other hand, in gaming, these traits include hand-eye coordination, pattern recognition, speed of thought, and other attributes. None of the traits, whether in gaming or in sports, are easily obtainable, and they can only be attained through hard work and practice. Even though because sports are typically more popular and better thought of than games, this fact should not undermine a game’s intrinsic worth or the accomplishments of gamers.

Furthermore, after viewing the movie, I now understand the true competitiveness in the gaming world. The gamers devote much of their lives to these games, thereby linking them emotionally to the outcomes of their games. This devotion leads to the competitive spirit between the gamers as they have spent so much time and effort in order to succeed in their respective games. Herein lies another connection to the world of sports, a world with which I am much more familiar. In both worlds, the competitive spirit drives the participants to new heights and previously unachievable accomplishments, thereby creating impressive and sometimes spectacular performances.

The last things the movie taught me about the competitive gaming world were the difficulties present in judging. Before seeing the movie, I hadn’t even considered that referees and judges for gaming would exist. I also hadn’t considered the possibilities of cheating that occur in the gaming world. Again, in this aspect sports and gaming become very similar. In both worlds, different types of cheating occur and must be discovered in order to preserve the competitive integrity of the worlds.

In all, the movie simply taught me a new appreciation for the world of competitive gaming and a hatred for Billy Mitchell. It also taught me about the similarities between gaming and sports which are not always clear. Gamers deserve similar recognition for their accomplishments as many athletes do, and it was satisfying to see the Guinness Book of World Records taking note of this opinion.

-Juancarlos284, John Shula

Arcade to Console: A Shift in the Nature of Games

by Theo Dentchev

“There’ll always be the argument that video games are meant to be played for fun. Believe me, some of it’s a lot of fun. Video games are meant to be played at home, relaxing, on a couch, amongst friends…and they are, and that’s fun. But competitive gaming, when you want to attach your name to a world record, when you want your name written into history, you have to pay the price.”

– Billy Mitchell, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

In the above quote arcade game legend Billy Mitchell speaks to the difference between competitive gaming and what might be called “casual” gaming. But at the same time, in a way he’s comparing modern gaming to classic arcade gaming. “[Modern] [v]ideo games are meant to be played at home…on a couch,” and one might add with a gaming console, on a TV, whereas classic arcade games are played standing up in front of the arcade machine, usually in an arcade. Those superficial differences in location and method of playing are representative of a broader shift in gaming from the arcade era in the 80s to the console era of today, from more competitive to more casual, from a narrow to a broad appeal, and from more rule oriented games to games which utilize fiction much more heavily.

The underlying goal of classic arcade games is to get as far as you could, to achieve as high a score as possible without dying (and if you are good enough, to hopefully get your name on the high scores list), and thus they are inherently competitive. Arcade games also require great hand-eye and hand-thought coordination, as Twin Galaxies founder and referee Walter Day tells us in King of Kong. Someone playing an arcade game has to be literally thinking on their feet. The person has to be on edge, attentive, and motivated to keep standing there and competing at that game. This is in stark contrast to video games today, which are meant to be enjoyed while sitting back, sinking into your couch cushions, without needing to exert a great deal of mental or physical effort. Today’s games try to be friendly and open to new or “casual” gamers. They are much, much more forgiving than the arcade games of the past and no longer restrict players to going as far as their skills allow them; now even the least able gamer  can fully experience (and beat) most games. That isn’t to say that there aren’t still games being made which are or can be competitive out there, it just means the landscape has shifted.

Accompanying this shift is gaming becoming more mainstream. Whether the increased public interest in gaming is due to the increasingly casual nature of games, or whether companies are making more casual games to please the public, I don’t know. I figure it’s a combination of both. Most people don’t find the intensely challenging, and often frustrating nature of arcade games to be “fun.” They are more attracted to games whose rules present some sort of challenge, yet not one which is too difficult to overcome. But people also like flashy graphics, rich soundtracks, and complex stories. Arcade gaming did not have that. They didn’t have the greatest graphics (it was the 80s,still early in the development of video games), and while they had some catchy themes the music was pretty simple. As for story, sure, Mario (Jumpman) was trying to save Pauline (Lady) from Donkey Kong in Donkey Kong, but that’s about as deep as that story gets, and there’s really no resolution of the conflict (ending). And what about Pac-Man? What was he eating all those dots for anyway? Arcade games focused mostly on a set of rules, without much fiction. Modern games still have rules which the player must follow, but have added great amounts of fiction, mainly in the form of narratives and accompanying music, to the point that some games are considered more film than game (e.g. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots). That in turn has attracted a great deal of people to the gaming world, swelling its ranks with new, casual gamers.

Video games in the 80s were generally viewed in a negative light, with mostly “losers” or “nerds,” supposed rejects of society, congregating in dimly lit arcades, almost cult-like. Perhaps this was because games were still a new and relatively foreign medium. Or maybe the “price” needed to be paid that Billy Mitchell alludes to, not in quarters, but in time, dedication, and repeated frustration resulting from the difficulty of arcade games was too high for the average person to pay. Or was it because arcade games were too simple, only about rules and competition? Whatever the case may be, since video games have started heavily incorporating fiction and lowering the challenge the rules present, changing the nature of the games from competitive to casual, they have been propelled in a relatively short amount of time into mainstream recognition and acceptance. People find today’s games to be more “fun.” It’s not only nerds who play video games now, and although competitive gaming may still be discredited, even that is changing as people begin to play games like Halo for a living.

Or maybe it’s all because of Madden.

– TD