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Why So Serious (Games)?

The future of gaming is brighter than ever. The rise of Mass Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs), along with technological and graphical advances, are taking the video game experience to heights that I could barely fathom just a few short years ago. This excites me…but it also depresses me a bit. I was a borderline video game addict from the original Nintendo Entertainment System in the mid-1980s all the way to about the Sega Dreamcast era at the turn of the century. Sega, as usual, was ahead of its time and was one of the first systems to go online. Of course, Sega, as usual, pulled the plug on this way to soon (and other companies made a ton more money). I did not realize then just how much our ways of interacting in mediums would converge. Now I understand the popularity of MMOGs and games becoming an increasingly interactive form of media, but we also stand to forget the simplistic, lighthearted nature of the classic arcade games of yesteryear. It is easy to say that the old games influenced what we have today because they were the first but rather, I say the expert gamers of arcades past also influenced the way games are created today.

The King of Kong

With this week’s theme for the blog being Games, Simulations, and Interactions, I instinctively think of the games I grew up playing. I remember going to the arcade, playing Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Street Fighter 2. These were games of memorization, quick reflexes, patience and extreme competitiveness, not to mention the pressure of many eyes watching you play in person. If a game was too difficult and cost me too many quarters, I would move on. The documentary, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters encapsulates this on another level. It is a film about an unemployed family man, Steve Weibe (a sympathetic, perennial loser that wants to win at something) and the egotistical Billy Mitchell (“Gamer of The Century”) competing for the world record on the arcade classic, Donkey Kong.

The film sets the tone with this quote in the beginning,

So maybe “war and games” is not a metaphor for the development of technological advances in the military. Rather, this is a documentary about two grown men (both married with families) fighting over a title they treat almost as a profession. Clearly, this is more than just a record…

What follows is the game imitating life as every time Weibe attempts to break the record, Billy Mitchell and his “associates” stop at nothing to avoid having Billy’s 25 year record broken. It is a game within itself. In The Reunion of Action and Thought, Abt quotes a Greek poet, “In dreams begin responsibilities and in games begin realities.” Both characters were living their lives by way of the game. What made this documentary compelling was that it went beyond a simple game of Donkey Kong. The game was the competition and it showed how each man dealt with winning and losing along with how it shaped their lives.

The Decline of Western Civilization or Old School Innovators?

Peter Travers of Rolling Stone said of the film, “Who would have guessed that a documentary about gamers obsessed with scoring a world record at Donkey Kong would not only be roaringly funny but serve as a metaphor for the decline of Western civilization?” I disagree on that, competition is always healthy. In Steven Malliet’s Adapting the Principles of Ludology to the Method of Video Game Content Analysis, he quotes Kücklich (2002) who says that “observing a game necessarily entails influencing it” and argues that a game can only be properly analyzed by means of interacting with its user interface. A game has to be played in order to be understood, and playing a game implies making active choices another player or researcher would not necessarily make.” While he goes on to say that there is no such thing as an ideal player, I feel that the old school, expert gamers, especially the ones in the 1980s like Billy Mitchell, helped push developers to create more than just difficult sequels and rest on its laurels. It is also ironic that these old school gamers have not really made the plunge into the new age of gaming. It is more than just mastery of a game board and a little bit of good luck/timing. Games today are a wide open world, which in some cases is endless and does not contain a “game over” screen.

So maybe this film depicts the main characters as the classic good guy vs. bad guy with a whole lot of “nerdiness” involved, but it took me back to a time where gaming, while still maintaining difficulty, was simpler in terms of culture. Even though I was not even born when the original 1982 record was set for Donkey Kong, at times I could sympathize, laugh at, laugh with and cheer on for the records to be broken. Are the old arcade classics “serious games?” Is there an educational “ends to justify the means?” No, but are they treated seriously? Absolutely and while arcade-style MMOGs are finding their niche audiences, I still ask, what’s so wrong about playing a game to just get a high score?

References:

  1. Read Abt, C.C. (1970). Serious games (selection). New York: Viking. Selection.
  2. Malliet, S. (2007). Adapting the principles of ludology to the method of videogame content analysis. Game Studies 7(1)
  3. Peter Travers (2007-08-07). “The King of Kong : Review : Rolling Stone”. Rolling Stone. http://www.rollingstone.com/reviews/movie/14137645/review/15807945/the_king_of_kong. Retrieved 2007-08-26.