Why Being a High Score Video Game Champ Makes You the King of Wrong (Opinion)

Old-fashioned amusement arcade gamesToy Museum, Stansted
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The truth is the priority. That is the concern. Whatever it takes. (from Twin Galaxie’s official statement on stripping Billy Mitchell of his high scores.)

I saw Billy Mitchell in person last year at an arcade convention in Atlanta, Georgia. It was summertime, and so it was hot. Amidst the seething crowd of t-shirts and shorts, Mitchell wore a white suit draped atop his lanky 6’ 2” frame. A stars-and-stripes tie peeked out between the lapels. He looked like a cross between Tom Wolfe and Colonel Sanders. I watched as he posed for pictures with fans, most of whom knew him as that guy from the film “King of Kong,” a 2007 documentary by Seth Gordon about his tete-a-tete with Steve Wiebe for the world record high score in “Donkey Kong.”

The first world record on Nintendo’s 1981 arcade machine pitting an angry ape against an unnamed Mario belonged to a youthful Mitchell way back in 1982. Just 17, he was featured in a 1983 issue of Life magazine alongside other record-setting phenoms in what was then a still new and misunderstood scene. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop said about these arcade amusements, “There is nothing constructive about these games.” And yet people like Mitchell have spent their entire adult lifetimes pursuing something like perfection within their digital walls, the title of World Record Holder being passed back and forth between a cadre of score-chasers for decades.

In 2010, Hank Chien, a plastic surgeon from New York, catapulted to the top of “Donkey Kong” high scores only to have Mitchell dethrone him months later. In more recent years, the top score on the game would bounce between Wes Copeland and Robbie Lakeman. But Mitchell could always claim a sliver of victory: he was the first ever to have reached the million-point mark.

Earlier this week, Twin Galaxies, the group that maintains the official high score tables for hundreds of classic games, published a statement effectively stripping Billy Mitchell of his record-setting scores, including his milestone first-ever million score on “Donkey Kong.” Mitchell had sent in videotape documenting his achievement; after long-held rumors of impropriety, a group of experts and hobbyists found evidence of wrongdoing through impressive sleuthing and careful observation: Mitchell had achieved his high score on an emulated version of the game, not the official arcade machine. Cue the decrescendo sound effect as our King of Kong finally falls from grace.

But what strikes me as notable here isn’t the ignominy of Mitchell, who already was cast as the de facto villian in Gordon’s film. It’s that video games, and arcade games in particular, have always leaned on numbers as an absolute indicator of excellence. Arcade-goers will know the tiny euphoria of playing well enough so that when your game is over, you are asked to input your initials: as if the machine itself is in awe of your prowess and wishes to remember your name. In a way, that’s all Mitchell and his compatriots were fighting for, year after year, game and game: To be remembered as the best there ever was. But to boil down the playing of a game into something as cold as a number is a false triumph.

David Sudnow was an award-winning musician, author, and professor who devised a method to learn to play piano in 30 minutes. He also wrote a book in 1983, the same year as Mitchell’s appearance in Life magazine, called “Pilgrim in the Microworld,” about his obsession with the Atari game “Breakout,” a simple blockbreaker game where the goal is to achieve the highest score possible. In his introduction, he watches his 10-year-old son play in an arcade and is at once suspicious and gobsmacked by these fantastical worlds of light and sound. “How utterly more spectacular,” he writes, “if we didn’t forget so fast.”

You can never play a piece of music perfectly; the song lingers, then is gone, the instrument ready and waiting. And yet we continue to practice and improve and play music for the beauty of the playing.

The only way to play “Donkey Kong” perfectly is to reach a level the computer inside never intended the player to reach; the game effectively self-destructs as the timer resets to four seconds, an impossible amount of time to complete the stage, resulting in your character’s inevitable death. This is called the “Kill Screen.”

Sudnow died in 2007, the year “King of Kong” released to wide acclaim. In it, there is a notable scene where Steve Wiebe approaches the game’s Kill Screen and one onlooker dashes across the room, letting others know what’s about to happen. With this week’s pronouncement that Mitchell cheated, Wiebe, he who dethroned Mitchell’s 20-year hold on the world record high score back in 2007, is now officially the first player to attain one-million points in “Donkey Kong.”

There’s always been a Bradburian “man vs. machine” feeling to playing a video game. We want to “beat” the system, unlock the hidden code pulsing beneath all that circuitry and push the game, and ourselves, to some far-off limit. That finish line often resembles a string of numbers, a “high score!” But the victory is illusory. Mitchell’s world record scores were accomplished over 30 years and the foundation on which his celebrity stood. Yet they proved to be ephemeral, as temporary as a quarter plunked into a slot. The truth is: You never actually win. The machine will always be standing there, ready and waiting.

Wiebe and others will push each other onward to higher scores. If they find self-subscribed meaning in that endless pursuit, who am I to fault them? To the rest of us: Let us continue to play games for the beauty of the playing.