Friday, July 24, 2009

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

"The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters" (Seth Gordon, 2007) Interesting little documentary about the sub-world of video-gamers and the clashing ego's of those trying to achieve high scores. It's also a bit like a real-life version of those Anthony Mann/James Stewart Westerns where a newcomer used to doing things his way comes up against an entrenched system with closely held beliefs that serve their own self-interests.

And, of course, those depend on a good villain, and they don't come better (or self-deluded) than
Billy Mitchell, the mulleted hot-sauce "king" who has everyone in his limited sphere convinced that he's a genius...when what he very good at video-games. Mitchell has had the reputation since high-school, so it's about there where his maturity ended and he stopped to grow as a human being. Instead of conversation, he spouts vaguely threatening marketing bursts full of brio but without much substance to back himself up. You spend the movie wanting him to take a large fall.

Riding into town comes
Steve Wiebe, an over-achiever who's had to contend with disappointment most of his life. Laid off from Boeing, he goes back to school for a Master's and passes time playing Donkey Kong, analyzing the patterns and achieving higher and higher scores. Until one day, he passes Mitchell's. You can't have a mano e mano match without a referee, and the story provides that with Walter Day,* self-styled arbiter of video-game high scores through his company, Twin Galaxies.

Wiebe submits a video-tape of his high-scoring game, but the tape is rejected as insufficient proof, amid speculation by Mitchell cronies that Wiebe's machine has been tampered with by an enemy of Mitchell's—these guys are the wimpiest of paranoiacs. So, to prove his point, Wiebe schleps all the way to the booming metropolis of Laconia, New Hampshire to an arcade where a "live" play of the game can be witnessed and verified. Wiebe does it, but then Mitchell submits a tape (which appears to have glitches in it) of a higher-scoring game, which apparently he just had lying around in case of emergencies. That tape is accepted with no questions asked, and Wiebe becomes aware that he's not just fighting a pixelated Donkey Kong but a system rigged for the benefit of its own 800 lb gorilla.

It's fascinating to see so many "grown" men getting worked up over bragging rights of a video game, and how low they can sink in trying to get "their" way. The Mitchell drones are particularly pathetic, doing service to their dark lord so he doesn't have to make an appearance as witness, or risk anything. That one of them admits in interview (in front of Mitchell, who petulantly seethes silently) that Wiebe's a good guy and a good player is the only satisfaction one gets from the film...other than getting a chance to see this topsy-turvy little fiefdom of gaming.

After the film was released, there were protestations. Both Wiebe and Mitchell have said that they've actually competed before the doc was being filmed, and actually they get along great ("Hey, they're buds'!"), and the film was edited to make the story simpler (something the film-makers admit, and is, no doubt, absolutely true), but one comes away thinking one's seeing a lot of truth in the frame, despite not seeing all of what was recorded. You can manipulate a story with editing, certainly, but you can't make a person say anything they don't want to say on-camera.

Editing lies, but every picture tells a story.

Even though his actions belie it, even Mitchell admits to that in the film.

(And in the interest of public disclosure, I just played "Donkey Kong On-line," and scored 200, before thinking I was wasting my day—five minutes of it—and giving up.

* Day seems like a decent sort, trying to keep track of all the wimp/macho sniping, throwing himself in between the fights going on between ego-driven gamers. Guinness Book of Records recognizes him as an authority. Now, that is an accomplishment.

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