Life Lessons from the King of Kong

Life Lessons from the King of Kong


Editor’s Note: There’s been a growing trend of esoteric competitions being the focus of documentaries over the past few years. The passion that the participants have for a prize most of us have never heard about is intriguing. But the spirit of competition is the same no matter what you’re playing for. We’ll be reviewing some of these films to see what these contests have to say about human behavior and how it relates to game playing at large. – Gabe Zichermann

“Everyone games” states classic gamer Mark Alpiger in the opening of The King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters (a sentiment is that often said by Jane McGonigal). And while that may well be true,  Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe play games for very different reasons.

The King of Kong is the story one of man’s attempt (Wiebe) to have his high score recognized in order to beat out the well established, poster boy of classic gaming (Mitchell). Steve Wiebe, while recording himself playing his own arcade machine in his garage, beats the score of 874,300 set by Billy Mitchell in 1986, with a score of 1,000,600. Twin Galaxies, the world authority of top scores in classic gaming, met with a great deal of controversy in trying to determine if the score was valid and who amongst these men deserved to be called the best in the world, especially as Billy Mitchell has almost a Christ-like following amongst the competitive circuit.

Billy Mitchell is a quintessential “killer-achiever” hybrid from Bartle’s player types. He’s overly confident, he’s manipulative. It’s not enough that he does well, he wants to also take someone else down in the process. When you watch him on screen you have to wonder: Is he cocky because he’s a winner, or is he a winner because he’s cocky? Steve Wiebe, although he is seeking to break the world’s record in a Donkey Kong high score, is more of an “explorer” type. The film documents Wiebe studying the game, finding patterns, tricks and possibilities. He discovers and takes notes, he plans, he is patient. He’s also one of only 3 known players to ever reach the legendary “kill screen” in Donkey Kong- a final level where Mario dies for no reason and the game just ends. The sort of rarity is a trophy for an explorer type. It has nothing to do with  the over all score, all that matters is seeing something no one else has. For Wiebe, attempting the reach the high score started primarily as a lark. He had been laid off from his job and playing the game kept him busy while feeding him a sense of accomplishment. He had never been that successful in other facets of his life, so having his score acknowledged because a mission. Billy Mitchell’s high score is all about status, for Steve Wiebe it’s about integrity.

So what is the big deal at having a Donkey Kong high score?, you might be asking. It’s an old game that’s corny compared to the advanced games we have today. Being the top player is just like being king of the nerds, right? (As if there’s anything wrong with that!) But just like any esoteric contest or area of expertise, it’s important to people in the know. Every industry has its top players (whether we’re talking about sports, arts, business or contestants on Jeopardy) that those outside wouldn’t even know. And as Steve Wiebe’s best friend Mike Thompson puts it “Not everyone has a buddy who’s the best in the world at something.”

Classic games have a nostalgia factor and a resonance with people. They take the competition seriously because it means something to them. As Walter Day, founder of Twin Galaxies explains, early games challenged reflexes more so than contemporary games. What these games lack in slick design and technology  they make up for in inspiring imagination and challenging the brain. Perhaps it is exactly the limited visuals that help tap into other realms of consciousness or the awkward controls that make a delicate hand that much more important. And just like in any competitive arena followers are always concerned with people gaming the system. At one point, Steve Wiebe is accused of submitting a potentially bogus tape and investigated for a tampered machine. These serious accusations would minimize the time and skill a player has dedicated to reach the top. The real question here, and it applies to regular life as well as gaming,  is if you are good enough to even get close to the top, which would you rather have put you over: Your skill or your ability to manipulate others and evangelize yourself?


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