A Fistful of Quarters

[7 October 2007]

By Ryan Smith

The unwritten rules for laundromats built before 1987 are as follows:

A. A half dozen washers or dryers must be bear ‘Out of Order’ signs and the dollar dispenser on the Coke machine must never work.

B. A crazy looking homeless person who doesn’t appear to be doing laundry at all must stare in space or talk to themselves.

C. A musty, classic arcade game such as Ms. Pac-Man or Galaga must sit in the corner near the change machine for entertainment.

Now, I’m no slack-jawed obsessive classic arcade gamer by any means, but I try to make it a priority to drop two quarters into Ms. Pac-Man’s bright yellow cabinet every other laundry trip or so.

Ever since I was tall enough to reach the arcade stick I have, on occasion, gently guided dear Ms. Pac-Man through maze upon endless maze, searching for succulent fruit and giant hopping pretzels while deftly avoiding Inky, Blinky, Clyde and Sue. Sue, of course, is the female ghost even though all four ghosts look exactly the same except for the colors of their “sheets”. 

After several months of games at the local laundromat, I was dismayed to find that I still couldn’t break the 100,000 point threshold. It annoyed me at first in the same, slight way that hearing Kevin Federline’s name or discovering that Arby’s discontinued their regular french fries gets me perturbed. But that tiny annoyance grew to a gnawing feeling of mild obsession.

I began to daydream of questions such as: ‘Why did I suck so bad at eating ghosts?’ and ‘Are the Power Pellets like Ice Cream of the Future?’ Luckily, before I crossed into the dangerous realm of bringing a single pair of dirty tighty-whiteys to the laundromat in order to have a lame excuse to guide Ms. Pac-Man through another maze, something magical happened. It seemed like another routine laundry trip.

Whites and coloreds. Losing a life on the first maze and another on the second. I could almost hear Ms. Pac-Man herself for someone less clumsy to control her. But something snapped in me and I made an incredible run on my last life, racking up almost 70,000 points before the game ended.  I itched for more and after pacing a bit and preparing myself mentally I put another quarter in and pressed ‘play’.

There is something completely Zen about playing Ms. Pac Man. While I love many modern video games, some of them require more training and practice than a helicopter pilot in flight school. In Pac-Man, there are no buttons involved, no complex thought needed, it’s just you and the stick.

I don’t know why exactly, but in the midst of that second game, I was in The Zone. The ghosts seemed like they were moving in slow motion and I was flying around the maze with relative ease. Something that second game told me I was going to break my personal record.

It wasn’t until I racked up 95,000 that I even lost my first life. When I did, I halfway yelled “Damn it!” and I caught some funny looks from a couple of sorority girls who were folding their obligatory black stretch pants. For a second, I thought the fates were suddenly going to conspire to stop me from breaking the record. But instead of tensing up, I just looked on with a Bill Belichick-like coolness.

Not only did I break 100,000 and the High Score at the machine, ladies and gentlemen, I shattered it. Before I was finished, I scooted through Act III not once but twice. I was a God. I imagined Ms. Pac-Man was looking at me now with a sort of admiration. My final score was now etched as the top score on the machine: 155,410.

This, of course, is not just an inspirational tale of triumph of the human spirit over the spirits that haunt Ms. Pac-Man. It’s a long precursor to say, to paraphrase Chris Rock, I wouldn’t have done what the men in the fabulous new documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters did in pursuing the high score in games like Donkey Kong, but I understand. I understand the need to conquer something no matter how petty and ridiculous. I just wouldn’t go to the extreme ends that the fellows in King of Kong did to accomplish it.

The antagonist of King of Kong is Billy Mitchell, the vain, comically cocky video jockey who set a yet-to-be-broken record of 874,300 points on Donkey Kong way back in 1982, when those games were at the peak of their popularity. “My (cell) phone says ‘Never Surrender’,” Mitchell intones seriously.  On the other side is ‘aw-shucks’ family man Steve Wiebe, who was laid off from a job at Boeing in recent years and spends much of his unemployment practicing Donkey Kong until he is finally able to beat Mitchell’s record.

For Mitchell, his Donkey Kong high score isn’t just a nice accomplishment – it’s part of his identity; his very DNA. He and his sycophantic crew of classic gamers are so utterly un-self consciously consumed by their singular passion for holding world records in video games that they’ve carved out an insular niche that looks ridiculous and petty to outsiders like us.  Really, there’s a guy who enjoys watching countless hours of videotaped game sessions? Wow, how many hours did Steve Wiebe spend practicing a game in which a large monkey holds a woman captive and tosses flaming barrels at Italian men?

We can laugh at the nerd savants in King of Kong not only because they’re mostly social misfits who have unfashionable tastes in hair and clothing, but because they’re so earnest about these seemingly pointless pursuits. We, the audience, on the other hand, maintain the requisite cynical ironic distance mandatory in our culture, and so we laugh at the people in documentaries that are way into Star Trek (Trekkies), spelling bees (Spellbound), air guitars (Air Guitar Nation) or pointless arcade games.

But the question I have to ask is: are we casual Ms. Pacman player-types really better than them? There’s a part of me that respects them. Part of me wishes I didn’t feel the need to wear cool detachment like a cloak and immerse myself deeply into whatever I’m pursuing whether it be watching a movie, going to a concert, or playing Ms. Pac Man.  So keep on, Steve Wiebe. Keep on Billy Mitchell, even if you’re a mullet-head jerk. At least you’re doing what you love and not what you “love”.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/a-fistful-of-quarters/