The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

2007-08-17 (Limited release)

I don’t have a problem with being a villain. I have a problem when they criminalize others and they show good people to be corrupt or dishonest or incompetent and they show it to be the truth.

— Billy Mitchell (MSNBC 16 August 2007)

We came to realize that if you’re Billy and you’re a master gamer, once you’re done mastering the game you start playing games with people and we were definitely part of that.

— Seth Gordon (IFC August 2007)

“When you want your name written into history, you have to pay the price.” So opines Billy Mitchell, and he should know. Long anointed Gamer of the Century and holder of the Donkey Kong record, Mitchell is at the center of a contest in The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Seth Gordon’s look at the insular, fanatical world of competitive gaming. The price is high: not only are his various titles in jeopardy, but he is also the villain of Gordon’s piece.

In appearance, Mitchell easily fits this bill: long-haired and bearded, he boasts not only of his dominance in the gaming world, but also in hot sauce, a business he approaches with similar ferocity (he means to “crush” opponents at food shows with his 40% cayenne pepper sauce). The film duly notes that Mitchell achieved his initial fame in 1982, when Life magazine arranged a Donkey Kong competition and photo shoot and the Centipede title holder scored a gonzo 874,300 points, devastating the competition, including young Steve Sanders, who lied about his Kong score to get into the competition. “He shellacked me,” says Sanders, now a lawyer and author of The Video Master’s Guide to Donkey Kong. The intensity that drives his gaming, says Mitchell, looking particularly intense as he says it, is “a part of my personality. It affects my life every day.”

Much admired within the gaming community, Mitchell works hard to maintain his standing. Slick and apparently always camera-ready (his eyes are ever piercing, his hair perfect, a point underlined in a clip of his blow-drying ritual). “There’s a glamour to Billy,” says gamer referee Walter Day. “Because he’s so charming, there’s no reason Billy couldn’t end up on a Wheaties box some day.” Except, maybe, this documentary, which paints Mitchell as brilliant, obsessed, and conniving — and not nearly so congenial as his primary adversary, Steve Wiebe.

Set up as the film’s classically underdog hero, Wiebe is a former high school pitcher and unassuming eighth-grade science teacher in Redmond, Washington (he was laid off from Boeing, his wife Nicole says, on the very day they signed papers on their house). He could not be more different from the oddly dashing Mitchell, except that they share a maniacal dedication to gaming. While Mitchell does not appear playing, only talking about playing, Wiebe is frequently on camera in front of his arcade machine (no quarters required), practicing, thinking, talking about strategy. A whizzbang sequence has him playing his six-year-old son’s mini drum kit, with hand-drawn lines over footage of him gaming and pitching. The science is real, the montage implies, trajectories can be plotted and outcomes managed.

At the same time, King of Kong underscores Wiebe’s nice-guyness, stacking the emotional deck against Mitchell. Wiebe loves his kids, he waxes on about teaching, and Nicole extols his nerdishness and vulnerability (his mother offers that she thought he might have been autistic as a child). His videotape submission to Twin Galaxies, the Hollywood, Fla.-based governing body that keeps track of scores and records, includes young Derek’s desperate background wails that daddy come wipe his bottom (“Stop playing Donkey Kong!!”). Mitchell tends to his restaurant and hot sauce, appears in photos with his large-bosomed wife (barely speaking in the film, she’s framed as a clichéd “prize” for champion nerd-boys), and on a Tokyo stage in 1999, feted for achieving the first perfect Pac-Man score. “On my phone,” he says, “It says, ‘Never surrender.'”

Whether you fall in love with Wiebe or sympathize with Mitchell’s reported denunciation of his depiction, the film’s arrangement of pieces makes for an engrossing saga of champion and challenger. The seeming simplicity of the opposition doesn’t obscure the complexities of the many members of the community, not least being Day, who has promoted competitive gaming since its early days. Living in Fairfield, Iowa and composing folk songs, he still referees and keeps track of scores (in 2006, his Twin Galaxies was recognized by Guinness as the authority on such records). “I’m the police,” he smiles, guitar in his lap. That is, he makes rules of accounting and legitimacy, maintains the website that keeps the records. (As Sanders declares, “You need somebody like Bush, who decides, ‘These are the rules… and if you don’t like it, tough.'”)

Day’s authority is wrapped up in an affable demeanor, and when he takes Wiebe under his wing, inviting him to legitimate a record score questioned by the Twin Galaxies board (whose members include Mitchell), the gamer’s acceptance by others in the group seems assured. This even as the film shows efforts by Mitchell and his devotees to keep control of the competition, if not necessarily the outcome: when one minion reports by phone a game being played by Wiebe, the intercutting suggests Mitchell’s manipulations are somehow Machiavellian.

The film’s own manipulations notwithstanding, it makes clear that the stakes for these gamers are real, that they invest in their titles and their achievements. If they look geeky, wear Arnold Schwarzenegger t-shirts, or behave like junior high schoolers, they also evince a passion that is, in its way, laudable. King of Kong, like other recent documentaries about subcultures (Murderball, Spellbound, Mad Hot Ballroom) appears to take its subjects at their word, crediting their commitment rather than condescending to it. When a gamer tears up over a loss or a records auditor declares the significance of his role in the process (“I see world records set in my room every day”), the film creates characters out of clips, asks viewers to participate in story arcs.

This is, of course, how documentaries work: they shape narratives and make arguments, even when they assert “objectivity.” Gordon and the film’s producer Ed Cunningham say they can’t be sure whether they’ve revealed “the true Billy,” as he refused them access. And the current public conflict between filmmakers and subject almost makes King of Kong more compelling. It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that anyone with a camera turned on him performs, whether or not the performance is understood as “real” or “true” or not.

RATING 7 / 10