There is a line near the end of the extraordinary documentary The King Of Kong that carries the weight of the entire film. It was spoken by a tween-age girl, but in the context of the film, that girl might be the most “adult” person to show-up on the screen during the movie’s 79 minute running time. As her father is talking about getting into the Guinness book Of World records playing Donkey Kong, the girl says back to him “…some people ruin their lives trying to get in there.” It is a moment of clarity within an otherwise fascinating yet bewildering yet frustrating series of events depicted in the film. The line does not only stand out because it was spoken by a child, but also because it was not said aloud by any of the adults involved. It’s a transcendental moment that takes an otherwise merely likable story and exposes the sociological study that lies at the heart of the movie.
On the surface, The King Of Kong is a movie about a regular guy and perennial also-ran from Seattle (Steve Wiebe) trying to beat the high-score on the coin-op version of Donkey Kong. The high-score that has been held for almost 25 years by guy named Billy Mitchell, who, in the tiny and ridiculous world (a phrase coined by my good friend Brandon Crist in 12th grade) of competitive classic video games that he inhabits, is an incomparable rock star. The mulleted and patriotic tie-wearing Mitchell is a dynamic, successful and charismatic Hot Sauce tycoon from Florida with a trophy wife (his words) who was one of the first video game record holders in the 80’s, and remains so to this day. Mitchell’s circle of friends and influence extends to most of the competitive classic video game playing field and to the official classic video game score-keepers at Twin Galaxies including their enigmatic leader: the hippie, Zen master, and epic rock song-writer Walter Day. If this description sounds as ridiculous to you, as it was for me to write, then you might be starting to understand how just what kind of of “slice of nerd-life reality” this movie captures. The writers of the Simpsons could not have written more colorful characters nor could the writers of The Office come-up with more uncomfortable situations than the ones these real-life people have placed themselves within.
I don’t want to ruin the events in the movie for people who have not seen it, so I’ll just say this: the movie tracks Steve Weibe’s attempts as a West Coast outsider to “break-in” into the insular world of classic video game competitions (a mostly Mid-West and East Coast activity) ,and follows all the tricks, backhanded compliments, blockades, and subterfuge many of the “regulars” who inhabit that world(many are friends of Billy Mitchell) throw in his way to stop him. The first time I watched the movie (and I’ve watched it several times now with and without the included DVD commentaries), I sat with my mouth agape in bewilderment. I was so angry at the the events that unfolded on the screen, it was difficult to sleep the night I first watched it. I forced my wife to watch the movie the next night, just so I could have someone to talk with about the movie. She was shocked too, but for a different reason. My very insightful wife caught-on instantly to why the movie bothered me so much, and she reminded me of something I had pushed to the back of my subconscious: I’d lived it. Well, sort of anyway.
You see, back in 1995 I wrote a rock history of the 80’s band The Alarm. It was published Goldmine Magazine, at the time, the premiere tome for music collectors in the USA. It just so happened that the same month it was published, Mike Peters, the lead vocalist and songwriter for The Alarm was traveling in the USA. He read the article, and when he came to California, he called me on the phone, and asked my wife and I to come out and meet he and his wife. We struck-up a firm friendship that exists to this day. In 1996, Mike needed a web master for his new web site, and he asked me to do it. I’ve been running http://www.thealarm.com ever since. In 1997 I traveled to Wales, UK to The Gathering, Mike Peters’ annual music festival for fans of The Alarm. I looked forward to the trip very much, and was excited to meet other Alarm fans from around the globe,. However, what I found there was not what I expected. While there were many nice, regular people at The Gathering, there was also a “core” set (a “nerdcore” if you will) of die-hard fans of The Alarm who treated me like, well, complete crap. As I learned from others, these people were part of “the family”, a set of Alarm fans who had followed the band from the very early days in the UK, and had been close to it’s inner circle. Since I lived in the USA on the West Coast, I had never met or even known about this “elite” crew of fans. Even though I had been a fan of the band just as long as they had, none of them believed I had the “street cred” to be friends with Mike Peters or run his web site. For several years these people attempted to have me removed from being the web master of TheAlarm.com, pulled dirty tricks, etc. I know, it sounds unbelievable, but in the tiny ridiculous world of The Alarm that these people inhabited it made complete sense. Die-hard nerdcore fans of old rock bands are just as nerdy, and just as territorial it seems, as the denizens of the classic gaming competition underground.
To me, this “nerdcore” is one step beyond hardcore: they are the hardcore of the hardcore. Usually they are fans of something (a band, a tv show, a game, etc) that has long-since left the mainstream. They have stuck around long-enough to become subject matter experts on something that only they really care about. However, in many cases this “nerdcore” would like nothing better than to have the object of their fandom once again regain the popularity and acceptance that it once held, and along with it, they would be held in high regard as the ones who “stuck it out” while the rest of the world was so ignorant of the greatness of the thing they hold dear. To this end, they might try to “keep out” others who might threaten their position when this eventual “judgement day” comes to pass. Of course, in reality they are pushing out any people who might help their cause, and sometimes end-up hurting the very thing they want to support. It is an example of irony at its finest.
So for me, watching a guy named “Steve” (look at the byline above), in this instance Steve Weibe, travel to distant locations with honest intentions, while being foiled at every turn by a nerdcore who wanted to protect the territory they had felt was rightly theirs for the past 25 years, struck a chord. It took the movie from being just a simple survey of classic gaming culture into a study of just how far die-hard fans of something, no matter what it is, will go to protect what they believe is rightfully theirs. This is especially true if these fans are adults, and the object of their fandom was something they they loved as kids (or teenagers) but were never able to let-go of. In that sense, it is something I’ve never seen on film before. King Of Kong provides a view of how small, growth-stunted subcultures feed off their own and ultimately build a wall to protect themselves from the outside world. It also shows how far some of these people will go to stay afloat and on-top of said subculture, because to them it is the most important place they could possibly be. The insightful words of the young girl in the film come back to haunt me when I think of this. “…some people ruin their lives trying to get in there.” Yes they do. Some people get so wrapped-up in their own little nerdcore world, that they will protect it all costs, be it classic video games, 80’s rock bands, or anything else that gets you so wound-up about the past, you ignore the present. It’s an instance when adults act more like children than children themselves. If this hurts outsiders and leaves their own lives stunted or ruined, so be it, as long as they stay “in the know” and at the “top of the heap”, no matter how small that heap might be. This propels King Of Kong from an interesting documentary into a must-see, must-own DVD. It is also one of the most compelling and insightful movies I have ever seen.
The amazing documentary King Of Kong is available now on DVD. Buy it from the official site so the filmmakers can try to recoup their costs. The DVD contains a multitude of bonus content and footage that add greatly to the impact of the film.
(originally published Feb, 20, 2008)