Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Epistemology of Kong

So, apparently this month is the twenty-fifth anniversary of Super Mario Bros. for everybody, and next month is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Nintendo Entertainment System, which mostly matters to us Americans. Fantastic!

All I've been able to think about is The King of Kong. That may seem appropriate because the movie is about Nintendo's first super-hit arcade game, the game that was the debut of Mario, but that's not why it keeps popping into my head, so I'll explain.

I'll start by making a generalization that's probably kind of platitudinous. Do we mostly think that documentaries are educational, informative, credible, straightforward, and authoritative? I think a lot of us do make that assumption. Some documentaries are designed to inform and educate, and some of those are honest about the limits of the information they can provide.

A lot of documentaries, however, are designed to persuade or simply to entertain, and if they do inform, that is either a secondary aim or a thing that they do in service of their greater agenda. Information is filtered so that what serves the director's or the writer's argument is included, and what detracts from it is, in almost all cases, excluded. Information that detracts from the argument but is still included is almost always discredited in some way. Michael Moore's films are known for presenting commentary from or footage of his opponents that is selected to make them seem unreliable. Lengthy footage of George W. Bush being prepped by makeup and hair people is included in Fahrenheit 9/11 as if to suggest to Moore's audience that this man is surely too ridiculous (and vain?) to be leading the country. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, the 2008 documentary that portrays intelligent design as a legitimate scientific theory whose exponents have been persecuted by the academic establishment, seeks to create a chain of association from evolutionary theory to social Darwinism to eugenics and thus to the Holocaust. The film scores one of its points on this count by excising, without acknowledging the alteration, crucial lines about the importance of sympathy and its status as one of humanity's noblest tendencies from Darwin's otherwise clinical account of the tendency of humans artificially to resist the ravages of natural selection. The result is that Darwin seems, to those unfamiliar with the passage, to suggest that we should do away with the mentally and physically infirm.

Anyone who works in television, film, or theatre will dismiss the footage of Bush being made up and coiffed as indulgent and misleading; hair and makeup are always applied before major on-camera appearances, even in times of crisis, for better or worse. The footage therefore isn't relevant to the film's argument that he is a poor leader. Likewise, anyone who has read Darwin will likely remember his gentle and endearing observations and his obvious compassion for humans and animals alike—Darwin's capacity for finding wonder in life in all its variety was far too large to coexist with any cold tendency towards eugenics.

This is to say nothing of the inevitability that the process of filmmaking itself will come between a documentary's evidence as it was originally gathered and its argument as it is ultimately presented. All documentary filmmakers film many more hours of footage than can fit into a feature-length film, and even the most earnest filmmaker will have to edit something out, and not every piece of relevant information does or can be caught on camera, anyway. Every documentary film editorializes with its content, even if the intent of the film is purely to inform.

No documentary film is objective. When it comes to a movie like The King of Kong, it's completely obvious that we're watching a reconstructed account—not to say a reenactment, just a heavily edited remix of real footage—and I probably seem to have belabored my point. Sorry. However, what I've been trying to do is to undermine in several ways the assumption that we can rely on this genre, which we often simply take to be the film equivalent of non-fiction literature.¹

The King of Kong isn't much of a documentary, frankly. In what I think is an obvious way, it transforms actual events involving Steve Wiebe, Billy Mitchell, and the bureaucracy of Twin Galaxies into a kind of epic duel between the just underdog and the conspiratorial agents of wrong. We Red Sox fans watch this transformation happen, and we contribute to it happening, all the time.

Anyway, Billy Mitchell marches, Vader-like, to the resentful teeth-gnashing of Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows," through a world that seems to cater to his every whim. Steve Wiebe slumps and smirks through a world that is completely indifferent to him to a stirring little piano tune he composed himself. Everybody in the retro-gaming community falls all over himself—not to be sexist, but these dudes are all dudes, with the sole exception of the adorable Doris Self—to get his ass to Billy's lunch thing or to watch Billy's latest high score video or to type that high score into the Twin Galaxies database without a second's hesitation. Everybody aside from Steve Sanders seems content to ignore Steve Wiebe altogether or to condescend to him, notwithstanding the fact that whether he is Billy Mitchell's equal at Donkey Kong or not, he is hella better than anyone else at it;² wouldn't you agree, BRIAN KUH.

See? I can't even talk about the movie without getting worked up. It doesn't inform; it tells its own story. And predictably, there is a debate about the story, too. Walter Day says that the movie makes everyone in the Twin Galaxies side out to be bad people when they aren't, the movie misrepresents the facts, and so on and so on. Seth Gordon, the film's director, has said that his treatment of Billy Mitchell in the movie is in fact overly charitable. The movie even simplifies the high score race to the point of distortion: while it looks like a huge defeat for Steve when the Twin Galaxies referees reject his video, what actually happened was that a previous score of his, which had already beaten Billy's 1982 high score, remained the reigning Donkey Kong score. That controversial taped score of Billy's was also eventually rejected.

Anyway, all of this is just to point out that not only is The King of Kong a representative of a category of things that by their very nature are subjective products, but it also claims to present evidence of another reliability breakdown, this one on the part of the vaunted organization of Twin Galaxies. Walter Day spends a lot of time in The King of Kong talking about the importance of Twin Galaxies, presenting it as an indispensable piece of the video game subculture. But the film also shows Twin Galaxies' referees extending privileges, at least initially, to Billy Mitchell that they deny to Steve Wiebe, despite their insistence that they are an organization dedicated absolutely to fair treatment. The film also shows that it is not out of the ordinary for gamers to lie about scores or otherwise misrepresent their skills, through cheat codes or hardware or software alterations or video trickery. Even video games don't necessarily tell the truth!

So King of Kong is an unreliable film about an organization that is also unreliable that chronicles high scores won by people who might also be unreliable. Where do we go when we want to know who holds the high score in Clu Clu Land? How do we know that person didn't cheat? How do we know Twin Galaxies really put the screws to that person and sufficiently vetted their score recording?

We can't know anything, readers, as I discovered this week. Nintendo has released a timeline of the Super Mario Bros. series as well as a video (now fixed on the official website, those sneaky bastards!) showing footage of most of the major titles in the main series. So what? Well, every game from Super Mario Bros. 2 to Super Mario 64 is listed as being released a year later than it was actually released. Not even Nintendo can be relied upon to give us information that it should be wholly within their ability to give us! How do we even know that this year really is the twenty-fifth anniversary of SMB? Maybe next year is the twenty-fifth anniversary!

Maybe it was last year. Maybe it was last year.

¹ Actually, I don't believe in non-fiction literature, either. Surprise! I kind of sort of wrote about editorializing in the biographical genre in a previous post, and I should have pushed my point further and said that it is inevitable that all literature, deliberately fictional or deliberately non-fictional, is written by a limited person with limited access to limited information.

² Excluding of course the very charming Dr. Hank Chien, whose humility is surpassed only by his Donkey Kong score and apparently Billy Mitchell's latest score, too.


  1. Fascinating. I've had The King of Kong on my Netflix queue for ages, but I've never gotten around to watching it. Maybe I should give it a try, unreliable or not.

    Slightly OT, but my church once held a "movie night" in which we watched a double feature of Expelled, followed by Bill Maher's Religulous (or possibly the other way 'round), punctuated by discussions between films and during certain intervals. One of the things the pastor focused on, which seemed apparent from viewing the films, was how much both films used editing to leave out portions of interviews, or make interviewees look stupid or crazy. Particularly of note was Ben Stein reediting an interview with a highly acclaimed astrophysicist to make his points seem ridiculous, complete with comedic replay of ludicrous-sounding (outside of proper context) statements; Bill Maher fared no better, using editing tricks to make fun of a self-righteous, egocentric televangelist, who, if the interview had been allowed to play out in full, would have hung himself out to dry naturally.

  2. You really should watch King of Kong. What a treat! The colorful cast of retro game fanatics alone is worth a viewing. And to be fair to the film, I'm fairly sure the filmmakers are aware it comes off much more as entertainment than information (and how many people really, really need to know the actual story behind that movie?).

    I haven't seen Religulous, but Expelled is absolutely despicable. I went and did some fact-checking after I watched the movie, and just about every supposedly stigmatized and disgraced ID scholar interviewed is being deliberately deceitful about his or her career.

    It's certainly a long way from The Thin Blue Line, which you should also see if you haven't--it's by Errol Morris, who, acknowledging that there is no recoverable objective version of a given story, often uses the documentary format as a tool for sussing out the most accurate version of events that can be reconstructed.

  3. I'm also a classics grad student--at NYU--and I decided to read a bunch of your posts (which I found via Living Epic) instead of Ovid. Even posts I disagreed with (Wind Waker is your favorite Zelda??) were thoroughly insightful. It's good to know there are other classicists out there who take video games seriously!

  4. Thanks for reading, Abhijit, and thanks for your kind words! You know, I might have been feeling a little too sentimental the night I pronounced Wind Waker my favorite Zelda, but it's certainly in the top two. Almost certainly my real favorite is Link to the Past.

    I'm hoping that video games criticism will gain a little more cachet over the next several years. For the time being, I feel much more comfortable doing this whole thing at least somewhat inconspicuously, but I think video games constitute a completely valid medium for research and criticism. It must be a generational thing, I guess.

    Anyway, good luck at NYU, and good luck on the Ovid! Keep visiting, because I'm planning a few posts that should do a better job than I've done so far of explaining what it is I think is so interesting about games criticism, and I'm kind of wrapping up the last of my graduate work right now, so I should be able to post more frequently this year than I have previously. I hope!