Donkey Kong Nation


“Always, after he was in bed, there were voices—indefinite, fading, enchanting—just outside his window, and before he fell asleep he would dream one of his favorite waking dreams: the one about becoming a great half-back or the one about the Japanese invasion when he was rewarded by being made the youngest general in the world. It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise

Note: This is the first of a three-part post series on competition in the American psyche. Coming on Sept. 10 is part two: “The Battle of 9/11.”

A documentary film was recently released in L.A. called The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. If it comes to a theater anywhere near you, please go see it. The film’s subject matter at first appears rather frivolous: competitive videogaming, specifically the battle for world records in “classic” arcade games from the early eighties like Donkey Kong. Indeed, for much of the first third of the film, you’ll wonder if it’s a mockumentary (in the vein of Christopher Guest). All the talking head stars of the film are about as nerdy as stereotypical gamers get.

But the film isn’t chiefly about making fun of pasty, aging slackers with mullets and fingerless gloves who play arcade games all day. It is extremely funny, don’t get me wrong—one of the funniest films I’ve seen all year. But beneath the ironic 80s soundtrack (everything from The Cure to Animotion) and geeky earnestness of the whole competitive gaming world, Kong is a rather profound—and deeply moving—film.

It’s all about competition—and how obsessive, ingrained, and life-consuming it is. Especially in America. Especially for men. There is this drive within us to be the best at something. Whether it’s winning a gold medal, becoming a successful sauce salesman, being the world’s “foremost military superpower,” or simply holding the world record Pac-Man score, we all desire that glory; that “top dog” status.

The King of Kong follows two men—Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe—and their vicious rivalry to see who will ultimately hold the world’s top score in Donkey Kong. Mitchell, a hot sauce salesman from Hollywood, Florida, held the top score from 1982 to 2006, when Wiebe—a 7th grade science teacher and family man from Washington State—came out of nowhere to take the title away. On one level the film is a classic tale of good (Wiebe) vs. evil (Mitchell), but really it is an examination of the pride of victory and the sting of second place, and the ultimate dissatisfaction that comes from both positions.

billy-mitchell1999.jpgWhen we win at anything it is definitely a good feeling, but after reaching any summit, there’s always some other mountain to climb, something else to go after. Being in second place is perhaps preferable: at least there is a definite goal to work toward, an end to focus upon, a definition to our life’s pursuit.

As we see in the Fitzgerald quote above, the becoming of something great—not the being of it—is where the glory lies.

Kong is a beautiful little microcosm of American life. We are a country founded upon competition and an always optimistic ethic of tomorrow: what we don’t have is within reach, what isn’t here today might come tomorrow, who you are today is not who you will always be, etc. It’s a glistening sentiment that makes the patriotic heart beat stronger, but beneath it lies the sad reality of human nature and earthly existence: there will always be someone better, glory is fleeting, legacies are tenuous, and the greatest of the great is still just a candle in the wind.

Even so, competition is a good thing, and certainly no more pointless or temporal than anything else in this life. Competition pushes us forward, and Hegelian progress is made (through the friction of dialectics), even if there are casualties along the way. Competition is innate to humanity, and people like Plato recognized that from very early on. Plato had a term called thymos, which is the essential part the soul wherein man desires recognition, demands respect of his dignity, and feels pride. It is this part of the human soul that allows us to act in contrary (e.g. sacrificing ourselves for some greater purpose) to our reason and other instincts. It is in thymos that our innate sense of justice exists, and—as contemporary scholar Francis Fukuyama argues—where noble virtues of selflessness, idealism, self-sacrifice, courage, and honorability originate.

Thus, while competition can be painful and the fruits of winning rather unsatisfying, it is still the engine that drives a successful society. It is the chief means by which man can begin to understand his identity and see glimpses of his self-worth—and in the process realize that any worth he might have cannot come from anything he can ever do (because even the greatest achievements in the world leave us ultimately unworthy before the vastness of sin and mortality), but rather from some grace-giving Other.

16 responses to “Donkey Kong Nation

  1. Woah. I really like the insight about how gender plays into the competitive spirit. This is perhaps why I don’t really buy your thesis about the competitive spirit being foundational for a “successful society”, whatever that is. (successful by whose standards?) Foundational for a patriarchal society, maybe…

    I take the view that while a degree of competition is innate, the modern male obsession with competition is socialized, a function of a particular economic order and educational system.

  2. Hey Kevin-
    Thanks for your comment on this (and for the one on the Hipster post… ). You’re right that “successful society” is a pretty arbitrary term. I suppose I’m defining it in the way Fukuyama does in “The End of History,” which is that a “successful” society/civilization is one which survives… and survival has typically come through being able to compete with other contending civilizations. Fukuyama argues (as Hegel and others have) that history is basically a series of people groups or civilizations that have fought against and either lorded over or submitted to one another… thus making “competition” a key and innate fixture of human history.
    I do find your point about male competition being socialized interesting… I think to an extent it is socialized (i.e. empasized or de-emphasized depending on the particular culture); however, I do also believe that it is innate in the human, and especially the male.

  3. This Fukuyama guy seems like quite a character–i’m not familiar with his work and my knee-jerk reaction is that it’s hard for me to take seriously the ideas of anyone involved in the Project for a New American Century. In any case his ideas about competition seem obsolete, or at least don’t provide any insight into the current small-world global economic order in which all of us are lorded over by the same multinationals. I mean other models certainly exist–Vandana Shiva’s “Staying Alive” certainly applies here.

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  6. Why is your blog so FULL ?
    The font is horrid too. More clarity, please.

    An e-surfer

  7. It’s funny to hear a pretentious film aficionado make disparaging remarks about gamers. Both gamers and cinophiles sit in dark room for hours on end staring at a screen. Both seek out others to further their hobby (gamers find people to play against, cinophiles seek people to wax pretentious and and eat expensive sandwiches).

    I am both and the only difference I see between the two groups is gamers don’t pitch a tent in their pants when they get a chance to tell others how a games “mis en scene successfully juxtaposes social simulacrum established by the creators previous work”.

    You are just as much a fucking nerd as the gamers you are so quick to criticize. That high horse doesn’t make you as cool as you think it does. Cineophiles are social outcasts who possess volumes of knowledge about subjects nobody cares about (nerd). You are just as laughed at and shunned by mainstream culture (nerd).

    Anyways, I don’t think I can accomplish much by trying to get a lib to have an open mind. I just hope you did post this blog entry on a Macbook in a coffee shop.

  8. This sounds like a good film…would love to check it out.

  9. I dont think its so much the point of being the best but proving the point that that billy guy cheated on his tapes and never had the balls to back it up and someone had to put him in his place….just saying

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