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My Love Affair With Ms. Pac-Man And Other Thoughts About "King of Kong"

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The unwritten rules for laundromats built before 1987 are as following:
A. A half dozen washers or dryers must have Out of Order signs B. A crazy looking person who doesn't appear to be doing laundry at all must stare randomly at people. C. A musty classic arcade game such as Ms. Pac-Man or Galaga sit in the corner for entertainment.

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Now, I'm not a 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. After several months of this, 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 made of Pinkberry and is that why the ghosts are so frightened?' *These questions are merely examples and I likely just made them up.

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, I did it.

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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 screaming 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 Ms. Pac Man. While I love many modern video games, some of them require more training and practice than a helicopter pilot. In Pac-Man, there are no buttons involved, no complex thought needed, it's just you and the stick.

I don't know why, but during 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.

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It wasn't until I racked up 95,000 that I even lost my first life. When I did, I halfway yelled "Oh shit!" 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 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.

Final score: 155,410.

Of course, LAist readers, this is not just an inspirational tale of triumph of the human spirit. 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, 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 they do to accomplish it. Why?

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For Billy Mitchell, proclaimed King of Classic Arcade games (largely from his own mouth), his Donkey Kong high score isn't just a nice accomplishment but 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 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 are 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 Donkey Kong.

But are we really better than them? Are our pursuits that much more noble? There's a part of me that respects them. Part of me that wish I didn't feel the need to keep a cool detachment about me with everything I do and put remove my critic's hat and immerse myself deeply into whatever I'm pursuing whether it be writing, cooking a meal, or playing Mrs. 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."