Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Best Man To Claim A World Record Score On Donkey Kong

Americans, it has been said, would rather believe something than know something.

You may wonder who said that. I wondered that, too, because it's a pithy saying I've long espoused and used in arguments and conversations, arguments and conversations that go something like this:

Sweetie: Did you let Mr Bunches jump on the bed while you were getting ready for work even though I've asked you not to do that?

Me: Did you see him jumping on the bed?

Sweetie: No, but I heard something that sounded like him jumping on the bed and the bed is messed up and he's got a bump on his head.

Me: Well, if like most Americans, you would rather BELIEVE something than KNOW something, then by all means, BELIEVE that I let him jump on the bed.

Sweetie: Well, did you?

Me: I want a lawyer.

Back to my point, which is this: you may wonder who first said "Americans would rather believe something than know something," just as I wondered that when I first typed it. So I went and did my usual exhaustive research, googling a couple variations of that phrase, only to find no attribution for that saying which means...

I, the Trouble With Roy, am the one who first said "Americans Would Rather Believe Something Than Know Something."

Kids, you should strive to have the kind of life I have, a life where every day is full of new challenges and wonder and the surprise of realizing that for years, you have been quoting yourself. Now I know how Ben Franklin felt.

But enough of that. Back to the point I was making before I began making that other point, and the point I was making before I was began making that other point is that regardless of who first said it (it was me, though!) Americans would actually rather believe something than know something. That is, we -- I'm an American, too, and no better or worse than any other American, except Diablo Cody, who I'm better than -- and except Tina Fey, who I'm also better than -- and except for Ethan Hawke, who I'm also better than and I thought I should throw in here too just to prove I was not being sexist when I was talking about the three Americans I know for sure I'm better than -- we would rather believe something that fits our world view than know for sure something that doesn't.

That's kind of abstract. Let me give you a concrete example. Americans, in general, and me in specific, would rather believe that the New England Patriots* videotaping other teams helped them win Superbowls, even if that is not actually the case; we would rather believe that than know for sure that the videotaping did not help them win those games at all, even if that is actually the case.

Why? Because we know the Patriots* were cheating; they got caught with their hand in the Netflix queue. (Woo-hoo! I have updated an old saying!) So if we believe that the cheating helped them, it fits our worldview by answering the questions of why would they cheat (because it helped them win) and how could they be so good when other teams like my own team are not (because they cheated) and why should I like or admire Coach Bill Belichick, who is clearly not a nice person (you shouldn't, because he cheated.)

Believing that the Patriots* cheating helped them win fits neatly into our worldview that people excel not through hard work and being smarter and better -- something we don't want to believe because it's hard to be a hard worker who is smarter and better-- but through cheating, which makes us feel good about ourselves because while we didn't win three Superbowls and date supermodels, we at least didn't cheat.

But knowing, if it is true, that the cheating didn't help them win Superbowls not only throws us into a tailspin of doubting ourselves (maybe we SHOULD be harder working and smarter and not have coffee stains on our pants when we get to the office!) but also raises disturbing questions like Why would people cheat if it didn't benefit them in any way? Are they just inherently corrupt? (Answer: Yes.)

Examples of this phenomenon abound in America, from people believing that planting a tree will help offset the carbon they use (it probably won't) to people believing that Kurt Cobain did or did not commit suicide (here's one view.)

There is a second reason for why Americans behave this way; it's not just that we want to fit things into our worldview -- it's that we want to fit things into our worldview and we are, deep down inside, existentialists.

Existentialism, a topic on which I'm an expert, having read both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Waiting for Godot when I was a high school senior and having taken a philosophy class in college, is a philosophy that, as I recall, was very boring, somehow, even though the two plays were okay to read. The actual performance of Waiting for Godot that we listened to on tape (this was 1987, and we didn't have "digital" anything then because people in 1987 thought numbers were only good for counting) was annoying; I recall that one of the characters kept moaning a lot and we all laughed.

Existentialism also can be described as a philosophy that boils down to the idea that human existence cannot be described through scientific or moral processes; it can be described only through existence itself. In other words, in existentialism, hard-and-fast scientific facts do not explain our lives; and basic moral truths do not explain our lives. Jean-Paul Sartre boiled it down to this: Existence precedes essence, which could be paraphrased as "You are what you will eventually eat." Existentialism tells us that human beings are what they believe themselves to be -- even down to things like skin color and height, which we interpret through the interpretations given to others spun back through the interpretations we have begun with.

With me so far? I'm not either -- I got a little lost there. Here's the key to existentialism that you need to know: reason and value lack any ultimate foundation, and the idea that something exists and is useful in the universe is no more or less right than the idea that something does not exist and/or is not useful.

(I'm using this article as a source.)

In other words, if you think something is right, or if you think something is wrong, both values are equally correct depending on how you look at things. Or, to paraphrase my paraphrase of Sartre, The world will eventually be what you believe it to be.

Right now, most of you are probably saying Wait a minute, that's not how I think, I'm not like that, I think that things actually exist, things like my cup of coffee and "Sunday Night Football" and aquarium managers, because I've seen them.

But on a deeper level, I'm right and you know it. We all choose to believe things without any basis in fact, or ignoring the facts, or hoping that the facts will prove us right, or that "facts" are meaningless, as that other great philosopher Homer Simpson said: "Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that's even remotely true."

Facts are useful, then, only if you want to prove something to be true, which we don't, we want to believe something to be true, and particularly we want to believe the thing we like to be true, as is shown very vividly by the subjects of todays Showdown, which I will finally get to, which is a Showdown between the two men who at one point claimed a world record score on Donkey Kong, Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe.

I recently watched The King of Kong, a documentary about these two men and their efforts to set or keep a world record score on Donkey Kong, a video game I never cared much for as a kid but which was fun enough. The movie The King of Kong is fascinating; if you haven't seen it, by all means rent or buy it. I'm not one for nonfiction or true-life or documentaries, as a rule (like I always say, I'm already living real life; why would I want to watch it on TV?)(I could start my own almanac with these sayings, today) but The King of Kong caught my attention because it was about video games, so I took it out from the library and watched it one Sunday afternoon -- and loved it, loved it so much that I actually got a little choked up, which says a lot about how moving this story is, because I've only gotten choked up at a few movies; usually it takes something like the old couple lying on their bed as [SPOILER ALERT TO THE ONE PERSON WHO HAS NOT YET SEEN THIS MOVIE] the Titanic goes down to make me get a little teary-eyed, but I got a little teary-eyed watching The King of Kong.


In The King of Kong, we first meet, of the two principals, Billy Mitchell, a ridiculous figure of a guy who wears America ties and sells hot sauce and runs a restaurant and whose hairstyle makes him look like a bass guitarist for the rock band Loverboy. Billy Mitchell set the original, first, world record on Donkey Kong in the 1980s, when he also chose his hairstyle and mannerisms for life, during a Life magazine photo shoot about videogame high scorers. Billy Mitchell was so audacious that he challenged the claimed-world-record holder to a match right then and there and beat him and set a world record.

Then we meet Steve Wiebe, a Boeing engineer who signs the papers on his first house with his wife and kids and is on that same day laid off from work. Steve did what any sane person would do with a mortgage,no job, and time on his hands: He bought a Donkey Kong game and set out trying to set a world record score and beat Billy Mitchell's score.

The movie then traces Steve's efforts to do that, from his first claimed world record, a score videotaped as he set it on his own machine in his garage, while his son yelled at him, to his second claimed world record, which he set live at a videogame festival which he was challenged by the videogame people to attend after they denied his first world record because they thought maybe he was helped by a guy that Billy Mitchell hates.

One of the judges who helped determine whether Steve Wiebe beat Billy Mitchell's score? Billy Mitchell.

After Steve beats the record, live, on a neutral game, at a convention hosted by the people who are supposed to verify the world records for this stuff, the people who in fact verify the world records... allow Billy Mitchell to set a different world record, via a very questionable videotape.

Then, things get really intense, because The Guiness Book of World Records -- my future employer-- decides to determine who actually holds the world record, so Steve Wiebe is invited by the videogame people once again to try to set a world record, and he travels to Florida, to Billy Mitchell's own town, to try to do that again, over a couple of days -- and also to play, live, against his now-nemesis, Billy Mitchell.

Billy Mitchell, in the grand tradition of record-holders, champions, and Americans, naturally rises to the challenge and meets Steve Wiebe, mano a mano for the ultimate Donkey Kong Kong-Off, right? Wrong.

Billy Mitchell doesn't play. He shows up briefly to not talk to Steve Wiebe at all, even after Steve says "hi," then runs away.

Billy Mitchell, who holds himself out as some kind of great American, ought to be ashamed to wear his American tie and comb his Loverboy hair; his behavior throughout the documentary is shameful -- weird, fake videotapes, refusals to compete, and generally poor sportsmanship all around all are in stark contrast to Steve Wiebe, who plays Donkey Kong with his son hugging him from behind, who is polite and nice to everyone, who leaves messages for Billy Mitchell saying how great it would be to play against him, and who can be seen smiling even at the end of his failed attempt to set a world record over those few days in Florida -- smiling through his tears.

Yep, you read that right: Steve's trip to Florida was for naught. He didn't get to play Billy Mitchell, and he didn't set the world record. In the end, the record-confirmers shamefully submitted to Guiness the fake-videotape record that Billy Mitchell had previously sent in. (The record-confirmers themselves questioned the authenticity of this tape.)

That's the part that proves that Americans would rather believe something than know something. The world-record confirmers wanted to believe that Billy Mitchell had the world record. They liked him, they thought he was a neat guy and great for the industry (is it sad that there's a "video game world record industry?" Or is it cool? I vote cool but kind of sad.) They knew that Steve Wiebe had the record-- but they chose to believe Billy Mitchell. They opted to believe rather than know.

If it had ended there, I still would have picked Steve Wiebe for this nomination -- because it's not a nomination of who actually holds the world record in Donkey Kong; it's a nomination of who is The Best Man To Claim A World Record Score On Donkey Kong, and Steve Wiebe claimed the world record, before Florida, not once, but twice, and proved himself the best man to do so by being a good sport, by competing fairly, and by always, always, rising to the challenge (as Americans are supposed to do.)

But it didn't end there. It ended with Steve Wiebe claiming the world record shortly thereafter and finally, finally getting his due.

Not to then be even more anticlimactic, but the movie came out in 2007. Then, in June, 2007, Billy Mitchell at last decided to compete live and bested Steve again, with the result being that Steve, briefly the claimant of the World Record score for Donkey Kong, is currently only second; Steve's score of 1,049,100, is 1,100 less than Billy Mitchell's current world-record of 1,050,200 points. (And in the interest of fairness, I will note, too, that Billy Mitchell set the current world record in front of a referee.)

But, as I pointed out, this nomination is not about who has the world record; it's about the Best Man to claim a world record score on Donkey Kong; and that man is uncontestably Steve Wiebe, who gets it for his perseverance, for his good-naturedness, for his sportsmanship, and for his always never giving up. So, Steve Wiebe, in my world view, you are The Best Man To Claim A World Record Score On Donkey Kong.

Related: While I didn't like Donkey Kong, I did like "Asteroids," and named it The Best Classic Arcade Game-- and even came up with a movie idea for it. And my dislike of real life as entertainment didn't stop me from liking the book "Longitude" or the movie "Touching The Void."

Click here to see all the other topics I’ve ever discussed!

Showdown September is an entire month of categories in which there are only TWO possible nominees! Categories like

The Best Song That Talks About Whether The Singer Of The Song Feels Like Dancing Or Not

TheBest of Two Freaky Cults Trying to Sell You Something or

The Best Celebrity Who Remains Unspeakably Cool No Matter What He Does.

Celebrity Adoption:

Do you like sports? Do you like Gisele Bundchen? Do you hate sports blogs, though? Then read Nonsportsmanlike Conduct! -- the sports blog for people who love sports but hate sports blogs.

1 comment:

grasshopper said...

I can confirm that King of Kong is the most compelling video game documentary i've ever seen (okay so it's the only video game doc. i've ever seen, but it's still good)