Courier Staff Writer
It may be a fun picture of Ottumwa three decades ago, but being featured in Life Magazine was serious business.
The magazine featured a group of the top competitive gamers in the world standing amongst cheerleaders and arcade games in downtown Ottumwa.
The players, all connected to the Twin Galaxies video game arcade in Ottumwa, came from around the country to be part of the now-famous photo.
“They paid their own way, their own gas,” said Walter Day, founder of Twin Galaxies. “I paid for hotel rooms.”
“Has it been 30 years already?” asked Ben Gold, who lives outside of Dallas, Texas. “The day of the photo, it’s kind of a blur to me. I remember getting here and meeting all these people who were as crazy as me.”
On an early Sunday morning in November they gathered downtown. They were posed in the street by Life photographer Enrico Ferorelli, who has shot photos for National Geographic, Newsweek, Time, Sports Illustrated and People.
“Life decided in 1982 that video games [were] the big story, and that they’d do some sort of treatment on video game phenomena,” said Day.
“Life Magazine was really special,” said Gold.
It kicked off a one year period he refers to as a time creating “crazy childhood memories” A competitive tour, being on the TV show “That’s Incredible!” and being named the first competitive video game world champion.
“I was 16 years old and just having a good time,” he said. “In Texas, video games were seen as pointless, a waste of time. I saw it as a sport; I wanted to be the best. So when I went to Ottumwa [for the photograph], I met my sole mates. I could finally have those in-depth conversations about video games.”
Walter Day started keeping track of high scores at his and other arcades. He eventually organized a system, and became the keeper of the Twin Galaxies Scoreboard, the first of its kind.
“All the professional video game magazines at the time were jumping out of their skins to run the video game scoreboard,” said Day. “
It was, he said, a time and place still recognized internationally as the start of organized, competitive video games.
“When it comes down to being a gamer, part of the culture, it all comes back and rests on Ottumwa’s shoulders. Believe it or not, the outside world buys into it: Ottumwa is the Mecca,” said Day.
He recalls that in the 1980s, when someone mentioned Twin Galaxies, they also mentioned Ottumwa. The arcade and the town gave residents bragging rights.
“Back in those days, people were very proud,” said Day.
There are plenty of gamers, old and young, who still want to commemorate those days.
Gold’s latest venture is an online video game collectibles auction house.
“I’m no longer trying to set world records,” he said. “I’m into preserving that culture and history at the start of competitive gaming.”
Winning a world record on an arcade game takes a lot of time, time Gold would rather devote to his family. He’s not 16 years old. He wants to be remembered as a good father, a husband, a good friend.
At 46, he’s married and has three children. That’s important to him.
“Hey, on my tombstone, I don’t want it to say ‘Ben Gold, he scored 40 million points on Stargate.’"
Walter Day lives in Fairfield, but his latest project is to get a couple really nice bronze plaques in downtown Ottumwa. At $6,000 apiece, he’ll have to do some fundraising, but he wants a serious marker that Ottumwa and Twin Galaxies were the birthplace of competitive gaming — and that the famous Life photo was taken there.
“I was just starting an arcade, and having some fun. Now, 30 years later, it’s perceived as a big deal. It’s become huge; people are winning huge sums of money. Who would have thought it’d become this?”
To see Ben Gold’s new page, go to IVGAH.com.