Video game capital

Courier file photo

Billy Mitchell, standing, and Walter Day prepare for a video game presentation in Ottumwa, home of “The World Video Game Hall of Fame.”

OTTUMWA — The man in the striped referee’s shirt has inspired gamers, business people and a cartoonist who needed a video game character for an animated film called Wreck it Ralph. Walter Day continues to inspire, a fact that may not be obvious to moviegoers today.

Day, currently living in Fairfield, said he met author Ernie Cline, who wrote the science fiction novel "Ready Player One". The film rights to the book were acquired by Stephen Spielberg.

"Ready Player One" is described as a visionary's journey that connects the Golden Age of Video Games (1980s) with a dystopian future. Long before Spielberg got involved, Cline had been a fan of Day, Twin Galaxies and the Ottumwa gamer scene. In a video, Cline tells Day he gained inspiration for the story by repeatedly watching the video game documentary “Chasing Ghosts.” The documentary follows the career of video game pioneer Walter Day. He is considered by some, including the Guinness Book of Records, to be the founder of eSports. Twin Galaxies arcade had, under Day, become the central point of contact for video gamers around the country and the world. Arcade managers would call with the high score for machines like Pac Man, Donkey Kong and Frogger. 

It's not that there is a character in the story who looks like him or Billy Mitchell of Pac Man or "King of Kong" fame, Day told the Courier.

"Ernie Cline considered [our story] to be the paradigm, the model, for how he wanted the culture to look," Day said.

He wanted a spirit that started with Twin Galaxies, Day said. At one time, there were thousands of arcades. Players loved the games, they loved to get a high score. But there was only a high score recorded on the machine they played. They had no idea what was going on in the rest of the world — until Twin Galaxies scoreboard connected all of them.

Suddenly, you knew how you stacked up not just against the players in your town, but against the kid in California. Maybe you find out your score is among the 10 best in the world. It was the first time everyone was connected via arcade games.

Cline, said Day, used that connection: He saw the community that developed internationally, and he latched onto the fact that a culture was born. People who loved gaming, people who were competitive and often, said Day, young people who felt parents and schoolmates didn't really understand them.

But the other players did. This community, in the story as now in real life, is global.

"Along came the culture of being a ‘gamer,’ and what that meant. That’s what Ernie Cline saw begin with Twin Galaxies," said Day.

The film will open in Iowa with Mitchell and Day present today, Thursday. A spokesperson from the theater wrote: “Walter Day and Billy Mitchell, credited by author Ernest Cline as the inspirations for his best-selling novel turned big screen movie will visit the Coral Ridge Cinema in Coralville to celebrate the opening of the highly anticipated new film."

At a recent video game show in Austin, Texas, Day called Cline to the stage. In the video of the event, Cline told the crowd there would have been no "Ready Player One" without Walter Day, Billy Mitchell, Ottumwa and Twin Galaxies. Cline told the audience that Mitchell and Day were “two of his heroes.”

Billy Mitchell made a name for himself as Pac-Man high scorer, and is himself a star of the video game world: The theater release says CNN called him the "video game player of the century."

“I can imagine that most people will be surprised to learn that this Steven Spielberg science fiction movie has an Iowa connection, but it does,” wrote Day in the theater's statement. “I hope people will stay … after the movie so Billy Mitchell and I can share our stories.”

Staff writer Mark Newman can be contacted at MNewman@ottumwacourier.com. Article modified at 11 a.m. Friday to explain what Twin Galaxies was.

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