True Life: I’m a Donkey Kong Champ. How Does Gaming Fit into Physical Cultural Studies? By Sarah Olson


I have never been interested in video games.  My lack of enthusiasm concerning the pastime stems from a number of factors, but mainly 1) I don’t have stellar hand-eye coordination and 2) my grandma became obsessed with Nintendo in the early 1990s and throughout my childhood she was rather ruthless when challenging and competing against her grandkids (I seem to remember being laughed at and slightly taunted concerning my lack of skill).  And while I pride myself on being accepting and loving of all people, I am going to admit that I have thought that video games were for big nerds.  Prior to last weekend I assumed that people who played video games were either hard core Trekkies or just liked to get high while playing Halo or Super Mario Cart. 

Keeping this in mind, it seemed rather ironic that I attended the new documentary entitled, The King of Kong, A Fistful of Quarters.  The film tells the story of the world Donkey Kong champions’ quest for greatness and the Guinness World Record.  After a brief introduction to classic arcade gaming culture, the film sets up the fight to be the best in the world between reigning world champion and “Gamer of the Century” Billy Mitchell and seventh grade science teacher and “Mr. Almost but Never Quite the Best at Anything” Steve Wiebe.  While Mitchell has held one of the most prominent places in competitive gaming since being named by Life Magazine as one of the best in the world in 1982, Wiebe came much later to gaming after being laid off from his job at Boeing and seeking comfort in playing Donkey Kong.  The movie chronicles Wiebe’s attempt to break Mitchell’s 20+ year standing record and to prove to himself that he can be the best. 

 Going into it I anticipated that it would reinforce my stereotypes of video gamers.  I don’t even like watching people play video games in person, let alone watching a movie about people playing video games.  I thought it would be two hours of my life wasted on watching lame dudes sitting around mindlessly playing at an arcade while a narrator gave a play-by-play of their gaming tactics.  While the documentary did include some of the ultra-nerdy aspects of video game culture such as discussions of “kill screens” and advice from men who had authored self-help books on how to improve at Donkey Kong, it proved my assumptions of video gamers and the culture was a bit harsh.  This film captured the true essence of competition and I even forgot that it was about video games.  While watching the rivalry, personal investment, and desire unfold on the screen, I felt as if I was watching a great sports film like Rudy.  King of Kong exceeded my expectations in every way and proved to be pertinent to Physical Cultural Studies. 

Just how does playing classic arcade games like Tetris fall under “physical culture and its myriad of forms”?  Within the past couple of years we here at Maryland have been trying to expand our working definition of and range of research concerning physical culture.  Being part of a Kinesiology department, it is easy to focus strictly on the sporting and active body.  However, we realize that there are many more aspects of physical culture that demand research because of their impact on greater society.  We understand that the body is a major site of social control and simultaneously a site for resistance and everyday we attempt to open ourselves as academics to understanding the full depth and breadth of what is physical culture and why is it important. 

That being said, I found myself thinking about the movie days later in a class discussion.  By this point my initial excitement had worn off and I critically thought about the film and how it comments on our society.  It was then that I realized that video gaming falls into the realm of physical culture in ways I had not considered.  I thought about the limited nature of the physical activity of playing video games.  Although the players in the film were only moving their hands and fingers, their experiences were similar to elite athletes in terms of competition, rivalry, emotion, etc.  Video gaming in this sense has provided people who may not excel in highly physical venues such as sport, dance, theater, music, etc., the opportunity to succeed in a physically competitive environment.  In other words, the kid who was always out first in dodgeball could grow up to be the next Nintendo Wii world champ. 

 While this is a not much more than a fun realization and maybe a future research project, I find the real importance of my video game epiphany within a larger framework.   It is thoughts like this that constantly remind me that the boundaries of physical culture must be pushed and questioned.  A week ago I would have ardently argued that video gaming had nothing to do with Physical Cultural Studies and everything to do with our sky-rocketing childhood obesity rates.  Now I am contemplating writing Steve Wiebe and asking him if I can write an academic article on him.  In order to take on this project, we must continue to keep ourselves open to learning and understanding how unrecognized parts of life are part of physical culture.  Maybe we will even enjoy a sweet documentary about video games along the way.

Check out the Movie website:


3 thoughts on “True Life: I’m a Donkey Kong Champ. How Does Gaming Fit into Physical Cultural Studies? By Sarah Olson

  1. Sarah,
    I think this is a really important blog because it does connect more than simply sport, dance or actual physical movement with virtual physical movement. You touch on the fact that a gamer moves his or her thumbs, but an area that find totally fascinating is the notion of controlling a virtual body and making it act in ways that the ‘real’ corpus never could. For example, in Frogger, yes another one of those great late 70’s games, the gamer could make his or her frog/(avatar, perhaps???) jump in ways that are humanly impossible. Perhaps more to the point of PCS and interrogating our current moment, what about war games where little kids load themselves up with AK-47s and the like and destroy hundreds of ‘insurgents’? Clearly, there is a lot going on in these games. They have evolved into a whole new corporeal and perhaps ideological world that is definitely in need of excavation.

  2. Wow. Problematic for a lot of reasons. DOes “PCS” acknowledge that ‘lame’ (as in ‘lame dudes’) is a slur agaisnt those w/ disabilities???? Is it sexist too?

  3. MB,

    Thank you so much for your comments. I try very hard to be conscience of my use of language and I apologize for some of the word usage within this post. Thanks again.

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