Dabe Alan / Life Magazine

The rise and fall of the video game capital of the world, and its dreams of rebirth

The rise and fall of the video game capital of the world, and its dreams of rebirth

“Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than 30 years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Ottumwa and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.” – Hunter S. Thompson (modified)

The Video Game Capital of the World hides among the rolling hills of Iowa, where the sound of cicadas is as loud as a city street corner. The small town of Ottumwa controlled the high scores and world records of video games before the days of automated leaderboards, and that power brought mainstream media attention, Life Magazine articles, and television crews. The city was once a celebration of the birth and maturation of arcade culture in the 1980s. Now, a strip club sits across a closed adult cinema on Main Street.

The discovery of video games and the discovery of the self

Ottumwa's importance in the history of video games can be traced to one man. I sat with Walter Day in a crowded office full of science-fiction novels, trading card boxes and computers, located on the second floor of his home in Fairfield, Iowa. “I discovered video games, and I became addicted to Space Invaders that night. And so wherever I traveled, for the next so many months, wherever I went, I would stop and I would play Space Invaders,” he told the Penny Arcade Report.

Day had previously worked in the oil industry, and spent much time and resources to create a “Who's Who in the Petroleum Industry” book with another man, Roger Beeten. After a long day of research and poring over industry documents, Beeten announced that he couldn't work another moment, and had to play Space Invaders to clear his mind. While Day had never heard of Space Invaders, that day inside the Malibu Grand Prix Arcade changed his life.

“It was like an addiction because I loved it so much, I loved playing video games so much. And then later on I found Pac-Man and that became an even bigger addiction, and so whenever I traveled any place, I would stop and play Pac-Man wherever I went,” Day said. “I'd stay up til 2 o'clock every single night trying to play video games. It was just amazing.”

The “Who's Who” book was completed, though Day struggled financially after its release. He came to Iowa in search of a better life, practicing an art form called transcendental meditation, which he discovered in 1969, “ending a year and a half of living as a hippie.” After discovering “TM” and advancing his studies so that he could teach others, he moved to Fairfield, Iowa, where the Maharishi University of Management was founded in 1973.

His next move was obvious: he opened an arcade of his own and called it “Twin Galaxies.” “I opened up the arcade nearby because there wasn't one in Ottumwa, hoping to earn some money that would allow me to stay here and continue to participate in these programs that are available here through Maharishi University of Management,” Day said.

Day called his discovery of meditation “remarkable,” and continues to practice it in Fairfield to this day. But it was the arcade that secured his place in history.

Twin Galaxies' rise to national fame

Day described the early days of Twin Galaxies as frantic and fast-paced. It was the golden age of arcade machines, and Twin Galaxies was a success. On January 18, 1982, TIME Magazine's cover story, “GRONK! FLASH! ZAP! Video Games Are Blitzing the World,” mentioned the legend of Steve Juraszek, who had played Defender for 15 hours, setting what was considered to be the world record in that game. Tony Matten, one of Day's regular customers, told him the record could be broken. Day's response was straightforward.

“Prove it.”

Matten stood at the Twin Galaxies cabinet of Defender for just shy of 24 straight hours the following weekend. Matten scored 24.5 million points, shattering Juraszek's record of 15.9 million. Day described what came next as “miraculous.”

“News venues from around the region like St. Louis, Kansas City, Des Moines, Chicago would call up to get the story on this kid playing the Defender video game. It became a regional, maybe even a national news story. It was a big deal,” Day told the Penny Arcade Report. But there was a catch: No one could officially verify Matten's record, because no one kept track of the scores.

Day called Williams Electronics, makers of Defender, as well as RePlay Magazine to no avail. No one could say for sure if Matten had beaten any kind of world record. There was a need for an official way to keep track of these scores and accomplishments, and Day was in the perfect position to provide that service.

“I called back the magazines, called back Williams Electronics that made Defender, and I called six other manufacturers, a total of seven manufacturers – Nintendo, Atari, Midway, Exidy, Williams and whatever else,” Day said. “I told them that we had a scoreboard, and that we were the scorekeepers keeping track of the record. They all thanked me for this information and said 'Okay, you'll be our official scorekeeper.' They wrote my name and they said 'Well who are you?' and I said 'We're the Twin Galaxies Scoreboard.' Overnight I became the scorekeeper for the industry.”

Book publishers were referred to Twin Galaxies. Manufacturers sent cabinets. TV crews sent reporters, and magazines sent writers. One magazine, Life, worked with Day to bring together a national team of champions, the likes of which include Billy Mitchell of The King of Kong fame. The group formed together on Main Street with cabinets and cheerleaders, like a team of Olympic athletes off to conquer the world. The photo taken of them, Day said, might be one of the most famous in all of video game history.

This photo inspired the documentary Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade, which recounts the lives of these teenage superstars of the '80s, as well as the life of Day, the father figure that acted as the uniting thread for them. You can also watch a video of Day giving a televised update on high scores, and a behind the scenes look at the Life Magazine photoshoot. Riding the high wave of the national spotlight, Day encouraged Mayor Jerry Parker to declare Ottumwa the Video Game Capital of the World. Mayor Parker made his decree on November 30, 1982, and it was subsequently recognized by Senator Charles Grassley.

“A lot of negativity was directed at video games and this was a very, very dramatic, dynamic thing for Mayor Jerry Parker to do, to proclaim Ottumwa the Video Game Capital of the World,” Day said. “And that story went worldwide, that Ottumwa had declared itself the Video Game Capital of the World.”Two months later, in January of 1983, Twin Galaxies hosted the first North American Video Game Olympics. The three top players from this competition were then flown to Hollywood, where they competed on national television show That's Incredible!, which aired in February of 1983.

On March 19, 1983, Governer Terry Branstad and representatives from Atari and the Amusement Game Manufacturers Association once again proclaimed Ottumwa to be the Video Game Capital of the World. Twin Galaxies and Walter Day continued to have an impact in the world of gaming even after this initial wave of publicity. Day was featured in a promotional video during the early days of G4 Television, and Twin Galaxies became the official supplier of scoring information to the Guinness Book of World Records.

“Walter Day of Twin Galaxies has been designated the world's official scorekeeper for electronic video games and pinball as well as home consoles, and PCs. and is now taking on the larger role of verifying scores for the Guinness World Records Gamers Edition 2008,” the press release stated.

Keeping the dream alive through the nightmare

Looking down Main Street today, where Twin Galaxies once stood, where the Life magazine photo was taken, it's a history that's difficult to see. Broken windows and a gutted theater stand on the block where the iconic photograph was taken, and on the next block, the strip club Chills 'n Thrills waits for its nightly influx of customers.

According to 2010 FBI crime statistics, Ottumwa had a violent crime rating of 412.2 per 100,000, above the national average of 403.6. It had a forcible rape rating of 53.1 per 100,000, almost twice the national average of 27.5. Disparaged residents and denizens of nearby cities refer to it as “O-scum-wa.” Talk to the average citizen about Ottumwa's history as the Video Game Capital of the World and you won't find much enthusiasm. Most people I asked simply shrugged or said they didn't play video games. One woman responded, “Oh you mean that certificate at the Applebee's?”

The woman behind the desk at Expert Tire referred to me to Dan “Danny” Canny, the man who spearheaded the International Video Game Hall of Fame project that Ottumwa has been trying to get off the ground since 2010. The Penny Arcade Report reached out to Canny, but he neglected to respond to our questions.

Canny no longer resides on the board of directors for the project. He left in 2010, the same year that the Hall of Fame inducted its first class at the Bridge View Center convention hall, during the Big Bang Festival in August. That same festival was planned for 2011, and its website lists it as postponed.

In his stead sits a new board, with Mark Eckman of the Ottumwa Area Convention & Visitors Bureau acting as Secretary. Eckman said that with regards to the festival and plans for a physical location to place the Hall of Fame, things grew too fast. “A lot of things were done not realizing that you really have to bring along your audience and your contributors at the same time that you're trying to organize these things. You get ahead of it too far, you might plan some things that are not going to be as well-received as you'd like them to be,” he told us. Eckman said that budgetary concerns and a poor economy were to blame for the project not moving forward as fast as they would have liked. The 2010 Big Bang Festival debts still haven't been paid off. “We take very seriously that some folks have been waiting two years to have that paid and we needed our attention to pay that debt and to go forward, but it's hard to be able to actually build something, develop a Hall of Fame and museum, when you have some folks that were very trusting in terms of extending use of credit, and then when things didn't come through as you hoped they would and they hoped they would, you still have to come back around and pay those debts, resolve those issues, and by no means turn your back on them,” Eckman said.

Because of these financial woes, the current board of directors for the International Video Game Hall of Fame is comprised of community members with stronger backgrounds in handling money. Though he neglected to mention who, Eckman also stated that the board had “recruited” a major executive of a video game company to give his thoughts on Ottumwa and the city's hopes to build a physical Hall of Fame. The answer was not reassuring.

“This economy is not making it easy for even the biggest of companies to make generous contributions because they have to address some of the issues that are confronting them. It's not like there's free spending in the video game industry.” Eckman stressed that the project is not dead however, and that Ottumwa is a “novel” place, with interesting history. He pointed out the newly-renovated trail system, spanning thirteen miles in length, for everyone to enjoy, and that just down the road, the house from the iconic “American Gothic” painting still stands. Every year on Labor Day weekend, The Airpower Museum hosts an antique airplane fly-in that sells out every hotel in Wapello County.

“Unfortunately, some of the experiences people had with going to other video game gatherings kind of made folks think that 'Well, we have to be that big right away.' That really wasn't necessary,” Eckman said. “It would be nice if we were able to grow it in a sustainable fashion, to start small and in 10, 20 years approach something like that antique airplane fly-in.”

The legend retires, and walks into the sunset

Day retired from the video game industry in 2010, although the board still confers with him to get his thoughts on Ottumwa's history and future in video games. Day's house is stuffed, overflowing with his farewell gift to the gaming hobby: trading cards. The cards feature iconic video game personalities from all walks and times in gaming history, be they players, writers, developers, musicians or otherwise. So far, Day has created 250 cards of a planned 400, all of which can be ordered online.

When I asked Day how he was helping in the meantime, he said his was a position of inspiration. “I had the first idea and I presented it to them and they ran with it and said 'This is great, let's go do this.' We'll see what comes out of it,” Day said. “I think that it's just a simple process of showing them what we did do in the past, and what it could lead to in the future, and then the rest of the transition, the rest of the journey has to be done by them.”

Day gave up his role in video games to pursue his heart's desire: music. He's already produced one song, “I'll Always Be Playing Your Game,” which you can find on YouTube. “There comes a point where someone has to walk away from something and enjoy the rest of their own life. I've sort of been in this servant capacity for quite awhile in doing this, and soon I have to not be a servant to this and start focusing on what's going to be personally fun for me for the rest of my life.” Day also believes that the strength of the Hall of Fame project and Ottumwa's history will carry them through what Day described as “growing pains.”

The story of Ottumwa may focus on video games, but this is a uniquely American tale in 2012. The city has been hit incredibly hard by the economic downturn, and many people I reached out to while researching this story seemed skeptical of reporters. The boarded-up buildings and cracked streets hide the town's video game history, although Twin Galaxies and Walter Day contributed much to the culture and growth of our industry.

It's a history Day doesn't want lost to time. He's positive about the project, even in the face of a very hard economic reality. “Yes, if you go there right now, you'll say 'Oh there's nothing about video games here,' and that's the reality right now. But everything comes from some level of vision before it manifests in the world, and that's the state that Ottumwa is still in: manifesting the vision. I'm very proud of them, because it's an amazing odyssey to go through, in fact it's a downright ordeal, to go and take something from the level of just consciousness and concept – especially something no one's done before – learn how to do it, go through the difficulties of implementing what you learn, and come to the fruition of instituting the International Video Game Hall of Fame. It's a miraculous journey.”

“They're so devoted and it's been such a hard path the first two years. There's a lot of spirit to this story. A lot of the future things that we hope are realized are still on the level of spirit. That's the power of the story, in that a small town had the spirit to start on this path. I mean really, that's what it comes down to. A mayor 30 years ago got up when everyone else was dissing video games, and he said 'We're the Video Game Capital of the World,' now a board of directors formed from around the community to try and become actually an amusement attraction around video games and have history's first International Video Game Hall of Fame, that's a miracle. That's a miracle.”

When Day smiles and waves his arms it's as though he's painting a picture: The Video Game Capital of the World. He talks about a museum, full of iconography and history. You can smell the freshly waxed floors and hear the quiet murmurs echo through the halls. He mentions gift shops and you almost giggle, thinking of your own stuffed Pikachu or Sonic doll, or giving one to a child. He describes an old-fashioned arcade and that cool, vibrant hum of the CRT displays.

Sitting in Day's house, surrounded by the history of video games, and looking with the right kind of eyes… you can almost see it.