Ottumwa, video game capital of the world?

By Kristin Kalning
|  Wednesday, May 6, 2009  |  Updated 11:12 PM CDT
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Ottumwa, Iowa is vying for the video game hall of fame.

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Ottumwa, Iowa ... video game capital of the world?

Well … not yet. But if local boosters and an arcade-gaming legend get their way, this small Iowa burg will be the official video game capital of the world, complete with a museum and a hall of fame.

Why Ottumwa? After all, Atari came out of the Silicon Valley. And Nintendo, Mario’s house, is in Kyoto, Japan. Why should a farming community 90 miles south of Des Moines get bragging rights as the video game capital of the world?

As it turns out, Ottumwa was a video game hotspot in the early ’80s, around the same time that video games were becoming a part of popular culture. Walter Day, who owned the Twin Galaxies video game arcade in town, says Ottumwa was considered the “Dodge City” of video games, since it’s where all the top players would come to compete on “Asteroids” or “Pac-Man” or “Centipede.” In 1982, the mayor of Ottumwa proclaimed the town the “Video Game Capital of the World.” A year later, Ottumwa played host to the first video game world championship, which was filmed by the TV show “That’s Incredible.”

“A lot of seminal things happened in Ottumwa,” says Day.  “It literally was the center of the gaming universe.”

Ottumwa is also the birthplace of the video game scorekeeping organization, also named Twin Galaxies, which Day founded. Twin Galaxies is still, 25 years later, the refereeing and adjudicating federation for video gamers.  Want to know who drove the fastest lap in “Gran Turismo 4?” It’s on the Twin Galaxies Web site. Want to know who scored the most points on the NES version of “Dig Dug II?” It’s on the Twin Galaxies Web site.

The citizens of Ottumwa are mostly behind the effort to make the town the “official” video game capital of the world. The editorial board of the Ottumwa Daily Courier published an opinion piece on May 1 headlined “Ottumwa ready for video game hall of fame.” The editorial acknowledges that “while local, state and federal dollars must be used for more practical and necessary projects, we’re hopeful organizers will be able to secure private investment dollars for the hall of fame.”

But there are some naysayers to the Ottumwa-as-game-mecca movement, both from residents, and the out-of-towners. Chris Hoeksema, who started a Facebook group called “Bring Twin Galaxies and Ottumwa the credit it deserves,” told me that people don’t get just how much video game history the town can claim.

“I think that if people knew a little bit more about just how much impact Ottumwa and Twin Galaxies had on video game culture, they would see that this idea is not very far-fetched at all.”

Ottumwa is organizing to make the dream/hope a reality. This week, citizens and city officials are forming a committee to get things rolling, and Terry McNitt, director of Ottumwa’s chamber of commerce,  believes one of the first pieces of business will be to apply for non-profit status, to provide an avenue for donations.

McNitt isn’t sure how the whole thing will be funded, or how much it will cost. But Day said he has a clear vision of what he wants the museum to be. “This has been my dream for a long time,” he says.

Day says he hopes the museum will have about 75 key, playable arcade games. It’ll have the obvious ones like "Pong," "Pac-Man," "Donkey Kong" and "Centipede," as well as the historical ones like "Space Wars" and "Night Driver." The games will be accompanied by museum-caliber storyboards and graphics. 

“It’s not going to be a dirty room filled with old video games, this is going to be a seriously well-tuned, real museum,” he says.

One of the museum’s key backers is Billy Mitchell, the legendary video-game champion and hot sauce magnate from South Florida. In 1982, when Mitchell was just 17, he traveled to Ottumwa to participate in a Life magazine spread about Ottumwa and video gaming.

“I clearly recognized what we did there in Ottumwa, not just that day, but for years, as a point of suffrage. It’s what we went through. It was the beginning. It was the birth of organized video game play,” he says. “I actually believe the idea of it being the video game capital and hall of fame is Ottumwa’s birthright, because it’s where it all began.”

Last week, Mitchell, who was one of the main characters in the documentary “The King of Kong,” was back in Ottumwa. He pledged to bequeath his “Donkey Kong” machine, the one he broke the world record on two years ago, to the museum. He says that experience he had there in Ottumwa, almost 27 years ago, set him on a path to competitive gaming.

“Maybe it’s just bred in me to want to be the first to do certain things …  so to be the first one to donate a piece of memorabilia, or an artifact, or whatever, it seemed like the natural thing to do.”

 

Scoring the designation as the video game capital of the world might bring in the tourists. But McNitt hopes the moniker and museum would have another benefit: preventing local teens from  leaving the town after high school or college.

“You always want your youth to graduate and stay home, and we’re getting better at it, but we aren’t where we need to be yet,” he says. “Anytime we bring anything like this into town, anything new that’s going to make us proud … we’re going to have a lot of envy, we’re going to have a lot of people looking at us and saying ‘Wow, you guys did it.’”

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