At 16, Ben Gold Was A Video Arcade Legend. But Only Now, 27 Years Later, Is He Being Recognized For It.

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At 16, Ben Gold Was A Video Arcade Legend. But Only Now, 27 Years Later, Is He Being Recognized For It.

On August 11, 1983,

Ben Gold walked into heaven. The details seemed preposterously unlikely. He'd found it in a shiny, 44-foot-long 1953 GMC bus. The bus was parked in Ottumwa, Iowa, a town whose primary attraction was a coal museum that had closed 90 years ago. Presumably because people knew what coal looked like. But now the bus was there. And so Gold, a scrawny Dallas teen one month shy of his 17th birthday, boarded the bus with four of his friends and peers. Around them were assembled the nine most popular video games ever, powered by an internal generator, no quarters required. And this would now be his life. Ben Gold, Stargate master, was the fifth member of the inaugural U.S. National Video Game Team.

The button-mashing, joystick-slinging group of teenage gamers had been assembled by a man named Walter Day, who'd somehow managed to convince the world, briefly, that his Twin Galaxies arcade in downtown Ottumwa was teenage Mecca. It started months earlier, after dedicated gamers across America had spent months mastering games and started wondering "How good am I?" never knowing how high their scores ranked beyond the confines of their neighborhood arcades. Frustrated, they would call the manufacturers of these games and ask, "What's the top score?" On Millipede, Donkey Kong, Galaga, Stargate. Whatever.

The manufacturer—Williams or Midway or Atari or NAMCO, the biggies—would always offer the same response: "Dunno, but there's this guy in Ottumwa who has this scoreboard..." The manufacturers thought it was strange there was some guy in Iowa keeping score. Nonetheless, they said: Call Walter Day, the scorekeeper.

And so the kids would call Walter Day. And they would ask: "How good am I?" And he would tell them: Good, not good enough, better than most. They would find out the record as posted on the Twin Galaxies International Scoreboard, then set off to break it. And then they would call back, and Walter would say: "The best."

Ben Gold was the best at Stargate. Later: Millipede and Q*bert. Billy Mitchell was tops at Donkey Kong—was till last Monday, matter of fact. Others had their games. And they all had Walter and Ottumwa, where, in the early 1980s, the world's best gamers gathered every so often for a showdown and a long hangout. And, for a brief and glorious moment in the early 1980s, a few of these boys even became national celebrities—like Ben, who, in January 1983, was crowned on national television as The World's Best Video Game Player. It was around that time that Day sensed his moment. The National Video Game Team was born.

"Video games were the most popular hobby at the time," says Billy Mitchell, whose appearance in the 2007 documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters would cement his reputation as the best-known "golden-age" gamer. "I'd gotten better and better at the games I was good at, and to think you were the best created a driving passion. You wanted to meet the other guys who were like you. They were the smartest guys I'd ever met."

At 33, Day was twice the age of these gamers: Mitchell, who sported the wispy tough-guy moustache of the '80s late-teen scene; Steve Harris, a high-school dropout eventually bound for the magazine world; Tim McVey, who a year later would be the first dude to ever bust a billion points; Jay Kim, a late-comer and, at 14, the youngest of the bunch; and Gold, the bar mitzvah boy who went to Greenhill School and who, on his 16th birthday in September 1982, set the world record on Stargate after spending 36 hours on a single quarter.

Gold never really thought of himself as the member of some team—thought it was nothing but hype, Day's last, best chance at keeping games in the spotlight and his on-life-support arcade alive. "Overstatement," is how Gold puts it. "Me, as a 16-year-old, I saw it as us being out there, not as the U.S. National Video Game Team."

But a road trip without parents? Hell. Yes.

He arrived later than the others, some of whom had been in Ottumwa for days. He walked into the arcade and found his teammates sprawled on mattresses spread across the floor in the back room. He asked them, cheerily, "What's for breakfast?" They yelled at him, "We haven't eaten for a week!" Mitchell and the others were too scared to call home and ask for money. They were terrified their parents would make them come home this instant, young man!

So off they went—all hormones and quarters, in search of high scores, some even involving video games—five slightly beaten-down but nonetheless cocky younglings outfitted in tight-fitting Twin Galaxies tees (with their names printed on the back) about to be unleashed on the countryside, their only escort, Day, an early-period-Genesis Phil Collins look-alike and perennially aspiring folksinger who'd need to stop every few hours to meditate and recharge.

Day, who would go on to write about his adventures in gaming in an out-of-print 983-page doorstop called the Official Video Game & Pinball Book of World Records, has another name for it: Destiny.

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5 comments
HCP
HCP

HOLY CRAP! I remember him. I met him at the Tilt Arcade at Preston Wood Mall (mall long gone) and Pro Video (also long gone) down the street from the Mall.

Miss IT
Miss IT

I am SO SICK of seeing this article on yahoo front page.... I never even read it...I figure if he has to hide behind mirror glasses, he's a loser anyway.

MoxieMoola
MoxieMoola

WHO CARES ALREADY?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! PUT UP A STORY OF REAL INTEREST!.

dan snider
dan snider

cool story, but this has been on the top news headlines for WEEKS!!! Come on YAHOO!!! I'm sure there is newsout there.

 
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