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Ottumwa Scores!

Game Playing Reaches New Heights at Video Game Hall of Fame

by Roger Jones

walter day, video game capital
Walter Day became the official scorekeeper for video games in the 1980s.

Last year, the city of Ottumwa reinvented itself. Up until that time, the southeast Iowa city was notable for two things: being the hometown of Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff) of M*A*S*H fame and the birthplace of Tom Arnold (who graduated from Indian Hills Community College).

Few knew of Ottumwa’s extremely momentous legacy—as the birthplace of competitive video gaming. So on April 10, 2009, the city reminded the world that it is the Video Game Capital of the World and announced plans to create a Video Game Hall of Fame and Museum. How did this enterprise wind up in the modest hamlet of Ottumwa instead of New York, Los Angeles, or Tokyo?

As a rather extraordinary gentleman by the name of Walter Day said, “I think it’s because people love to see David take on Goliath. Small, unassuming Ottumwa has only 27,000 people, but the population is on fire to turn the city into the world’s first video-game-based amusement attraction, essentially becoming the Disneyland of Video Games. It will have museums, statues, events, and, hopefully, a resurrected Twin Galaxies Arcade, the official scorekeeper and contest organizer for the whole world.”

Golden Age of Video Games

It all started in 1982, when Walter, then owner of the Twin Galaxies Video Game Parlor in Ottumwa, noted that one of his patrons, Tony Mattan, had achieved a particularly high score on Defender. Suspecting that this might be the highest score ever achieved on that game, Walter contacted the manufacturer, Williams Electronics in Chicago, and asked if a world record had been set. Company officials  had no idea—because no one was keeping records.  

Walter immediately recognized a great opportunity. Video gaming was at the height of its popularity. Players in video game arcades all over the world obsessed  over becoming the high score holder of their favorite games, and yet nobody was keeping track.

Within days, Walter Day had created the Twin Galaxies National Scoreboard, becoming the official keeper of high scores for the global video gaming industry. Walter sometimes received up to 50 calls a day from players claiming to have achieved top scores in various games.

Ottumwa became known as the “Dodge City of Video Gaming,” where players from all over the world came to face off against one another and strive to set new world records. Then-mayor Jerry Parker proclaimed Ottumwa the “Video Game Capital of the World” and shortly thereafter, in 1983, Governor Branstad gave the state’s official blessing. Media such as Life Magazine and ABC TV readily jumped in to cover the news, too.

Ottumwa Claims Its Due

So in April of last year, a very enthusiastic group of individuals were merely reminding the world of a forgotten legacy. With the support of notable gamers such as Billy Mitchell and Steve Sanders, Mayor Jerry Parker (who reminded attendees that he out-dueled Governor Branstad in a game of Pac Man back in the day), and, of course, Walter Day, Ottumwa officially began its quest. To seal the deal, Mitchell, the official “Video Gamer of the 20th Century,” autographed and donated the Donkey Kong console on which he had set the world’s record.

Then the grunt work got underway: committees labored to develop a website (www.ivghof.com), plan events, fashion a Video Game Hall of Fame similar to the Baseball Hall of Fame in New York, and appoint a curator to accept donations of “artifacts” like old consoles and home gaming machines such as the Intellivision.

The next big step was the official launch party for the International Video Game Hall of Fame on August 13, 2009. On that day Ottumwa’s claim gained a considerable boost, as over 3,000 excited fans showed up for live game competitions and a chance to read the “history walls,” which documented the amazing things that happened in the early ’80s. 

Many notable figures in the international video gaming world attended the event, including Billy Mitchell, Tony Temple from Great Britain, and Triforce, a topflight gamer who had his name legally changed to reflect his current calling in life. Topping off the launch were clips from the recent documentary on the industry, FRAG (shown at the Cannes Film Festival), and a montage of historical footage from 1983. Media outlets from Boston to  India covered the event. 

Let the Games Continue!

What’s next? The first Big Bang Video Game Festival at the Bridge View Center from August 5-8. The event, supported by many donations, will feature a 24-hour-a-day plethora of game playing and competition, bands performing in an outdoor beer garden, inductions into the Hall of Fame, displays of artifacts that have been donated to the Hall of Fame Museum, and a chance to meet some of the most famous video gamers in the world.

“Gaming, it’s so huge, there’s so much history, and it’s only going to continue to develop,” sums up Terry McNitt of the Ottumwa Chamber of Commerce. “Nobody’s ever taken this sort of thing and run with it.”

Becoming the Video Game Capital of the World is a formidable yet exciting undertaking for the people of Ottumwa and Wapello County. For a city recently plagued by unemployment, Ottumwa  now looks forward to a growing tourism industry and the chance to reacquire some long-deserved respect.

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