The Atari 2600 has been in the mainstream media a little more than usual lately (which is to say it’s been in the mainstream media at all). On January 29, 2018, no less of a tony publication than the Washington Post published a story on Twin Cities’ revocation of Todd Rogers’ 36-year standing record for Activision’s Dragster (along with all of his other video game achievements) – an event that will likely lead to the scrubbing of his Guinness nod for longest-held video game record. I’ll let you read the story, but basically an analysis of the game’s code found that Rogers’ record of 5.51 seconds was impossible.
Now, even as an apologist for classic games, I initially wondered if this was a truly newsworthy event (from a quick glance of the comments section, it seems a lot of people agreed with that assessment). Okay, so some guy sent a Polaroid of an exceptional score to Activision 36 years ago – why should we care today?
It occurred to me, however, that this may be one small symptom of a broader trend in society seeking justice for the sins of the 20th century (look at the #metoo movement for a much bigger example). And a lot of that built-up anger has formulated around cheating – whether it be in government, personal relationships, sports or even video games, people are saying that it’s no longer okay for certain people to benefit from systems which reward cheating.
If you think that’s a wacky proposition, think back to how it felt back in the day when you would read a list of high scores in a video game publication. Not to take away from anyone who legitimately earned those scores, but didn’t some of them seem ridiculously – and possibly unrealistically – high? Given the relative lack of oversight for such things (and not to mention the way a crafty hacker may have been able to swing things in his or her favour), is it such a stretch to imagine that at least some of these records were falsified?
It was never that a big deal to me, but I can’t lie and say that seeing these scores – and in my naiveté believing they were all legit – didn’t cause me to lose my enthusiasm for video games a little bit. It’s not hard to imagine that it caused some players – figuring they could never achieve such impossible goals even if they played 24 hours a day for a year – to just throw in the towel. There have been many factors in the video game crash of 1983 which have been widely discussed – I think this kind of activity may have played a small role in it.
Too long, didn’t read version: cheating is bad and it matters even in the context of an impossibly old, obscure video game. Taking my cheating/video game crash theory a step further, isn’t it interesting that the video game industry didn’t fully recover until game developers took the emphasis off of high scores and more on finishing the game? As a child of the early ‘80s, it’s always a little jarring to me to play – just for example – the Mega Man series, which to me just cries out for a scoreboard yet has no such thing.
In the end, however, this may have been a net positive for video games. With less weight placed on attaining individual high scores, I think younger players cooperated more because they just wanted to beat that final boss and see the end of the game. There’s not much room for cheating in that environment. Oh sure, you could find cheats which you could exploit to win the game, but they didn’t come at the expense of anyone else.
So in that spirit, off I go to compete – fairly – in AtariAge’s Atari 2600 High Score Club. What can I say? Competition is fun. But to think that anyone would game such a system (and not even for any monetary reward) in order to come out on top boggles my mind.