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title Up Front

July 8, 2002 Issue Full Text

by Colby Cosh

A lost art revived

YOU could talk for hours with Grande Prairie’s Dwayne Richard and never realize he is spoken of, in some circles, with the hushed tones reserved for a Wayne Gretzky or a Michael Jordan. In “real life” he is trying to finish a Regent College master’s degree so he can study theology in Edinburgh. But during the summer he turns to a less lofty pursuit: classic video games like Ms. Pac-Man and Donkey Kong Jr. On June 6 Mr. Richard became the Classic Video Game World Champion for the second straight year at a competition in Weirs Beach, New Hampshire.

At the age of 13, young Dwayne played Pac-Man for the first time and discovered his gift. He became a wunderkind, able to figure out a new game in minutes. For a brief moment when video arcades started up in the 1980s, people like Dwayne became stars, invited to national and international competitions. (In 1985, he even appeared on Entertainment Tonight.) An informal network of gamers developed as teens rang up massive phone bills, calling friends in Florida and California to get tips or boast about scores.

“The classic video games were a social experience; the community was the thing that made them,” says Mr. Richard. For the children of the Cold War, he says, “games like Pac-Man represented an escape from reality, but what strikes you looking back is how much they mirrored reality. In a safe environment, you could struggle against ‘Space Invaders’ or ‘Galaxians’ wielding these futuristic weapons of mass destruction.” And when you logged a high score, you had, of course, “beaten the machine.” “It almost has a tribal, ritualistic quality about it, where the medicine man comes to exorcise the evil spirit.”

But by 1990, home consoles had become all the rage, and the arcade business had begun a long, slow decline. Recently, however, they made the ever-mysterious transition from “old junk” to “antiques.” Last year, an arcade called the Funspot in Weirs Beach held the first world championship of classic video gaming. Dozens of old-time gamers came to display long-unused skills at Mappy or Dig Dug. Mr. Richard won the overall title in a titanic battle with American arch-rival Donald Hayes. This year, Mr. Hayes opened up a large lead over Mr. Richard with just a few hours left to go. It seemed certain a new champion would be crowned. But Mr. Richard had tricks left up his sleeve.

“I knew I’d have to get a good score in Galaxian to beat Donald, because it’s the one game he’s somewhat weak on,” he says. “The only problem was, I’d never played it before--not seriously.” He bagged a score of 128,000 and moved on. In the home stretch, he had to break 560,000 on Donkey Kong Jr., a game in which Mr. Hayes holds the world record. He lost his first life after just 70,000 points. Soon the referee approached him. “Time’s up, Dwayne,” he said. “This will be your last game.” His previous all-time high score was only 400,000, but he was in the zone. “If you were watching me play, it was like I literally couldn’t die, no matter what I did,” he says. “It wasn’t pretty.” Mr. Richard closed in for the kill, abandoning his game with a score of 609,000.

The champion will spend the summer buying, selling and refurbishing games and travelling to other competitions. He is nonchalant about his win, but raves about the guy who notched an outlandish 1.7 million on Zaxxon, and a New Yorker who “kicked my a--” at Robotron. “It’s like being in the orchestra,” he says. “Everybody has different games they excel at: everybody has a different style, a different creativity.” But there’s only one Paganini, only one Horowitz--and only one Dwayne Richard.

From Middle English to Middle-Earth

THE June issue of the Oxford English Dictionary Newsletter contains a curious sketch of the experiences of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, inside and outside the OED. Some fans may know that Tolkien was a philologist by profession, but it is little appreciated that as a young professor he personally wrote quite a few of the entries in this weightest of authorities on our language. Associate OED editor Peter Gilliver ransacked the Oxford archives in the early 1990s and found that Tolkien had worked on words ranging from waggle to warlock. That may not sound like a very broad band, but consider that it took from 1879 to 1928 to produce the complete first edition of the dictionary from A to Z.

It seems Tolkien was trusted for his thoroughness and was specifically used to tackle hard words. To him we owe our knowledge of the complex origins of the walnut and the walrus, and he became an expert on the changing subtleties of the waistcoat. (Mr. Gilliver hints that Tolkien’s later adoption of this article of dress may have been inspired by these researches.) But the best anecdote dates to 1969, nearly five decades after Tolkien had moved on from the OED. The OED editor of the day, Robert Burchfield, was a former student of Tolkien. When he learned that his underlings were preparing to add “hobbit” to the dictionary, he sent a copy of the draft entry to Tolkien for perusal. Tolkien replied with his own proposed entry--twice as long, of course, and much more exact. It went into the book, Mr. Gilliver reports, virtually unchanged. Rewriting the dictionary: now there is a privilege any author would envy.

You can be too rich

EDMONTON-based developers BioWare Inc. own one of the big names in computer gaming right now. How big, you ask? Have you heard of Shattered Steel? A little thing called Baldur’s Gate? OK, maybe you haven’t, unless you’re under 35 and you have a tan from sitting in front of your monitor killing virtual trolls. But maybe you heard in February that George Lucas’ licensing company had selected BioWare to create the forthcoming Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, the first Star Wars role-playing game for the new Microsoft XBox game platform.

But perhaps the best indicator of BioWare’s remarkable success came on June 17. Founded in 1995 by Edmonton medical doctors Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk (hence the “Bio”), the company has established the BioWare Kids’ Fund to help raise money for the Children’s Mental Health Unit at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital. On June 14, BioWare put two copies of its unreleased Dungeons and Dragons game, Neverwinter Nights, up for auction on eBay, with the proceeds to be earmarked for the fund. D&D fans have been waiting for the game for four years; in another two weeks, it will be available in stores for US$55. But out there in cyberspace, there were two bidders--“grouchydragon” and “snotty11”--who were either feeling very generous, or simply could not wait. “Grouchy” paid US$1,625 for his copy of Neverwinter. “Snotty” got his for a steal at just US$1,525. We trust that, despite their cantankerous pseudonyms, they will enjoy their expensive fortnight of troll-killing.

You’re in good hands with All-(powerful-)state

SO maybe you’ve gotten over your initial nervousness about the Liberal gun registry and the massive database that goes with it. No government official or law officer would ever use that information for evil purposes, surely? Alas, if only it were so. A recent (June 11) episode of’s Cybercrime highlighted a horrifying list of recent database abuses from around the world. Consider these nuggets a preview of your future:

  • A Michigan state police detective admitted using the Law Enforcement Information Network (LEIN) to keep tabs on his ex-wife and her friends--shortly before she was shot to death at a Detroit zoo. No one has been charged with the killing, but a Detroit Free Press investigation uncovered 90 cases in five years of cops using LEIN “to stalk women, threaten motorists and settle scores.”
  • An Australian cop in Queensland used a similar database to get the goods on his entire hometown, looking for domestic abuse among neighbours, running background checks on cars he wanted to buy and searching for info about “potential girlfriends.”
  • In Shawnee County, Kansas, an elected sheriff was investigated for running background checks on two citizens who had the temerity to launch a recall campaign against him. In Butler County, Ohio, an employee of the prosecutor’s office faced similar accusations when he used a database to check out the Democrat running against his Republican boss.
  • Back in Australia--Brisbane this time--a businessman approached a friend in the police for “help” getting the unlisted phone number of an ex-girlfriend. He claimed he was worried she might be in a domestic-violence situation. It turned out that he was a psycho stalker, and that the ex had in fact changed houses, several times, to get away from him.

Hmm, how does that old saying about roads paved with good intentions go again? Fill up on more scare stories at

What you don’t know can’t molest you

A reader has thoughtfully sent us an interesting June 14 clipping from the Hamilton Spectator. It begins: “A 39-year-old youth group leader who Niagara police allege preyed on a 15-year-old girl in his flock has been charged with sexual assault and sexual exploitation. Khalid Saleem Khader of St. Catharines was arrested Wednesday.” The article tells a familiar story--abuse of authority, smutty e-mails, sordid goings-on in parked cars and the like. The punchline: “Niagara police will not identify the church or place of worship Khader was involved with.”

We thought readers in that area might be interested in this attitude. Now, most certainly, a fellow named Khalid Saleem Khader could be a Scientologist or a new-minted Mormon. But we have the uneasy feeling that the Niagara police have invented a new rule: “If a Roman Catholic molests a child, that’s front-page news. If a Muslim molests a child, that’s a state secret.”

Cartoons si, correctness no

NEWSMAX.COM reports July 19 that the U.S.’s Cartoon Network, a division of AOL Time Warner, has decided to restore Warner Brothers’ classic Speedy Gonzalez cartoons to regular rotation. The resourceful Mexican mouse was deemed a “negative stereotype” in March and cast into the memory hole by fearful network executives. But they had failed to do their homework: it turns out that Hispanic people, by and large, are crazy about Speedy Gonzalez. Pro-Speedy protests from the League of United Latin American Citizens and other organizations eventually convinced the network to free the mouse from his politically correct trap. The cartoons will return near the end of June. Arriba, arriba!

Duly Noted

Much mirth was had June 19 at the expense of federal Health Minister Anne McLellan, who appeared on a taping of a Canada Day quiz show for CBC Radio One and proved unable to name the five essential principles of the Canada Health Act. Ms. McLellan remembered that provinces are obliged to offer services in a “universally available” fashion that is “reasonably accessible,” “publicly administered” and “portable” from province to province. Alas, she missed “comprehensiveness,” though her team won the quiz all the same. Her assistant attributed the lapse to the pressure of appearing on the radio, where, unlike in the House of Commons, people are paying attention. Still, we are shocked at the minister’s failure. It’s not because she is the health minister, though--it’s that she’s a lawyer. Aren’t they adequately trained to regurgitate meaningless mush by rote anymore?

Researchers at the University College of the Fraser Valley told the Vancouver Sun (June 14) that B.C. police efforts to suppress the province’s thriving marijuana industry have accomplished nothing. B.C.’s pot crop is estimated in a forthcoming report to have grown 222% between 1997 and 2000. “At best,” says the report, “they have succeeded in some cases in producing a slight displacement of the problem from one area to another, or from one neighbourhood to another.” Vancouver police spokesman Kash Heed’s defence was that this is precisely the point of all the arrests, searches and seizures: he said Van cops had been “highly successful” in driving grow-ops from the city to the countryside. Hey, someone in government is finally doing something positive for the rural economy!

The Toronto Star reports (June 13) that a drive is underway to start up a Low German radio station in Elgin County, Ont. Local officials are waiting for CRTC approval to start FM transmission in the archaic Plautdietsch dialect of German which is the traditional spoken language of Mennonites. According to the Star, a number of Mennonites who left Canada for Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s (fleeing the Depression and legal restrictions) have now returned; many cannot understand English or ordinary German. The radio station would run four hours a day, translating government notices--such as school closings or public health bulletins--into Low German. Now if we can just persuade someone to translate Jean Chretien’s press conferences from the original Martian...

An auction of items owned by environmentalist-phony “Grey Owl” (born Archie Belany) failed to find buyers at a June 8 sale in Burnaby. In his day, the self-reinventor toured North America and Europe talking faux-Indian nonsense about woodchucks and such. Only after his death in 1938 did the world learn he was an Englishman tricked up in buckskin, yet he remains an official National Treasure whose blarney is taught as gospel in schools. It seems the marketplace, however, has a different view. Seahawk Auctions started the bidding on a lot of pipes, knives, books and other oddments at $125,000. The auctioneer quickly clambered down to $40,000, but the items remained on the block, eventually reverting to their Saskatchewan owner. May we suggest a yard sale?

The price of empire: CNN reports June 19 that South Korean fans attending the World Cup quarter-final match between the U.S. and Germany (scheduled for June 20) would definitely be strongly backing their old allies--you know, the Germans. “It is...natural for Korean people not to support the United States,” said one fan. “There is still some bad feeling between us.” Another one argued thus: “Korea has been hurt a lot by the United States, financially, in sports events and in other ways.” Some of those “other ways” presumably include destroying the Japanese Empire (whose army requisitioned Korean women as sex slaves) in the Second World War and spending the next 57 years keeping the country from being overrun by Stalinists, all at a cost of thousands of American lives. One hardly knows whether to despise the Koreans for their ingratitude or the Americans for tolerating it.

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