Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Longest Arcade Marathon

      Welcome to the post-marathon write-up! This is a Grand Overview; I also plan on typing up a technical report, after I get a chance to watch and compile statistics on the full recording of the game. Which could take around a thousand years. (at least a few months.)

     I’ll begin with some context. I was leaving Barcade late one night during the Winter of 2009-10 after some particularly tasty beers and one particularly frustrating game of Centipede. While walking to my band’s practice space, I became aware of two men in gray flannel suits who seemed to be following me. I ducked into Action Burger and started to play a game of Rygar, watching out the window for the grey suits to pass by. Instead they walked in and stood right behind me. One of them said they were "from the Illuminati." He said that their organization had been watching me since I was 7 years old. He went on to explain that while on vacation with my family in Portland, Oregon, I spent some time in an arcade playing a game called Polybius, which was not really a video game, but an experimental trance-inducing device. He said like LSD, the effects were deemed too unpredictable to be of any practical use, but some of the experimental subjects had displayed some odd side effects.  
Order of the Cube & Snake.
 Hearing these words must have triggered something deep within my subconscious, because I suddenly had a flash of insight. I somehow realized that these gray suits were afraid that I had been Illuminated by their machine all those years ago, and that I might give away the secrets of their organization. A flood of memories was coming back to me...  a dream of climbing an impossibly vast golden pyramid…a sense of having made contact with some sort of alien intelligence… and a strange feeling of losing my self and merging with the infinite, which was at once scary and blissful, and that I understood to be an effect of my exposure to the Polybius device. It instantly became clear to me why I was so into arcade games as a kid: I was trying to revisit that feeling of prolonged ecstatic now-ness that I had experienced while playing the Illuminati's trance-game. Intuitively, I grasped what I must do if I wanted to be free of their influence, and possibly turn the tables on their twisted schemes: play a 72 hour game of Q*Bert! Why? Because that's how long it takes to wipe clean the deepest levels of programming, of course.

Ed’s fault.
    I began marathoning Q*Bert in April of 2011. My first attempt at Richie Knucklez' Arcade (I do all my marathons at Richie's) ended at 36hrs, when my good friend Ed the human killscreen pulled the plug. After the shock wore off I made my second attempt. It was exactly one month later. Looking back, I don’t think it was a good idea to have another try at it so soon, but I was eager to go again. I made it to 60hrs before running out of brain-power and extra lives. I made a third attempt in July, barely 2 months later. 

     It was much too soon to be trying again, and my energy suffered as a result. I lasted 57hrs. In December of that same year I made my fourth attempt. Although it was now 6 months since the last marathon, I think the three back-to-back marathons earlier in the year were still taking their toll on me. The fourth marathon ended within an hour of the third one. It was time to strategize and re-group.

    By the third and fourth attempts, I began experimenting with different break schedules. If you are good at Q*Bert, you can earn many extra lives, which you can then sacrifice while you take a break at the rate of about 4 lives per minute. So, to take a 40min break, you will lose about 160 lives. These lives should be easily replaced in about 5 hours of game play if you are playing well, which you should be if you did it right by resting your mind by sleeping during your break.

    In the Summer, I tried taking a break every 12 hours, which I decided afterwards was too long of an interval between breaks. In the Winter I intended to take breaks more often, but I did not stick to the plan. Both times I played for around 30hrs until I took my first full break, feeling that I should play more while early in the game and at my peak energy level. Now I think that waiting so long to break probably hurt those two attempts, and forcing myself to take a full break after 16 hours this time, even though I wasn’t tired yet, kept me refreshed in the long run.

    While discussing marathon strategies with other gamers, someone on the classic arcade gaming dot com forum brought to my attention Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion sleep schedule. Bucky theorized that we have two stores of energy, a primary store of energy and a secondary one. When you tap into your secondary store of energy, that’s what you call “getting your second wind." By taking a cat-nap every few hours, you can replenish your primary store of energy. If you wait too long, and dip into your second wind, it will take much more rest to "recharge your batteries."

   Bucky claimed he could get enough rest by sleeping for one half hour for every six hours of activity, and that he could go like that for months at a time (only stopping when his wife asked him to, so he could be on the same schedule as her.) I wasn't sure I bought the entire story, but I was curious, and wondered if I could find a schedule that would work for me. I didn’t need it to work for months, I just needed to last for the 3 or 4 days of the marathon.     

   So after some consideration, I decided that 8 hours of game time, with 40 min powernaps in between "felt" right to me. Now the main obstacles were making sure I stuck to the schedule, and just letting go, not worrying about the game on breaks enough to fall asleep. In my earlier marathon attempts, worrying about the game was always in the back of my mind. I think that only through experiencing my earlier failed attempts, did I learn to relax enough while on break to forget about all of the dying Q*Berts and go to sleep, trusting that the game would still be going when I woke up.

     My plan for when and how much to eat was: eat as much as I wanted whenever I wanted. And make sure I didn’t forget to eat as the days wore on and I got tired. Eating is not much of a hassle with Q*Bert since there is only one control and you can eat and drink with your other hand. In fact, Q*Bert's creator Warren Davis has said that he liked games with one control, so you could hold a beer with your other hand. I like the way Warren thinks. And so, by munching away to my hearts content, and taking 40 minute naps wrapped in a blanket under a pinball machine, I stumbled on a formula for success. I didn't think I could go indefinitely this way like Bucky claimed, but I thought it would put off my final crash long enough for me to get to my goal.


uick recap of the prime factors that sent me on my quest. In early 2010 my father, and then my best friend (and bass player) passed away, and I guess that I was looking for something to help me cope. I got into competitive arcade gaming, discovered Barcade in Brooklyn, and by the summer I had a breakthrough game of  Q*Bert that lasted for 5 hours.                                                                                                                            
      Later that week, the guy who's score I had just beaten played an 8 hour game. I never even got to see my score on the Barcade scoreboard. The competitive spirit overtook me and on the next Saturday, I went back and played for 12 hours. And that game is still on the high scoreboard at Barcade. At the time, I thought it would be as long a game as I’d ever play.

At the 1UP with Ben Falls
 Thanks to Barcade, I was lucky to have met some of the best classic gamers in the world. I had once seen an interview of Dr. Hank Chien (Donkey Kong World Record holder) on the Nintendo Channel, when my girlfriend's kid was watching videos on the wii. I thought I saw Hank playing Centipede at Barcade one day and when I asked, the bartender confirmed that  it was him. After meeting Hank, I started having a conversation about another game that was next to the Centipede machine called Lady Bug with a friend of Hank’s. We both had memories of playing it on the ColecoVision as kids. Little did I know that this was Ben Falls, one of the greatest competitive arcade gamers on the planet. But Hank and Ben were regular guys, actually even better than regular guys, they were so nice and friendly, and for no reason at all, other than our shared common interest.
Hank Chien with Ben’s favorite comedian 

  Over the next few months Hank and Ben introduced me to the competitive classic gaming scene, and many of the other top gamers (all the arcade world record holders know each other). I started going to  arcade tournaments. Everyone was welcoming, and it felt like being part of a giant extended family. They are all each other’s competition, yet they are friends. Witnessing the level of skill was mind-blowing. I had heard of guys being good at arcade games, but I had never seen it in person. Once you witness the collective skill of the competitive arcade scene you never look at video games in the same way again.

   Initially, I wasn’t interested in doing any marathoning. I thought the "5 lives" world record (how high can you score in one game with only 5 Q*Berts) would be more prestigious, and had set my sights on that. But one thing led to another, and before I knew it I was going for the long game.
Drinking beers and watching .inp files at Ben Falls’ apartment in Brooklyn 

Supreme Noser GIV
        After my failure to get the marathon record in 2011, I focused on the 5 lives world record again. The record was set in 1987 and the score was 2.2 million points, a game that probably took 4 or 5 hours. In November 2012 I broke the record, live at the Kong-Off 2 Donkey Kong competition at the 1UP Arcade in Denver, Co. beating the 25 year old record in an almost 8 hour game and scoring 3.9 million. I would say that honing my skill to get the 5 lives record was invaluable training for the marathon record. It was great practice for banking up extra lives to sacrifice while on break. Being able to play without losing so many lives gave me the confidence to walk away from the machine on breaks and relax enough to fall asleep, quieting the nagging thought in the back of my mind that "what if I miscalculated, and I don't have as many lives as I think?"
      So after a full year with no marathoning, and fresh off of the 5 lives world record, I was ready to go for it again. I had it in my mind that this  would be my last attempt, whether I was successful or not. If not ever, then at least for a few years. But I would give it one last college try.

       The next step was getting the team together. Some marathon gamers do their marathons at home, by themselves. I need the arcade environment, and lots of people around. And I think having someone there all the time to keep an eye on you, to make sure you are not mentally or physically having any serious trouble is a pretty good idea. Unlike a console player that sits on their couch for days, during the marathon I alternate between standing and sitting, and stretch while I play. But while I am physically fit and healthy, I still think it's wise to have friends there to monitor you. I don't mean friends just hanging out at the arcade but really good friends, ones that will watch over you. Friends also keep you from getting bored. And friends make you laugh, which is the best medicine for when you become cranky and overtired. 
Satan’s Cronies

   From the beginning, Mike Vacca has been my lifeline, the Ground Control to my Major Tom. Keeping my spirits up, joking around, playing heavy metal music all night. It was my friendship with Mike, and us joking around about 'wouldn't it be funny if I marathoned Q*Bert and beat all the other guys' that ultimately led me down the dark path.                                                                            

   There are actually some people who think that having a marathon team is like cheating, and that you should do everything all by yourself. But I couldn't do it without my friends. I need people around to help keep me focused outward. It’s too easy to turn inward and get lost in your own head when you’re overtired. For the same reason, I don't listen to music in headphones after the first 24 hours of the game, only through speakers.


   I literally could not have done the marathon without Richie Knucklez. He has kept his arcade open for days and days  and days for me to get this record. And he believed in me, that I could do it. Richie's arcade and the people who are a part of it are a family to me, and it is Richie’s positive energy, tireless enthusiasm and hard work that brings everyone together. Plus Richie tells interesting stories and funny jokes, which helps to pass the time of the marathon when the hours start dragging. Richie put Q*Bert up in the front by the window and door, so I could get sunlight and fresh air, and stimulation from the variety of people walking into the arcade, which is open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays. Kids, adults, world class gamers, random curiosity seekers and the totally unfamiliar and uninitiated to the arcade world, I never knew who would walk in next. 

   The live audience adds to the feeling that this is not only a world record video game attempt, but also part performance art, part demonstration of endurance and willpower, part carnival sideshow attraction. Looking at the marathon in all these different ways helps me to stay motivated as I'm playing. To me, the arcade setting is the only way to do a marathon. And not just any arcade, it has to be Richie's.
Broadcasting live from the top of the pyramid 

    I was extremely lucky to have Saint Freeko onboard as chief of navigation for this marathon. I like to listen to the 8bit music of old Nintendo games, and spend more time listening to the music from games like Rygar and Battle of Olympus for the nes, than anything else besides my own band. Freeko has an ipod full of all of the best music from all of the best nintendo games, and he was (correctly) certain that this music is what a successful marathon needed. 

   I have always thought that it would be loud heavy metal that would get me through the long nights, and it was difficult for me to accept that maybe metal was not the best soundtrack for the later stages of a 3 day marathon. We played 8 and 16bit music for almost the whole time during this one, following the method that Freeko was certain would get me to the record and beyond.

    After my last failed attempt, Freeko claimed that if we’d listen to him, I would be successful. And I’ll be damned if that isn’t exactly what happened. A whole other article can be written about the simple yet effective psychological techniques that he employed. In the early morning hours of the third day, my spiritual advisor and Donkey Kong paradigm shifter Ross von Benziger himself said that Freeko was a good watcher for me.

    Richie and Freeko do not get along at all, and while their incessant ripping on each other may not have been fun for them, it was a source of constant amusement for me. But I acknowledge the sacrifice they made, by putting up with each other for the whole weekend to make this marathon game happen. (Richie will never admit it, but I know he called Freeko and asked him to show up. And Freeko would say, “Well, he wanted to win, didn’t he?”)
Freeko arriving with the 8bit cavalry

As the hours dragged on, I started asking Freeko his opinion about my every move, "Freeko, should I take a break now?" “Freeko, what should I eat?" Freeko this, Freeko that. I'm surprised he put up with it.
Ed sitting awfully close
to the power outlet

Then there is Ed the human killscreen. We call him the human killscreen because he unplugged my first marathon attempt, after I'd been playing for 36 hours. Ed is actually one of the nicest sweetest guys around, who was always getting me hot tea and making sure I had everything I needed. Also, knowing he was lurking back there somewhere, and could unplug my game at any minute, kept me scared and awake. 

     When I was getting close to the record this time, Ed pretended he was going to unplug my game. I knew he was just joking, but I was stressed and tired, and not at all in the mood. Freeko went out to get the katana that he keeps in his car, and when he came back in I yelled, "Ed, you may think that was funny, but try it again and Freeko will cut off your hand!" I don't know if it was because I sounded genuinely pissed off and Ed felt bad, or because he wasn’t sure if Freeko was bluffing (he wasn’t), but Ed didn't try it again. 

L to R: Ethan, Josh, me, Mark
    My friends Mark Michaels and Josh Lombay arrived on Saturday morning, giving the guys that had been there for the first two days a chance to rest a little. The more people around to look over my shoulder and make sure I was playing well and not falling asleep, the better. Mark is a good taskmaster. At one point I had to pee before my breaktime started, and as I ran to the bathroom, I could hear him disapprovingly say "Already?"

 Ethan Daniels, who I first met that Friday during the marathon, came back to the arcade on Sunday and stayed ‘till the end. He would encourage me after every board, saying things like "great move" if I did something good. John and Debbie did the same, literally cheering me on. That kind of support was the perfect thing to have during the last 24 hours.

   One of the many great things about Richie’s arcade, is the propensity for some of the best gamers in the world to gravitate there. Steve Wagner was there on Friday night to personally wish me luck and say TY for playing this.
Steve Wagner
   Hank Chien and Youmee Im surprised me on Friday afternoon, though I had secretly been hoping that they would show up, and bring with them my secret weapon: Dried Squid! Dried Squid is nature's perfect snack. Packed with energy, it can give you what your brain needs to fight mental fatigue.
   Bobby Wilson was there on Saturday night. Normally, I’d much rather hang out with Bobby than play a marathon. But since I was doing so well Bobby told me I should stick with it. I’m glad that I listened to him.

                 L to R: ???, Bobby, me, Mike.  
                           Back Row: Bill

 Now that I had a strategy, a team, and the 5 lives Q*Bert world record, I was ready to make another marathon attempt. Making space in your schedule for the game is the easy part. Arranging the rest of your life is the tricky part, the real contest between the marathon gamers. Like Walter Day said: "You've got to battle with time, you've got to battle with your body, you've got to battle with the console, but you're also in a battle with your karma."

   I tried to spend the weeks before the marathon taking it easy. By easy, I mean go to work, come home, look at the Internet for a while, go to sleep. I didn't go out to Barcade, or play many games. Usually in the week before a marathon I would try to clean out by eating less and drinking lots of water, but this time I decided against it and just ate like I usually would. I didn't play any Q*Bert. Instead, I made videos using the recording of my Q*Bert 5 lives world record played back at 8x speed set to music by my old band, and photoshop pictures announcing the upcoming marathon. Mentally, I was trying to get into a zen state, like the dude. Luke, you've turned off your targeting computer.

    On the day before, I bought my food and packed, and met Richie at Barcade in Brooklyn. As it happened, top gamers Steve Wagner, Michael Sao Pedro, Chris Donahue and Pat Laffaye were there, and I felt that it was good luck to see them. I also ran into one of the great video game marathoners of all time, Robert Mruczek, by chance a few nights before in the subway. I felt this too was an auspicious sign for my upcoming marathon. I had one beer, and took a walk to my band's practice space to get a guitar that I wanted to give to Richie for his arcade’s new location. We left Brooklyn around midnight, and I was asleep at Richie's between 2 and 3am. I had planned to start at 8am, but decided to just sleep until I felt rested, and then begin.

    The morning of the marathon, I woke up naturally around 10am. I knew that if I wanted to I could just lay around and maybe fall back asleep for another few hours, but decided that I felt just right enough to start the game. So I took a shower, meditated for 10 minutes, and then Richie and I went over to the Arcade.

    Richie’s new location really works for me. I like the carpet, and the big front window that I could see the sunrise through. There is a restaurant next door (Cook to Order!), and the heat works. He had a big table (actually a working Atari Football cocktail) set up for me, and the camera and laptop for streaming all ready to go. As the clock turned to 11:52am, I hit start and was on my way.

  The beginning of the game went well. Not a fantastic start like my 5 lives game at the Kong-Off 2 in Denver, but good enough. I lost my 5th man around 500k. That’s to be expected; the 5 lives game requires intense concentration every second, the marathon demands a much more relaxed attitude, or you'll never last the whole way. I would consider losing one life out of every ten gained a fine pace for the start of a Q*Bert marathon.

   At around 300k the sprites in the game started glitching a little, so Richie took a chance and opened up the back of the machine. This Q*Bert machine is special: It has one of the lowest serial numbers, and everything works, including the pinball knocker that bangs every time the snake falls off of the pyramid. Richie had never messed with the guts of this machine, on the principle that ‘if it ain't broke, don't fix it.’ He changed some voltage by .1% or something (I don't know, I'm not technical enough like he is) and the problem cleared up. We both breathed a sigh of relief. (Oddly enough, when he opened it up this time, he noticed that the serial number was 0000104GIV. And ‘GIV’ just happens to be the initials that I enter for high scores. Another auspicious sign!)

    As I said earlier, part of my plan was to eat more this time. And eat I did. I started right off the bat with a box of maple pecan crunch cereal, which I ate as I played. Every four rounds in Q*Bert is a level. At the end of a level you have about 15 seconds where you can grab food or a drink, and then munch or drink as you play.          
   Food list: wheat thins and baby carrots, hummus (with garlic and tabouli), lots of beef jerky, sunflower seeds, dried papaya, crystallized ginger, Fig Newmans, a roast beef sandwich, a Greek salad, water, hot tea (decaf), orange juice, Gatorade, a protein bar, apples, and squid.

      I also had with me, but didn’t eat: celery and peanut butter, oranges, and a grapefruit. And pistachios, which I gave to Richie because he loves pistachios.

      I also brought a few pleasant scents with me. Walter Day recommended using rose water on the eyelids, for cooling the eyes and relieving eyestrain. I didn’t put any on my eyelids, but rose water has an uplifting smell and I would open up the bottle and breathe deeply, sometimes right before taking a nap. I always bring Tiger Balm with me in case of any bad muscle cramps, though I’ve never had to use it. But again, I love the smell of it and like to just breathe it in. I had some soap with me that smelled nice too, with eucalyptus, spearmint and other spices.  I had cinnamon gum with me, but didn't chew any.

      After I broke the record, I had a sip of champagne, and a delicious pasta dish from Cook to Order, and my one and only cup of caffeinated tea. I didn't have any caffeine during the whole marathon up to that point because I was afraid it would keep me from sleeping during my breaks. But near the end when I knew my energy was beginning to falter, I drank a strong cup of tea while I was gathering myself for one last push.

     But I'm getting ahead of myself. The first day, Thursday, passed without incident. It felt like old times, getting the arcade band back together. Richie took the first shift, and Ed arrived in the early afternoon. Then Freeko showed up as my Valentine's Day surprise date for the night.

     I took my first break on schedule at 16 hours into the game. I knew that I already had enough lives banked up to walk away for over an hour if I wanted to without running out, so I wrapped my plaid flannel blanket around me, set my alarm to go off in 40 minutes, crawled under the Roller Disco pinball machine in the corner, and went to sleep. The last thing I remember hearing was someone asking, "is he sleeping?"

    I woke up before my alarm went off, after 30-35 minutes. It was around 4:30am. Freeko was counting dead Q*Berts with the manual tally counter I use to keep track of deaths. I let a few more die while I opened some more food and put it within easy reach, to grab things between the levels. My game play was in great shape, and I easily made back the lives I'd lost on the break, and many more. In a few hours, I had a clear view of the sunrise in a clear sky. Ed went out, and came back with hot decaf tea, no milk no sugar. The arcade felt warm and cozy, but I could open the front door at any time and get a blast of cold fresh air.

     Breaking the game up into eight hour sections was ‘feeling’ right. Saying to myself, "only five hours till a nap" sounded better than saying "just 2 more days to go!" Throughout my marathon attempts, I had experimented with dividing up the time in all different ways, breaking the game up into smaller sections so it wouldn’t seem as daunting. In the early attempts I set an alarm to go off every 18 minutes. I had a printout of a Mayan calendar, and every eighteen minutes we would cross off a square.   

    In the first marathon we had a deck of tarot cards (Aleister Crowley Thoth set), and turned one over every hour. I also tried looking at the game in 18 hour blocks, and 12 hour blocks. But the magic number for me was 8 hours.

   Every 1.4 million points, or about 3 hours, I would calculate how many lives I had banked up. This number is significant because 100 Q*Berts are earned every 1.4 million points. By subtracting the deaths registered on the manual death tally counter from the total Q*Berts gained, I could see how many lives were left, to know how much break time I had saved up. I could also see how well I was playing, by comparing how many lives I'd gained net against the previous 1.4 million.

    Some more Q*basics:

§    It takes 15 seconds on average for the snake to hatch and kill a Q*Bert. This means around 160 lives will be lost for a 40 minute break.

§      Average score per hour is 500k.

§      A round (one pyramid), takes between 20 seconds to 1 minute to complete most of the time, longer if you mess up.

   I approximate that I completed 1,000 rounds every 7 million points. So it’s safe to say that Q*Bert hopped on over 5,000 pyramids during this game. Since 4 pyramids equal one Level, I played well over 1,000 Levels.

  Now is the time in the review where I answer the one question that gets asked of marathoners more than any other for some reason: the question of bathroom breaks. Not to go into too much detail, and I’m sure it is different for every marathon gamer, but it has been my experience that I ‘empty out’ after being awake for 24 hours or so, after which my overtired body and digestive system go into what I'd call a prolonged "fight or flight" state, and I don’t have to go again for the rest of the game. Once the game is over and I’ve slept for 8 to 10 hours, the first thing to go back online is the digestive track.
   If I had to pee, a run to the bathroom would cost me 6 or 7 lives. Mostly I’d go at the beginning of a break before my nap, which is also when I would get cleaned up, brush my teeth and get changed quickly before going to sleep. This way I could wake up and hop right back into the game, maybe after standing outside for 15 seconds to get a blast of cold air. If I had to pee before it was break time, I would try to hold it in for as long as I could, until it would effect my concentration. I remember running through the crowded arcade two or three times to flush 6 or 7 Q*Berts down the toilet. I bring the bathroom issue up at this point because at around 12:30pm on Friday when I took my second break, I used the facilities. Then I went outside and walked around the building for 2 minutes, and when I went back into the arcade I wrapped myself in my blanket, with my sweatshirt as a pillow, and went to sleep again.

    I had a nice nap, and woke up before the alarm again after about 30 minutes, same as the last break. Altogether it was a 40 minute break and around 160 dead Q*Berts, which I easily made back once again and then some. During this shift, Hank and Youmee, and Steve Wagner arrived. Ed opened the arcade to the public for the evening, which is when the arcade really gets a great vibe going, as families come to play and have fun, and the sounds of lots of other games being played around me help make the time pass quickly. Also some of the guys from Richie's band, Dan and Billy, and Richie's daughter Faith were there. The next day, Faithie brought me a flower to help me feel better, because she could tell I was tired. I put the flower on top of the machine, and felt refreshed every time I looked up at it.

   At around 9:30pm, the arcade was crowded, but it was time for my scheduled break. I know Richie was surprised when I grabbed my blanket and went under the pinball machine. This time, after 40 minutes the alarm woke me up. I was groggy at first, but was still having no problems, and my play was stronger than it usually was for the second night of a marathon.
  In my other attempts, even the later ones where I was already trying out the idea of scheduled breaks, I would always play the game until I was tired and then take my first break, thinking that my best play will be early in the game. This would mean that at 30-36 hours in, I normally would have taken only two ten minute breaks and be very overtired by this point, and have trouble relaxing. Compare this marathon: at 32 hours, I had already had 3 long breaks, and slept 3 times, for 1/2 hour or more each time.

 The evening wore on and the crowd thinned out, until it was just Freeko, Ed and I. Then John Salter showed up to play some Tron. Actually he didn't play much that night, but the next night he did, and it was good to have the sounds of Tron around when everyone else had stopped playing. That main melody in the Lydian mode never gets old for me.

    At around 2am I was happily surprised when Mike Vacca and Kelly Primeau arrived unexpectedly. Mike had driven over to the arcade late in the night before the marathon to drop off my Uninterruptible Power Supply battery backup, which is necessary to prevent acts of Ed the human killscreen, and also my standing mat and lucky 50s diner-style stool that keeps me awake by being squeaky and uncomfortable. I knew Mike would be coming back at some point, but I wasn't sure when. With more people around talking and playing games, it almost didn’t seem like the dead of night.

   Before I knew it, it was just before sunrise on the third day. I could  tell that my break schedule and the naps I had already taken were paying off. Usually, there is a time late during the second night where my game play would drop off dramatically for a few hours, and I would lose a third to half my store of men struggling to get through it. This made taking breaks afterwards worrisome (without as large of a buffer of lives in the bank), and it was a blow to my morale. Instead of being relieved to have recovered my wits, pulling out of this tailspin always left me with a feeling of impending doom.

    But this time, I didn’t get into the bad state (until early Sunday morning for a little while). You can tell that you’re in the bad state because you begin to get paranoid. You have to fight the idea that the game has "gotten smart" and "figured out your patterns" and is "out to get you." You are like, as Bobby Wilson said, "Evil Kirk." 

    I've asked Warren Davis, the creator of Q*Bert, and he told me that the enemy behavior is random. And yet still in the Evil Kirk state, you could swear that some of the enemies start behaving like homing missiles, and that they will team up against you, as if the enemy AI is playing chess and Coily and Ugg and the others are Knights and Bishops and Rooks.   
   I think that what is happening, is that as you get fatigued, you start acting less, and start reacting more. There is a balance of action/reaction that is optimal, and we call that being in The Zone. Good luck seems to gravitate towards you when you are in the zone. Sometimes it seems you have an invisible force field and things just bounce off of it, you cannot be touched. When the balance of action/reaction is thrown out of equilibrium, you are not controlling the pyramid but are reacting too much, and acting at all the wrong times. You fall into another zone, a Crap Zone. The crap zone has it’s own flow, but it is all wrong and everything gets in your way.

     Besides the paranoid mindset, keeping the mind from wandering, and concentrating on what I was doing became an issue at this point. There is a progression of enemies in Q*Bert. You don't know if they will fall from the left or the right, but you do know what order they will drop onto the pyramid. If you are doing it right, you will finish every board by the 3rd or 4th cycle of enemies. I kept having this problem where I would play a board through the first and second cycle of enemies without thinking about it, and only start paying attention at the third cycle, thinking that it was still the second. So I would be waiting near the top of the pyramid for Slick to drop, and after nothing would happen for a second I would realize where I was in the progression, and rush to clear the board. And then I would do it all again on the very next board. This was frustrating, and continued until the endgame, when I forgot the order of enemies entirely and just played freestyle. 

   Anyway, sleep kept away Evil Kirk on the second night, and where I'd usually be left shaken from just getting through it by the skin of my teeth, I was excited that I'd made it through the second night relatively unscathed, a first for me and a reason to think that this could be the game. At 6 am, just before sunrise I took my next scheduled break. Since it was so close to my break time, Freeko timed it out so I would be waking up from my nap just as the sun was coming up. (I'm telling you, the guy knows how to orchestrate a marathon.) I changed my clothes and washed up for 5 minutes before taking my nap. At this point I stopped crawling under the Roller Disco machine to sleep and just lay down in the middle of the arcade. As I slipped into unconsciousness, the games towering above seemed like strange giant creatures looking down at me.

       I woke up with the sunrise and my alarm 40 minutes later, and got right back to the game. The break was just under 50 minutes, less than 200 Q*Bert's had died, and I was still shaking off the cobwebs of sleep with relative ease and playing very well for almost 2 days in. It was overcast at first so I didn't get the full sunlight like the morning before, but after an hour the sun managed to break through the clouds. Throughout the entire game I had perfect weather, cold at night and in the morning to keep me awake, but it warmed up a bit in the middle of the days. I would try to leave the door open until I started to shiver, or stand outside for as long as I could take it, to wake me up. I couldn’t last in the cold for very long, though.

      I spent some time talking to the people in the stream chat at this point. The computer with the open chat window was far enough away from me that I had to lean over to read it. This was deliberate, since during other marathon attempts I would get distracted by it as I got tired. I joked with  Ben Falls and Ross Benziger for a while, and talked to my Mom, my brother in Texas, Joe Miller and Logan Owlbeemoth, and some other great people.

     After that morning I had to tune out the chat. It was on the periphery of my awareness, but that was it. In fact, I didn't realize it at the time but after that point, Richie decided to severely limit what information I was getting from the chat. It seems that some of my competition’s Internet cheering section was trying to get into my head and mess with my mojo.
   Thanks to Richie, Freeko, and on the internet side of things my girlfriend Catharine and my friend Cat DeSpira, I was blissfully unaware of what the trolls were saying. My friends would say just enough to keep me feeling competitive towards Ed in Florida, and they bore the brunt of all the dirty psyops being sent my way. I can’t thank them enough for that.

      I was still gaining lives, and with no sign of Evil Kirk on the second night, I was feeling very confident and in control of the game. It feels good to know you have over 500 men in the bank at 48 hours. Freeko played some Mega Man music, then Ninja Gaiden. During this shift, Mark and Josh arrived.   

    As Mark and Josh were walking in, Freeko walked out to take a well deserved break. Richie was also there in the afternoon. He started telling stories, and I was having such a good time that I didn’t even notice when all of a sudden it was time for my next break.

Something’s coming up the plumbing  
poor Ed the killscreen’s in a bind
     It was 3:30pm. I went to pee before napping, and found that the toilet was clogged with tissue. Being from Brooklyn and half-Italian, my natural plumberly instincts kicked in. With a plunger nowhere to be found, I took a long screwdriver (sorry Richie!) and unclogged the toilet. I then cleaned the screwdriver thoroughly, and went to sleep proudly knowing that I had saved the Mushroom Kingdom in the middle of my Q*Bert marathon. I felt like a Jedi Knight! I don't know who clogged the toilet, but since I know Richie will blame Freeko, we'll just say Freeko did it. I figure there's no sense in fighting it. Later that night I heard that the toilet clogged again. Ed finally went out to buy a plunger, and went off to save the princess.

Those late nights at Richard Knucklez’ Arcade
   I woke up with my alarm after 40 minutes. It was Saturday afternoon and I was still coherent and playing well. I was coming up to the point somewhere in the 50-60 hour range where I'd usually hit the wall, but this time I was showing no signs of stopping. I was enjoying listening to the sounds from all of the games, and encouraged everyone in the arcade to play and make noise.

  In the late afternoon, Ed opened the arcade to the public again. Before long, the place was packed with people of all ages.

 By this point I was telling people that they could talk to me and I was listening, but I couldn't respond to them or my game play would suffer. This continued right up to the end; listening was fine, but participating and interacting with anything in my environment other than the game made the Q*Berts start dying. By the end I was just grunting "mmm" if I would say anything at all. I needed to concentrate. 
  At some point on Saturday night, the hallucinations started. Although they were not nearly as pronounced as usual, and if I concentrated I could see through them. In a way the third night of this marathon was a lot like the second night of my other marathons. I credit the early and regular naps with preserving my energy. Some of my friends think I should keep my break schedule a secret, but I feel that my success was a result of teamwork, not only the teamwork of my marathon team, but the teamwork of the wider circle of competitive gamers. I’ve learned from others and want to give something back. It was watching the best players that inspired me.

    Seeing the level of skill some players have is eye opening, literally game-changing. It can even make you better just by being around them when they aren’t playing games, just hanging out and talking. A week after the Q*Bert game, Ethan got his first Donkey Kong killscreen. He says that being there for the marathon gave him all kinds of inspiration. Of course, Ethan would have hit the killscreen soon anyway. I’ve seen him play, and Ethan is definitely one to watch. 

  The Donkey Kong players share tips and strategies with each other, combining their expertise. Because of this open source approach, in just a few years time people went from questioning if a million points on Donkey Kong was even possible, to there being at least a dozen ‘million point players.’ It is very interesting to see a game systematically deconstructed by a team of fanatic experts. Donkey Kong is like a cult now. It’s no secret that they all Kong-off together. They have their own language that they all speak amongst themselves. If you are about to reach a killscreen for the first time, somehow they know, and will contact you even before your game is finished.

    Back to the hallucinations. The pyramid started looking a bit like a tree, like during my earlier attempts. I had some new ones, for example it seemed that wherever the Q*Bert was, was the center of the pyramid. I would think I was in a relatively safe spot, and not realize I was one space to the left or right until something would fall on my head.

    Another new one was the illusion that the pyramid had turned on its side to the right. I would get the urge to push right if I wanted to go up. But again if I concentrated, I could see through the hallucinations. I also kept them to myself, afraid that if I talked about them they would get stronger. But not talking about them was not so hard to do, since I wasn't talking at this point anyway, just listening.

     I took my scheduled break at just around midnight. Mark, Josh and Freeko were napping on the floor in shifts while keeping an eye on me. I slept well, woke up to my alarm, and got back to the game still in good spirits, and with mild hallucinations compared to what I was usually seeing at this point. Mike Vacca was there again late at night until the early morning. Right at the beginning of this shift I crossed my former longest time of 60 hours, and the time of Rick Carter's legendary Q*Bert marathon at the Tron-off in 2010 of 61 hours, passing Rick’s score from that game a little earlier. I was thrilled to have crossed 60 hours and still be in such good shape. I was also getting very close to my goal, and this momentum and excitement was carrying me through the night. The third night has been the wall that very few people have gotten past, and none of them had ever broke through on an arcade game, or in an arcade setting. Todd Rodgers did it playing on the Atari 2600, and there are a few others.

      Just before sunrise I had an Evil Kirk moment. I started getting very annoyed, and losing Q*Berts left and right. I tried putting on some heavy metal, but after a few songs it was obvious that it wasn't helping get me out of the trouble spot. The tone had already been set for this marathon, and it was more 8 and 16bit game music that was needed. Freeko put on some Final Fantasy, and it seemed to help. Slowly the Evil Kirk episode subsided. I lost a decent amount of Q*Berts, but not nearly as many as I usually do right before sunrise, and managed to recover. 
      Getting through the third night, and most importantly with enough lives in the bank to take my next break, gave me a tremendous feeling of empowerment. The sun was rising, I had made it through what is considered to be the marathon Valley of Death. I felt certain now that I would make it to noon, and 72 hours.

    Since it was Sunday morning, I thought it would be funny to blame my earlier meltdown moment on "all these fucking Christians." They like to gather on Sunday mornings, and were sending a psychic attack at me, because they hate video games and rock ‘n roll and fun. I knew that some of the gamers watching the stream were Christians, and I was having a good time teasing them. 

    I crossed 30 million points at around the 66 hour mark. I had a break coming up soon, though part of me wanted to just keep going right to 33 million. I was so close to the thirty-year old score of 32.3 million now that I could taste it. But I knew that it would take another 6 or 7 hours to get there, and if I wanted to get beyond 72 hours I would need to follow through with my break schedule. When it was time, I ran off to change my shirt and wash up again, yelling "I'm going to sleep, and when I get up I'm going to break everyone's records!"

    I woke up with my alarm 40 minutes later, laying in the middle of the arcade. I still had my wits about me, and knew that during this shift I would make it past 72 hours, and the 33 million points that I needed to surpass the old record. But those last 4-5 hours from 31 million to 33 million took forever. Time slowed down, and sometimes it felt as if I'd never get there. This happens when you are too focused on your score. I tried to let go of it. I’d been somewhat successful at ignoring the score throughout the game, but these last few million before the record were tough to ignore. As soon as I made it over, time relaxed again for me.

    During those last few dragging hours before the old record went down, with perfect timing, Ethan walked in the door, a life-saver bringing with him a big bottle of orange juice and more beef jerky. He took over, giving the other guys who had been up through the night with me a rest. I crossed the 72 hour mark at noon, and between 1 and 2pm on Sunday, I beat the thirty year old Q*Bert record. We gave some high fives, and I said "First, I want to thank my sweet Lord Satan, for granting me the power!" 


      I continued on until it was about time for my next break, and stopped at 33,333,665 points. I was trying to make it look like a perfect Pac-Man score (perfect Pac-Man is 3,333,360) but I fucked it up.

     I was starting to feel a sore throat coming on, and was beginning to formulate a plan to finish the game Billy Mitchell-style: pick a number, stop at it, and kill off the game. I was thinking 34,567,890 or 35,353,535 or something like that. But I didn't communicate this to the team at first.
Toasting a 30 year old record going down 
    As I turned away from the machine, everything seemed to explode in on me, like the volume knob on the outside world was suddenly turned up to 11.  The arcade was probably already electrified since I had just beaten the record, but I didn’t notice until I turned away from the machine. The chat went crazy, the trolls went crazy. It was time to take some pictures. The guys from Cook to Order came over with champagne, and I toasted with the team. As I lay down for my nap, my girlfriend called and was complaining about the chat not being sufficiently moderated. I remember Mark pointing at his watch, reminding me that my break-time was ticking away. I got off of the phone, and fell into a deep sleep. 

    I overslept for the first time, my alarm didn't wake me up. Mark and some of the other guys yelled and made a commotion, trying wake me. But I hadn't made up my mind whether or not I wanted to be awake yet. I think the combination of finally overtaking the old score and the champagne relaxed me. But slowly the memory of where I was and what I was doing came back to me. And remembering that I was now "boldly going where no man has gone before" motivated me to stand up.

  The guys kind of propped me up in front of the game, but I wasn't really awake yet. I couldn't understand what I was seeing. I’d been in this half-awake state before, so I wasn’t surprised or unnerved by it. I was mumbling under my breath "this isn't Q*Bert" and things like that.

    After a few minutes it started coming back to me, but much slower than it had been after my earlier naps. I had been getting up from sleep and actually enjoying the process of quickly re-learning the game every time. The first board after a break felt like a free board, and I would just hop the Q*Bert around for a few minutes, getting back into the swing of the game before completing the round and moving on. This time it was a struggle for about ten or twenty minutes. At least it was coming back at all, though. During these twenty minutes, I talked on the phone to my girlfriend again, and ran outside for some cold air between levels once or twice, and lost 5 or 6 men shoveling pasta into my mouth. Earlier I wouldn't have eaten pasta, because I'd be afraid that it would make me feel heavy and tired, but at this point I was over the line of caring, and the pasta looked and smelled great.

   I was up finally, back to finishing pyramids with some frequency and not hemorrhaging lives, though I could feel that my game wasn't going to last much longer. Definitely not the 100 hours that Richie was encouraging me to go for. But I was worried that Ed in Florida would catch up to me, and I know Richie and the other guys were worried about that too, so they were pushing me to keep going.

    Forgetting about the camera that was streaming the game, with the microphone picking up everything that I was saying, I mentioned that I was thinking of quitting soon. Word got back to me that Ed's fans that were lurking on my chat went to report back to Ed that I was thinking of quitting. This stirred my competitive spirit, and I resolved right then to go until I ran out of lives, instead of stopping voluntarily.

   My competition with Ed in Florida is fierce and friendly. He is a great guy and a monster on Q*Bert. I am very intimidated by him as a marathon gamer, and this fear spurs me on, in a kind of panicked desperation. But the people supporting him on the Internet were acting like, as Billy Milano would say, ‘a douche crew,’ and I told them so. And I want to thank them again. Because had they not acted so douchey, I may have quit my game early. Instead I made one final push, and surprised myself by riding out the final momentum for another 9-10 hours.

    Mark and Josh had a bus to catch around 6pm, leaving Richie, Ethan, Freeko, Mike, Ed the killscreen and John and Debbie there for the home stretch. Before Mark and Josh left, I kept trying to tell the whole team how grateful I was to all of them, but I kept getting all choked up, so I just stopped trying so it wouldn't mess up my game. 

     At some point I told Richie that I didn't think I would make 100 hours, but I was sure as hell going to try. I wasn't giving up. I finished my pasta, had my first cup of caffeinated tea, and prepared for one last attack on the game. I figured that I'd slowly bleed out men for the next four hours, finishing somewhere around 80 hours. Then I would sleep and find out if Ed went further in the morning. Instead, much to my surprise, I got back into The Zone.

   Around this time I remember showing the Donkey Kong-Off Row  song and youtube slideshow that I made to honor the Kong-Off contestants (and other gaming luminaries) to Freeko, Ethan and Ed.

           I heard through the chat that my brother had returned from his trip to the UK where he had given a talk at Cambridge on the poet J.H. Prynne, and met with the some of the expelled members of the SWP, and it had all gone very well. 

  Then a Frank Zappa song came on that I didn’t know was in my phone and didn’t recognize. Some Mothers-era live jam. I still need to go back and see what that was all about.

     Four hours went by, then another hour, and then another. It was night again, and I was still going. I couldn't believe it myself, but I couldn't tell anyone I was as shocked as they were since I wasn't talking to anyone.

Don Hayes
     Ethan, John and Debbie were watching my every move and offering words of encouragment. Top gamer Don Hayes called. Warren Davis, the Q*Bert creator texted me congratulations. And then the game started to act a little strange.                                                                                                                                       

   I certainly was hallucinating, but some of the things that were happening to the game graphics others were seeing as well, and not just me. Or maybe I had finally gone beyond the point where I could tell what was a hallucination and what wasn't, and my friends were just humoring me. But it really looked like the green guy had yellow spots, and some of the other characters were looking different, too. 

     Although I had been playing so well, I saw that I dropped below nine lives (what is called "coming up out of the memory" of the game, since any lives over nine are not displayed, but are stored in the game’s memory.) I still don't know for sure what happened here, and I won't know until I review the recording. Did the game erase some of my men? More likely I had not been playing as well as I and everyone else thought these last few hours, and we miscounted with the death tally clicker somewhere along the line. We might as well blame Freeko. Since I know Richie will, and there's no sense fighting it. Walter Day called at this point and said we had entered the WTF Zone.

   So there I was, coming up out of my memory in the WTF Zone. I had long ago forgot the order of enemies, but was still managing to clear boards. My life count would drop to 5, than I'd build back up to 9 or 10, then lose a few, than gain a few. I continued like this for over an hour. I was preoccupied with what I was certain were graphical issues and not hallucinations, and thought I may have broken the game and that it might even freeze and lock up on me. At one point I asked if I should kill off a Q*Bert as an experiment, but Richie shouted "No!" He wasn't sure if I was kidding. I just smiled.

.   Usually when I am coming up out of the memory of the game, it is a very frustrating and tense experience. This time I was curious and observant, fascinated with how the game was unfolding, instead of stressed that I was so close to game over. Not bad fascinated, like the time I hallucinated that I was watching live animals behind glass. I felt like Miles Edgeworth investigating a mystery,


like Spock, discovering a new kind of life form in the galaxy, 


like Pitfall Harry, exploring uncharted territory, like that time we were playing Pitfall II on my cousins Atari 800 and it glitched out and took us to a vast “minus world”-style area. We always tried to get back there.

     At 84 hours and 48 minutes I lost my last man, and the game was over. As I put my initials in, I thought well, I gave it my best shot, now it's up to Ed in Florida. And then my team let me in on the big secret: Ed had stopped about a half hour before I did. I had done it, and didn't even have to wait until the next day to see if my effort had been good enough to hold on to the record. It was such a relief. I put on my novelty glasses with the googly-eyes on springs. I'd been carrying them around for five marathons waiting to make the joke. Richie asked me, "You've just broken the Q*Bert World Record, what are you going to do now?" I said "I'm going to Donkey Kong Country!"     

     We took some pictures, I gave thanks and a "Hail Satan" to everyone watching, and we let Ed unplug the game, which he happily did. We said our goodnights, and I fell asleep in Richie's car in the five minutes it took to get to his place, and then slept like a corpse on his couch for 10 solid hours straight.


How I felt the next day
     My mind and body were both fine after a few nights sleep. Although I did have an odd sensation that persisted for a couple of weeks: I felt like an old tree, or an ancient statue like the Sphinx. Like Frodo after the Ring was destroyed. And it seemed as if the days were flying by like minutes, even faster than they usually do. I sometimes think that maybe along with some World Records, I really have gone and done it and broke my brain this time as well. Funny thing is, I don't care! Lali-ho!

    At Barcade two weeks later, Michael Weinreb, who wrote the definitive article about arcade marathoning, asked me if there is a spiritual dimension to it, and did I come to any enlightening realizations as a result of all of this. On one hand I'm thinking, I have like five enlightenments for breakfast everyday (and sometimes a few before, even), and ordinary mind is the enlightened mind, anyway. And on the other hand I'm thinking, "No." I'm waiting for the Illuminati to call, and put me in charge. They haven't got in touch yet, but I know they're watching! 

    I don't need any stupid Illuminati, anyway. As the great author Robert Anton Wilson said, I regard the power elite as myself, and my friends. Breaking through the third night was like a slow-motion enlightenment, that took careful planning and strategy, and many failed attempts. And if I can get through the third night, what else is possible? I was saying to Joel West, now that I see that 100 hours is possible, I'm starting to think anything is possible. Is using the Force allowed under Twin Galaxies rules? I know if I try to use telekinesis to control the joystick on a game at an official Mark Alpiger CAGDC tournament, I would be disqualified. But sooner or later everyone will be doing it. Now that I am an ordained TG referee, I will work on setting some ground rules for psi powers down.

       Discovering and pushing the limits of skill and endurance while my friends and I joke around and have fun, makes the games themselves seem almost secondary, like just a disguise for something else, something bigger than it appears that is really happening. Or maybe it's just my imagination. But when you are having a breakthrough in a game and getting a new high score, there is a rush, a feeling, like a runners high. When I'm in that state, I begin to wonder.

John McAllister
   After 2 days of marathoning, one of the more common hallucinations is a sense that there are people standing next to you that you can see in your peripheral vision, but when you turn around, there is no one there. And then when you look away again, there they are again. Some of the other marathoners have had similar experiences. John McAllister tells a story about a ninja jumping out of a poster on the wall. I find this interesting, in a "this is what happens to a brain when you stay up doing the same thing for days" kind of way, but I hadn’t really given it much thought. Michael was interested in this, and asked me if I thought it were possible that throughout the ages these 'periphery people' could have been mistaken for angels or spirits. I said yes, and if someone believes in aliens, maybe they appear as aliens. Now I'm wondering if I can communicate with them, maybe get them to do stuff for me. What do you think?        


  Although in this marathon, the only people I saw that weren’t really there were actual people that I know, Sean Tiedman and Walter Day. I wonder if I had talked to their projections, if they could hear my thoughts from far away? Ok now I'm just getting silly. 

   Two people I didn't see but I know were there, are Liz Vacca, and my Dad. Liz and I were on the same wavelength, one of those people I felt like I already knew for years when I met her. She passed away last year, and my father passed away the year before. I know they were there because Mike had a dream afterwards that they came to him and told him to tell me they were proud of me. My bass player Sasha also passed away, but he wasn't in the dream. I guess he didn't make it to the marathon. He knew I had plenty of help, so he could go do something more fun than watch 85 goddamn hours of fucking Q*Bert!?#@! 

 I’ll see you patrolling the dark side of the moon.

    Q*Bert the boardgame       
   100 hour marathon
   So, the future of marathoning. Difficult to see. The future is always in motion. Maybe I'll go for 100 hours someday. Years from now, on a different game. Right now though, I think that I would like to play some shorter games for a while.

  It feels like a new beginning: Richie’s arcade has re-opened, and Twin Galaxies is reborn like the Phoenix (no 3 bird or suicide tricks allowed in the upcoming tournament). Ed pulled the plug, and completed the circle. 
The circle is complete
The Coily bites his own tail.



      Now I can focus on practicing for the Battle of the Arcades, the Crap Tourney, and other competitions where I'll get to actually hang out with my friends and not be stuck behind the Q*Bert machine for days.

                Well, I hope you got something out of all this. Maybe you are from outside of the scene, and your perspective on arcade video game players has been broadened just a little. I was telling Joel West just the other day, that it is up to us to educate the public, show them where their impressions of us are mistaken. For example, most people don't know that all the arcade game marathoners are also tantric sex masters. What, you didn't know that? How did you think we train?

 -George Leutz  3/2013, NYC


web pages hyperlinked to this report:

Learn more about the exciting world of competitive arcade gaming!

5lives record

5lives music

Bert*Off pics

Crowds & Power

How to speak Kongish

Donkey Kong-Off Row

The Kings of Q*Bert article by Michael Weinreb

Battle of the Arcades and the Crap Tourney at Aurcade

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