Barely a month old, the movement to place a video game hall of fame in Ottumwa, Iowa has formed a city-backed committee and is hiring legal services to incorporate itself as a nonprofit venture.
“We’re going to step carefully and make sure we don’t screw this up,” said Terry McNitt, the executive director of the city’s chamber of commerce. “This is a great opportunity. We want to do this right.”
Ottumwa, an out-of-the-way city of 26,000 roughly 2 hours from Des Moines, reasserted its 27-year-old claim as “Video Game Capital of the World” at an event Wednesday, where the city also announced plans to study and pursue a game hall of fame and museum.
Some might associate video games more with major cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, or Tokyo. But it’s hard to see a museum rising to the level of a city-wide priority in those areas right now. And many pop culture halls of fame, especially sports, have done well in smaller towns, in the U.S. anyway. If a video games hall of fame were to go in a small town, there is none in the United States with an historical claim as strong as Ottumwa’s, even if it is rooted in arcade-craze nostalgia of the 1980s.
The city was home to the now-defunct Twin Galaxies arcade, which became the first operation to sanction and certify high scores worldwide. At the zenith of arcade gaming, Ottumwa was a hub for many high-score competitions, and something of a symbolic home mentioned in press coverage of gaming’s early days.
Jerry Parker, the Ottumwa mayor in 1982 who declared the city the video game capital, attended Wednesday’s event, which drew a crowd of about 50, among it representatives from Ottumwa’s city council, its travel and tourism authority, and other community leaders. High score champions Billy Mitchell – world record holder on Donkey Kong and notorious as the antagonist in “The King of Kong” documentary – and Steve Sanders, the Joust world champion who also held Pac-Man’s world high score before Mitchell, also attended to show support. Mitchell pledged to donate the machine on which he set his Donkey Kong high score, should a museum be built.
“For Ottumwa to make this claim, and push to be the home of a video game hall of fame, it puts them at a point almost like Cooperstown [N.Y., home to baseball’s hall of fame] ,” Mitchell said Wednesday, before the event. “It’s hard not to be enthusiastic or supportive of it. I’ve made donations of time and effort, over the years, to push and promote competitive gameing, so it seems silly that I wouldn’t push for this. And I wanted to donate something significant to show that.”
Chris Hoeksema, an Ottumwa native whose creation of a Facebook page, almost as a lark, rallied support for the idea, now finds himself chairman of the steering committee plotting the hall project’s next move. Hoeksema said the body would meet this coming Tuesday and already is hiring an attorney to draft incorporation paperwork.
“It was quite a shock when I found out that the chamber of commerce really wanted to go forward with this,” Hoeksema said. “It’s been a great ride, and I really can’t wait to see where it goes next.”
McNitt, the chamber director, said the effort will look to establish a website presence and at least a temporary physical address almost immediately, in anticipation of enthusiasm and support for this coming from well outside Ottumwa. “We’ve had lots of calls and contact about this already,” he said. “I envision people throughout the United States and possibly overseas wanting to get involved.”
Since speaking to Kotaku in April for a story about the movement, McNitt said he’s become almost obsessed with the idea. Communities of Ottumwa’s size kill for any kind of notoriety, and something potentially as global as video games could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for business development.
“This morning I brought someone in and showed him ‘Chasing Ghosts,'” a documentary on games that prominently features Ottumwa, “just to show him what we’re dealing with here. Over the last two months, I’ve become so passionate about this I have to remember I’m still the chamber director, but I’ve become so convinced and obsessive that this thing is real and needs to be supported.
“The video game world has so much history, it needs to be put someplace,” McNitt said. “And why not Ottumwa?”
[Photo by Rodney White, Des Moines Register, originally published April 30, 2009.]