One way I teach students the philosophy of science is by using the documentary “The King of Kong: A fist full of quarters.”
In the early 1980s, legendary Billy Mitchell set a Donkey Kong record that stood for almost 25 years. This documentary follows the assault on the record by Steve Wiebe, an earnest teacher from Washington who took up the game while unemployed. The top scores are monitored by a cadre of players and fans associated with Walter Day, an Iowan who runs Funspot, an annual tournament. Wiebe breaks Mitchell’s record in public at Funspot, and Mitchell promptly mails a controversial video tape of himself setting a new record. So Wiebe travels to Florida hoping Mitchell will face him for the 2007 Guinness World Records. Will the mind-game-playing Mitchell engage; who will end up holding the record? Written by <email@example.com>
The film is full of ideas from the philosophy of science. For example, logical positivists were obsessed with (1) establishing theories only from data and (2) considering what evidence either falsifies or verifies a theory. In the film, Steve Weibe, the up and comer in the world of competitive gaming, sends a score into Walter Day, the guy that runs the world record center, but the score is ultimately rejected because while the video tape recording appeared legitimate, the machine he was playing on was questionable. This one is good for the falsificationists too: the score he had could not be verified because of questions concerning the video game machine he used; however, because there was no concrete evidence — merely a hunch — of tampering, the score could not be entirely falsified either. Consensus among a group of experts emerged upon reviewing the evidence of Steve’s claim to have the new highest score on Donkey Kong. This nicely emphasizes the role of experts and how consensus over reality is as important as “reality” itself.
Now, thinking all the way back to Shapin’s work on early laboratories and experiments, Steve is invited to attend an annual competition where he can achieve his highest score “live” so that all the other experts can witness first hand his skill at Donkey Kong. He does, and the entire community of competitive gamers more or less warms to the newcomer. This is not a bad lesson in the role of social connections and acceptance of newcomers in science. This is a place to begin discussions of Merton’s norms of science, and, in particular, disinterestedness. However, there is much more to say about functionalism. His competitor, Billy Mitchell, the previous record holder and longstanding insider, sends in, at the last possible moment, a video tape of a score that beats the score Steve just accomplished in person. Merton reminds us that what is good for science tends to advance it. In this case, what’s good for Walter Day and competitive gaming also happens to be what’s good for Billy Mitchell. Bill’s sketchy video score is accepted and immediately posted on-line for the world of competitive gamers to see. Additionally, and in violation of the norm of communism, Billy’s tape is not shared with Steve, even thought Steve’s original tape, which was rejected, was shared with Billy.
The documentary is also funny in places, and it does a nice job showing how a group of gaming experts arrive at conclusions about the nature of reality through norm following, norm violation, and, importantly, consensus. If you teach STS, check it out; I’ve even got a sheet prepared for students to follow along (write me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to see it). Also, if you’re just interested, then check it out too.
One closing remark: those old games like Donkey Kong required a very different skill set as compared to contemporary games like Halo or Neverwinter Nights. It is nice to remind new students that games used to be hard in a much different way.