Donkey Kong record now held by plastic surgeon

A Manhattan physician becomes the toast of the video game world after scoring more than 1 million points in less than three hours.

By — Posted April 19, 2010

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Hank Chien, MD, woke up one morning as a New York-based plastic surgeon. He went to bed early the following morning as a king -- the King of Kong.

That day Dr. Chien scored 1,061,700 points in 2 hours, 35 minutes, breaking the world-record score for the classic arcade game Donkey Kong.

Donkey Kong, developed by Nintendo in 1981, introduced the now iconic video-game character Mario. Mario tries to save a damsel in distress from Donkey Kong, a large ape who throws barrels and other obstacles as Mario climbs a series of platforms and ladders in his quest.


Hank Chien, MD

Dr. Chien, 35, was an occasional arcade gamer and had played Donkey Kong only once as a child. But his interest in the game was sparked after watching the 2007 documentary "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters."

The film follows Steve Wiebe in his quest to beat the record-setting Donkey Kong score set by Billy Mitchell in 1982. Wiebe eventually set the record, only to lose it to Mitchell again in July 2007. Mitchell's 2007 score of 1,050,200 remained the highest until Dr. Chien came along.

In September 2008, about a year after watching the documentary, Dr. Chien sought out an arcade that carried the game. He said he figured his skills in the operating room could translate to a video game environment, and he believed he could master Donkey Kong.

A clinical study published in the February 2007 Archives of Surgery found a direct correlation between gaming and proficiency in laparoscopic surgery. Researchers said surgeons who played video games at least three hours a week in their past were 27% faster than were nongamers and had 37% fewer errors.

Dr. Chien believes the correlation exists both ways. Laparoscopic surgery "does feel like you're playing a video game because what you're looking at is actually an altered version of what you are doing."

Dr. Chien soon acquired a MAME version of Donkey Kong, an application that recreates the game on computer software. But after learning a world record could only be recorded on an arcade version of the game, he tracked one down to buy and play.

On the fateful morning of Feb. 26, Dr. Chien woke up to find New York City buried in several inches of snow. His office called to say his surgeries had been canceled. He tried to get a good game going but failed so tried to catch up on some of the sleep he had lost, thanks to his long Donkey Kong sessions.

About dinner time he woke up again, feeling fully rested.

Dr. Chien said he considered going out to meet friends, but the full-size arcade machine that had been taking up valuable real estate in his cramped Manhattan apartment was beckoning.

"I decided to give it another go. And that was the game that did it," he said.

Dr. Chien said that he likes to take risks early in a game to see if he can "get something started." If the risks don't pay off in the beginning, he usually walks away as opposed to getting too deep into a game that's going nowhere, which is what happened earlier that day. This time, things started going well right away, and he just continued to play.

He completed his game in the early hours of Feb. 27. Dr. Chien announced his victory on Facebook and was surprised at the number of people who were still awake and read his message. The flood of e-mails and calls started coming, and his life as an international celebrity in the gaming world began.

Verifying that he actually set the new record was more time-consuming than winning the game. After Dr. Chien finished the game, adrenaline pumping, he started the lengthy checklist process required for verification.

He had already videotaped the inside of the machine before the game (to show it had the standard arcade game parts), and had videotaped the actual game. But there was a 29-bullet-point list of other things that had to be captured on tape to confirm a record. It took nine hours to convert the video to DVD and another week before it was received and verified by Twin Galaxies, the organization tasked with verifying all video game records.

Dr. Chien's life once consisted of plastic surgery during the day and Donkey Kong at night. Now his spare time is eaten up with interviews and autographs.

One eager fan from Spain tracked him down by waiting at an arcade where Dr. Chien played. When Dr. Chien walked in, the fan eagerly greeted him. "People from Spain even know who I am. It's kind of crazy," Dr. Chien said.

So does one of the stars of "King of Kong." Steve Wiebe publicly congratulated Dr. Chien with an online message as well as a personal e-mail. Dr. Chien has also spoken to Wiebe on the phone since the record-setting game. Dr. Chien said Billy Mitchell is known to congratulate new record setters but he had not yet heard from him as of this article's deadline.

Dr. Chien said he never realized how many people were still into playing these classic games, nor how much prestige was attached to holding a world record, particularly in Donkey Kong, which is considered among the most challenging arcade games.

So what do you get for becoming the World Donkey Kong champion? Not a penny. But Dr. Chien does own the bragging rights and did get a certificate of accomplishment from the Guinness Book of World Records.

He also gained two new patients who came to him after they heard about his Donkey Kong skills.

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External links

"The Impact of Video Games on Training Surgeons in the 21st Century," abstract, Archives of Surgery, February 2007 (link)

Personal Facebook page for Hank Chien, MD (link)

Facebook page for "The New King of Kong" (link)

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