Tiny town wants to become video game Mecca

For a brief shining moment in the 1980s, Ottumwa was the unlikely hot spot of the fledgling video game industry as gamers around the globe flocked to this sleepy Iowa city and its video game arcade for a series of landmark tournaments.

Gamers set world records, the TV show That's Incredible broadcast a tournament to a national audience, and then-mayor Jerry Parker dubbed Ottumwa The Video Game Capital of the World."

The glory days didn't last long. The Twin Galaxies arcade closed within a couple of years, and memories of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong dimmed for everyone - except arcade owner Walter Day, who dreamed of making Ottumwa into a permanent game destination.

"You know how your average person fantasises, when they daydream about having a new car or having a beautiful wife or inheriting from their uncle $2 million or something like that? I'm a little bit different," he said. "I fantasise about owning downtown Ottumwa and turning it into the first video game-themed amusement attraction."

It's a calling that's been heard by town officials. In April, they announced plans for an International Video Game Hall of Fame.

"Every town needs a place to be recognised for," said Terry McNitt, head of Ottumwa's Chamber of Commerce.

Day said he envisioned making Ottumwa a "cultural home base" for the lucrative worldwide gaming industry. The Entertainment Software Association, a game publishers trade group, said computer and video game industry sales climbed to US$22 billion in 2008.

Ottumwa's bid to reclaim its past also was inspired by a pair of 2007 video-game documentaries, King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and Chasing Ghosts, both of which featured the Twin Galaxies' heyday when Day was known as the king of video game stats.

Although his arcade closed, Day's scorekeeper status remains. Twin Galaxies, his Fairfield-based company, tracks rankings, high scores and championship tournaments for video games around the world.

City officials are passionate about Day's plans, but the idea is mostly a vision backed by a Facebook group with about 800 members. Officials said they hoped to buy a building near the original Twin Galaxies site and want to secure naming rights and a designation as a non-profit and build up a website.

Day said he's also reached out to his contacts in the gaming industry for donations. The hall of fame would likely include donated classic games, exhibits about the industry and an area with modern games for visitors to play.

Dale Uehling, the city's mayor, noted there was "a lot of interest, a lot of enthusiasm" for the project.

"The thing is, it's real and it has potential, and I think that's what excites everybody," McNitt said. "Why Ottumwa, Iowa? We're a population of 26,000. Well, we're a great little town."