Walter Day’s Greatest Fear, Music, and Video Games
Walter Day is best known as being the founder of Twin Galaxies, the oldest video game scorekeeping and adjudication service. He is also the creator of e-sports and has often been called “The Patron Saint of Video Games.” While his dedication to find, verify, and catalog video game world records led to a decades-long partnership with Guinness World Records, Walter’s one true, unrequited love is with music. At the age of 71, his greatest fear is not fulfilling the dream of bringing his music to life. Since 1985 these songs have been bottled up inside him, and Walter is determined to make sure his music comes to fruition. Over the course of two days Walter and I had a personal and profound discussion. In the process, we became friends. I hope you enjoy the interview below. Walter is a special person who has already accomplished a great deal, yet I have a feeling the best is yet to come.
Tell me about your early years. Where did you grow up?
I was born May 14, 1949 in Oakland, California. We lived in Alameda, but I was born in Oakland because Alameda didn’t have a hospital. We arrived in California. My father was a paratrooper and he got machine-gunned by the Nazis. He was wounded and disabled for the rest of his life. He had to be on canes, crutches, braces, and everything like that. He realized he couldn’t lead an active life. He was going to have to do something else. Turns out he was real smart. He went to UC Berkeley to become an accountant, but then we moved around the Bay Area and then down to Southern California. First we lived in Encino and then in Hawthorne. Then we lived in Wilmington. Then, in October of 1954 we bought a brand-new house and we were a pioneering family that was a part of Orange County. We were there eight months before Disneyland opened up. So, we beat Disneyland to the punch. On October 30, 1954 we moved into our brand-new house that cost $12,500. I grew up in Anaheim. I was an Orange County boy. We were in Disneyland on the third day of existence. It was pretty amazing. On that day, my older sister got in line and Walt Disney drew her a picture of Donald Duck and signed it for her.
Wow! That’s amazing.
Then, in 1963 we moved to Lynn, Massachusetts. That’s where I went to high school and stuff like that. At 19 I started to get involved in the drug culture. I took marijuana and LSD for about 18 months. It really had a bad effect on my. It caused tremendous anxiety, depression, back aches, headaches, lower back pain. I had sleep issues, digestion issues. One time I went to go to a lecture and the lecturer didn’t show up. While I was waiting, I wound up speaking with a person who was also waiting. We were on Marlborough Street in Boston in 1969. I told him about my substance abuse and everything I was going through. He said, “Oh, yeah. I went through the same thing, but I went and learned something called transcendental meditation and that completely changed it, and all those symptoms went away.” So, the very next day, I went to a building in Cambridge where they teach it, and I learned transcendental meditation. You sit down, close your eyes, and you do this mental mantra. It actually changes the way your nerves work so you’re able to get rid of the deepest possible stresses that interfere and impinge on your nervous system and cause you not to have the happiness, creativity, and clarity of mind you might have had when you were younger. That was a big transformation for me. I was so impressed that I thought, “How can I get more of this?” I learned that there are advanced courses that, when you do them, they increase the speed of removing the stress from your physiology. So, I went away to Colorado and learned to be a teacher of transcendental meditation. So, for the whole decade of the 1970s I was, essentially, while going to college, a teacher of transcendental meditation. It was one of the most amazing things, simply because of the level of transformation it does for the body and mind. You’d think it’s about just sitting there trying to push out thoughts, but that’s not at all how it works. It turns out that it actually switches your nervous system to this unique state of consciousness and unique state of body functioning that you do not commonly experience in your life. Right now we’re in waking consciousness. Later on tonight, you’ll be in sleeping state and then dreaming state. When you do transcendental meditation, scientists have said that you enter a unique state of consciousness that’s different from anything else you’ve experienced in your life. You do it for 20 minutes twice a day.
That’s fascinating. Did you always work in the video game industry or did you have a career beforehand?
On April 14 of 1980 I left Fairfield and went down to Houston to become an oil broker and it wasn’t going well. I thought of this idea to write a book called Day’s Who’s Who in the Petroleum Industry. We started designing it and putting it together, and we had about 150 oil executives who gave us their biographical information for the book. One night I was working with a guy named Roger on it and he said, “I can’t work on this another minute. I need to go out and play Space Invaders.” I had never heard of Space Invaders. So, he took me to one of those big arcades that was down around the loop of Houston. He took me to a Malibu Grand Prix, where there was a huge arcade. The first thing I saw was a whole row of Berzerk arcade machines yelling at me, “Kill the humanoid!” Roger took me over to the Space Invaders machine. Before the night was over I not only fell in love with Space Invaders, I was addicted to video games. It became a habit a couple nights a week. I discovered Pac-Man, Gorf, and Centipede. I went through long phases of playing each of these games. At that time, I had a business where I went out on the road and I would sell old newspapers. I had newspapers dating back to 1590. Massive amounts of Civil Wars newspapers. Piles of them, from all over the place. I once had a copy of The Philadelphia Inquirer with an illustrated graphic of the funeral of Abraham Lincoln. I’d go on the road and sell old newspapers. Wherever I went, I’d stop in local arcades to play games. I went to hundreds of arcades. And when I’d get interviewed by the media about being the guy selling old newspapers, I’d do the interviews in arcades. In between playing video games, I’d be showing them old newspapers.
How did you make video games part of your career?
I fell in love with playing video games, as I said, when I was taken to the Malibu Grand Prix. It was on the big belt highway around Houston. I discovered video games and started playing them three nights a week in Houston in 1980. Over the next year, wherever I went for work I made sure there was an ample amount of time for playing video games. Then I started to have the idea to open a video game arcade. It wasn’t really an idea as much as it was a strong desire. It was a strong, strong desire. As time went on, I found myself playing video games longer and longer into the night, staying up with the younger people. I did this quite a lot. I was on the road with the whole newspaper job, and I came home in the beginning of September and some friends had opened an arcade. I wasn’t jealous. I was envious because I wanted to have my own arcade because I loved video games so much. It was so appealing. My friends said, “Walter, we’re going to show you every step you need to go through so you can open up an arcade.” They did that. They connected me with the right people and, before I knew it, I had a company. I was out driving around trying to find the perfect place for a video game arcade. Believe it or not Ottumwa, Iowa is where I decided to put it. The place had been empty for a year-and-a-half. There used to be an optometrist there, and it was offered to us for $800 a month. We had no idea if that was a good deal or not, we just knew we wanted to open up an arcade. So, I opened up an arcade in 1981. From the beginning, I called it Twin Galaxies. The name came right into my head. We had 22 games when it opened. I was still engrossed in the whole newspaper thing. On the night it opened, I had to drive back to Fairfield, where I live now, because I had a media interview scheduled with a woman from WHO-TV for a story on my newspapers. I was there doing a story on the old newspapers with her. When it was done, it was about nighttime and John Watt picked up the phone and said, “Walter, we got it all set up. It looks beautiful. We’ve got our first customers.” These guys came in and they were in shock that there was an arcade. No one expected our arrival. I couldn’t stop playing the games. I’d play them until 2 a.m. every night.How did Twin Galaxies transition from being an arcade to an institution that keeps track of high scores?
Believe it or not, as the wonder began to settle down a bit. I kept thinking that there’s got to be more. I was feeling this huge sense of anticipation. There was something about it that was on the tip of my tongue. There was something about this experience of having the arcade that I knew was coming, but I didn’t know what it was. The way I look at it now, after all of these years, sometimes the future and the past just mix and blur together. I was feeling what was just around the corner like it was knocking on my door. It was a psychic, pre-cognitive thing where I just had this sense that something was just around the corner. I had that on a daily basis. Then, on January 18, 1982 TIME magazine comes out with a cover story on video games and how they’re a phenomenon that’s sweeping the world. It talked about how video games were now a huge part of the culture. Inside that nine or 10-page article, there was a box about Steve Juraszek putting a quarter into a video game and playing it for 15 hours on that one quarter. He played Defender. The feature article box heralded him as the world record holder. Of course, no one knew if that was true. One of my local players came up to me and said, “I can beat that score.” I said, “What are you talking about? What score?” And he whipped out the TIME magazine and showed it to me and told me, “I can beat that score.” I looked at the article and read the feature box on Steve Juraszek and I looked at him and I said to myself, “No way can a local kid beat this record.” But I turned to him and said, “Prove it. Go ahead.” We set it up for him to put a quarter in Defender that weekend and go for a record. And he did it! But what was interesting and what I didn’t expect is an inspiration I had. About two-thirds of the way through it, as the night began to come on, I called the radio station and told them what was happening. Their reaction was marvelous because they got so excited about it that they rushed over and set up shop there and started covering it like a major breaking story about man versus machine. Local man going for the world record that has been identified in the TIME magazine article. Then I called the TV station and they came over to set up shop as well and do the same thing. Then I called the newspaper and they came over as well. Before the night was over, the newspaper, radio, and TV station were at the arcade covering this event. My connectivity to the local media through my newspaper job led to people calling from all over the region to cover the arcade and this kid, who did wind up breaking the high score that was in TIME magazine. On Monday morning I called Williams Electronics, the maker of the game, and I told them what happened and I asked them if it was a new world record. They said, “We don’t know. We get calls like this every single day, but we have no idea who the world record holder is because no one keeps track of the scores.” So, I was intrigued by that. Not only did I call up two magazines and ask them the same question, I called seven game manufacturers, including Nintendo and Midway, and they all told me that they don’t keep track of high scores for video games. I slept on that over the night, and I made those same phone calls again the next day and told them, “We have a scoreboard here. We’re keeping track of the scores.” It was miraculous. It was amazing because the people on the other end of the phone thanked me. They all thanked me for the service we were providing by keeping track of the scores, and they unanimously said, “We’ll keep your contact information on file so our receptionist can refer anyone to you that calls in about setting a high score.” None of them viewed this as a valuable thing they were giving me. Instead, they viewed it as a nuisance that I was taking off their hands. They didn’t think high scores or world records were valuable. They saw them as a nuisance. And they were able to pass it off on me, which is how I think they saw it.
Then I went back to playing Gorf again. After, maybe, 10 or 15 minutes one of my attendants tapped me on the shoulder and said, “There’s a long distance phone call. Someone wants to ask a question about a video game score.” I was surprised but I knew what was going on, so I went over to the phone and sure enough there was a kid named Casey Murphy and he was calling from Goodlettsville, Tennessee. He was calling in with a high score for Galaga. He had a score of five hundred and fifty thousand points. I looked up at our scoreboard and I saw that our person, our night manager, had a higher score of five hundred and eighty thousand so I said to Casey very solemnly into the phone, “Casey, you have the world’s second highest score.” He got all excited and said, “Oh, I can beat that!” And he called in the next day with a higher score. Then we never heard from him again. To this day, we’ve never been able to honor Casey Murphy as the person who started Twin Galaxies with the very first high score we recorded. Never heard from him again.
How did you decide what kind of parameters to set for someone to set a world record for a video game?
Essentially, the score keeping process grew a step at a time. At first, it was completely based on me trusting people. People would lie about a video game score? No, no one would do that. That’s too childish, too immature. So, I was trusting people by their word. The next step was having the arcades where the record was set verify the scores. They’d fill out and sign a form we’d send them, as well as three witnesses, along with a photo of the high score on the computer screen of the arcade machine itself. That didn’t work too well. Too many arcades were willing to do mischief. If someone can get a high score at your arcade, it could lead to publicity for your arcade. They had too much of a selfish interest in the process to trust them with it. So, the best bet was to have people play in front of us. Sometimes we’d travel to different places to have people play in front of us or they’d come to Twin Galaxies. It became a place for people to come to where they’d prove their stuff. Eventually, when videotape popped up, people would record their games from the moment they pushed the first button to the moment it said “Game Over” on the screen. It was a long process and a lot of mistakes were made. Many people were truthful, while others weren’t.
You no longer own and operate Twin Galaxies, correct?
No, I’ve been out of it for many years. The person who owns it right now has had it for about six-and-a-half years. And there was a time period before that where I was distanced from it too. I’ve technically not been operating it for around 13 years.
What made you want to sell it and step away?
The fulfillment of my life. I want to go and do something I’ve been wanted to do for a long time. I was trying to get away from Twin Galaxies and video games to get into music. This relates to my biggest fear in life. In August of 1985, I started dating this really glamorous woman. By December, I was very involved with her. Then, one night she called me up and told me she had been secretly been dating a friend of mine. It was completely a surprise, and I was brokenhearted on a level I didn’t know was possible. It was very upsetting for me. A few weeks after we broke up, I was going through a lot of heartache and I started hearing music playing inside me. It’s like the Beatles movie Yesterday, where I had this music inside of me — lyrics, melodies, harmonies, and all this kind of stuff — but they weren’t songs that existed in the outside world. They were completely inside of me. Over the course of a few years, I was able to write down or use tape recorders to capture 138 different songs. Every one of them had specific melodies and harmonies. To this day, my music remains unfinished because there’s a war that’s going on inside of me. Part of me continues to want to do things connected to my trading cards and Twin Galaxies, and the other side of me wants to do the music. Part of the reason my music hasn’t been addressed fully is because of financial safety. I had to do these other things for money. It’s like I only have so many units of gas in the tank, so I’m only going to be able to drive to one destination. And I continue to drive again and again to the video game destination, instead of the music destination. Essentially, it’s been very emotionally upsetting because I am so full of the desire and the need to fulfill these songs. Now it’s become my greatest fear. After all of these years of planning, how could it not happen? It’s actually desperation on a psychological and emotional level. After this interview, I’m going to sit in front of my computer and work on some songs. That’s what’s been going on with me now. Is Walter Day going to actually make it and have the moment where he can sing and play his songs and have the wonderful experience of having everybody else hear what he’s been hearing inside for all of these years? That’s a confession that I’ve never revealed before. I’m very concerned and distraught about this. I’m 71 and I’ve noticed that I haven’t been as focused lately. I need to be focused.
What are your thoughts on The King of Kong documentary?
It wasn’t what we expected. We were kind of lampooned. The people that put it together didn’t let us know what they were doing. As a movie, it’s a work of art. It’s been ranked among the 30 best films of the last decade by movie critics. It’s a work of art, despite the fact that it isn’t completely true. A lot of it is misleading because of how the content was presented. Remember toward the end when Billy Mitchell comes into the arcade and he walks behind Steve and Steve half-turns and says, “Hey Billy” and Billy shrugs his shoulders and walks away, snubbing him? Well, Billy really did stop and talk to him. They had a warm interaction and Billy went on his way and he said, “There’s some people I don’t want to spend too much time with,” something like that. What he’s saying is he realizes that the scenario there is making too much of a deal out of an alleged rivalry between Billy and Steve. There was a little rivalry there, but it was mainly hyped up by the filmmakers. They were trying to make the rivalry purely for the film. They told me afterward, “We had to make a movie that sold, Walter.” Billy didn’t want to chat with him too long because he knew people would say he was trying to interfere with Steve’s game so that he won’t be able to beat him or that he’s trying to steal Steve’s gameplay secrets. All of this stuff, Billy is aware of. That’s why he said what he said to his wife in the movie. He’s aware of how it could be a dangerous situation if he talks to Steve for too long. The whole movie was structured to be a good guy versus a bad guy. Therefore, each scene made Billy out to be the villain.
Since then Billy set a new world record for Donkey Kong. However, it was disputed and he was accused of cheating, but just a few months ago Guinness World Records cleared him of these claims and reinstated his world record. Despite this, Twin Galaxies is still disputing Billy’s record and there’s a defamation lawsuit brought by Billy that’s being heard before a judge in October. You’re taking part in that court case, correct?
There’s a whole bunch of interesting stuff that went on behind the scenes that is, sort of, a conspiracy. I’m not in a position to talk about it because I don’t know all of the details. There’s a huge amount of evidence. My connection to it is only that I’m testifying in support of Billy. Everybody knows that I was not present when Billy got his high scores. I saw them later on videotape. But I was constantly involved with Billy’s activities at that time period and, therefore, knew that he was not involved with MAME and that he didn’t approve of MAME or believe in it.
Do you think that because of The King of Kong people are out to get Billy, since he was portrayed in the film as a villain?
Oh, absolutely! Everybody can see that, except people on the outside believe that it’s true. They think that Billy really is that bad.
It’s a shame because he seems like he’s a really good guy who’s accomplished great things, and he deserves to be recognized for what he’s achieved.
Yeah, he’s a really great guy. I’m impressed by how much he’s grown into being a good guy.