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The Todd Rogers Dragster Controversy

In recent weeks there has been a growing controversy in the world of competitive gaming about some very old records.

I’m pretty far removed from all of the principle players in this, and don’t really know what to believe is true.

The controversy began with the oldest record, or one of the oldest records, on record: a score of 5.51s in Activision’s Dragster for the Atari 2600, held by Todd Rogers, obtained in 1982, 35 years ago. For some reason some people still cared about this game enough that they devoted an insane amount of time and resources into trying to replicate Todd’s feat, and, it is now believed, have proved that the record score is impossible. A tool-assisted speed run of the game could not replicate the score. Ben Heckendorn hacked an Atari console to allow a tool-assisted attempt on physical hardware, and still couldn’t tie Todd’s record. The only reasonable conclusion seems to be that the record is likely fake.

Except that, Todd performed this feat on three separate occasions, live, in front of judges. Activision certified Todd’s score authentic by “the standards of the day”. It could be that Rogers managed to cheat in such a way as to avoid detection by those standards back then. There really is no way of knowing. (It’s still possible that there could be a way to achieve the score that the BenHeck attempt simply didn’t find. And, even if the score can be replicated or exceeded by someone today, such evidence wouldn’t prove that Rogers actually achieved it in 1982.)

Back then, videogames were a long, long way from being recognized as a competitive sport. Feats in videogaming were more like publicity stunts than they were like Olympic competitions. The stakes were not particularly high, and this was in an era where doctored videos and photographs were not as easy to produce as they are now. But neither were the verification methods as sophisticated as they are today.

But what would Rogers have had to gain by cheating, beyond what at the time could only have been anticipated to be some incredibly trivial, short term bragging rights? What methods could have have employed to fake his verified scores? Why would someone continue to cling to his fraud for 35 years, turning his whole life into a lie?

This raises a epistemological question of how can a record ever be measured, and once it has been performed, how can it ever be verified? Methods that were once acceptable: a live performance on certified stock hardware witnessed by an official judge, photographs, and even videos are all subject to various forms of cheating or corruption. We can trust recording and verification measures to a degree that is reasonable, but what is reasonable?

Records ultimately seek to preserve a moment in time, for all history. But ultimately, won’t all these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain?

The further removed from the actual event we become, whether by time or by proxy, the less we can believe what was witnessed. But even witnesses cannot be trusted, even if they are honest. Memory is faulty. Perception is faulty. Recordings can be manipulated. So does anything really happen? Well… of course it does. But how anyone prove any of it?

The story goes deeper. Rogers holds many other records in Twin Galaxies’ database. In many cases, his scores are unbelievable. In some cases, literally unbelievable as the score in the record is literally impossible by the scoring rules — a game where the score increments in multiples of 100, with a record that is not evenly divisible by 100. In other cases, figuratively unbelievable, as the second place score in the Twin Galaxies leaderboard is far distant from Rogers’ supposed record.

Well, it so happens that Rogers was at one point a Twin Galaxies referee, and had access to their database, and has admitted to entering his own records into the books — on his own, without supervision.

In response to these facts coming to light, Twin Galaxies struck all of Rogers records from their databases.

Regardless of whether the Dragster 5.51 score is legitimate or not, the numerous obviously falsified records alone should be enough reason to ban Rogers from the recordbooks. The integrity of the entire Twin Galaxies database is compromised by the lax practices of the past. Even if some of Rogers record scores are real, the actions he took as a Twin Galaxies judge cast doubt on the integrity of all of his records, and indeed on the entire body of Twin Galaxies’ recordbook.

Todd’s public response to being banned by Twin Galaxies and having his records vacated is long and rambling, but also fascinating.

The obvious solution to the 5.51 controversy is to see if Rogers can replicate the feat today. If he can, the record is re-proven; if he can’t, it doesn’t really mean anything, but would be taken to lend weight to the record being false.

Supposedly, Rogers was prepared to defend his record by replicating the feat, but has since reconsidered due to numerous threatening messages that he says he and his family have received.

I don’t know what to believe here, either. On the one hand, it’s really, really hard to believe that anyone cares so much about this record that they would threaten someone for cheating and lying about it. On the other hand, we live in a post-gamergate world, and it’s entirely believable that there are those who would do exactly that.

But then again, it’s an extremely convenient excuse for Rogers to walk away from this whole thing with the shreds of what’s left of his dignity intact.

Which is to say, if Rogers is a fraud, and it certainly looks like he is, then using the hostile gamer culture as a reason to walk away from further embarrassment is exactly what a reasonable person would expect him to do.

There’s an interesting thread on the Atari Age forums that goes into surprising depth discussing the controversy.

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