We’re still relatively close to April Fool’s Day, so I’m going to take a slight detour from my typical blog posts. Instead of writing about the history or gameplay of an an old school video game, I thought we’d take a look at the curious case of George Plimpton in the video game world.
It’s difficult to decide where to begin when discussing an individual like George Plimpton. He was a journalist, though the term hardly suffices. He was famous for “participatory journalism”, a postmodern kind of approach to the profession which placed a value on “truth” over “facts” and compelled writers to immerse themselves in the story they were writing. Thus, Plimpton got in the ring and boxed with Sugar Ray Robinson, and played a few downs as quarterback for the Detroit Lions in an intrasquad scrimmage. He attempted to compete professionally in the PGA and took to the ice with the Boston Bruins. He was a demolitions expert in the military and was named Fireworks Commissioner for New York by Mayor John Lindsay. He was responsible for, arguably, one of the greatest April Fool’s Day hoaxes of all time. On April 1, 1985, he published, “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch” in Sports Illustrated, a story about a supposedly real pitcher raised in Tibet who had learned how to throw a 168 mile per hour fastball. In addition to this diverse set of accomplishments, Plimpton was also the commercial spokesman for the Intellivision.
He appeared in television commercials (around a dozen) and in print ads, comparing the Intellivision and Atari systems. The television commercials billed him as a “Famous Author & Gamesman.” Plimpton introduced himself by saying, “I’ll try almost anything. So when Mattel Electronics asked me to compare their Intellivision games with Atari, I gave it a try…” He then proceeded to explain why the Intellivision games played much closer to the actual sport. In print, he stood dressed in a suit and tie over two television sets. Above him were the words, “Two Pictures Are Worth A Thousand Words.” On one television set was a still image from Atari’s Home Run Baseball. On the right was an image from Intellivision’s Major League Baseball. A quote from Plimpton read, “Nothing I could say would be more persuasive than what your own two eyes tell you. So compare for yourself. Game for game, feature for feature, I think you’ll find Intellivision is clearly superior.” The ad took two full pages, with the second page consisting of a short essay by Plimpton detailing the virtues of the Intellivision. He became known as “Mr. Intellivision.” In one ad, Plimpton sits at a desk, glasses perched on his nose, and types out a letter to a young boy, which touts the low cost of the new Intellivision II system.
With his cultured accent and professorial demeanor, the ads are downright bizarre. Presumably, they were an attempt to depict Intellivision as the “smart” choice when it came to video games. There was certainly a case to be made for that, though it still seems a conceptual leap for Mattel to choose one of the co-founders of the Paris Review to hawk their product. Plimpton’s background, as an intellectual who embedded himself in the sports world, surely played a part in the decision. After all, Intellivision stands for “Intelligent Television” and the system was known for the quality of its sports titles.
There’s an odd sort of footnote to George Plimpton’s unlikely video game legacy. In 2011, author and actor John Hodgman mentioned Plimpton in episode 22 of his “Judge John Hoffman” podcast. The episode was titled “Tips and Tricks and Justice.” In it, Hodgman makes the case that using a strategy guide for a video game is a form of cheating. During the episode, he alludes to a (fictional) game called George Plimpton’s Video Falconry which he played in the 1980s. Inspired by the comment, programmer Tom Fulp went ahead and created the game. However, instead of Intellivision (which would have made sense) the game was presented as a ColecoVision title. Curious gamers can still play the game online and even see a fictional commercial for it.
So, to recap (because it’s a little dizzying): we now have a new video game that was inspired by a fake video game, which ties back to the video game industry’s most unlikely spokesperson. Plimpton would surely be proud of such a surreal blend of fiction and reality.