There's the stereotype of a professional gamer -- someone who lives in their parents' basement, eats lots of Pop-Tarts and Cheetos -- and then there's Hank Chien, a 40-year-old New York City plastic surgeon who was once the best "Donkey Kong" player in the world. Chien isn't your quintessential gamer: His day job includes performing breast augmentations and rhinoplasties. But for fun, he sets world records in "Donkey Kong" on the arcade game that sits in his living room.
Chien held the record for the highest score in “Donkey Kong” on and off for the past four years. Last September, his high score was topped by “Donkey Kong” newcomer Robbie Lakeman, 27, who was not yet born when the game came out 33 years ago. Like professional athletes who begin to lose their mojo in their 30s or 40s, a player's hand-eye coordination deteriorates with age, a reality that Dr. Chien knows more than most.
The plastic surgeon practices around 30 minutes a day, but leaving a successful medical career was never in the plan. But on the wrong side of 40, Chien is wondering: Is it game over?
“I think it's great that people can now make a living by playing video games professionally. I think I'm a bit too old to be doing that though,” Chien, who turned 40 last summer, told International Business Times. “My reflexes are only going to get slower from here. It's not something I ever thought about doing because it wasn't really possible when I was younger. Also, it's like becoming a professional athlete, singer or artist. Many try but only a few really hit it big. Plus, I already have a job that I really enjoy.”
Though Chien enjoys playing modern games, there was something about 1981's "Donkey Kong" that pulled him into the realm of competitive gaming.
“I always liked the style and simplicity of classic video games. However, I always considered myself a modern console gamer,” Chen said. “I was a bit too young during the early '80s to be hanging out in arcades. I only caught the tail end of the arcade era. It wasn't until I saw the documentary ‘King of Kong’ that I got interested in classic gaming. I always knew I was better than average at video games, but I had no idea or intention that I would ever set a world record in anything.”
This all changed on Feb. 26, 2010. It was an especially snowy winter in New York City, and Chien’s surgery schedule was cleared for the day due to weather conditions. That allowed him to spend hours playing the “Donkey Kong” arcade game that sat in his apartment, establishing a record score of 1,050,200 just after midnight. Since then, he has beaten his own record five times.
Chen was born in 1974 in Taiwan, four years before the golden age of arcade gaming gained traction in 1978. He moved to New York with his family at the age of 2. At 18, he graduated from the prestigious Stuyvesant High School on the West Side of Manhattan, a specialized academy that only accepts 800 students per year from more than 28,000 applicants. He attended Harvard University and performed his residency at Mount Sinai Hospital on the Upper East Side. Now, Chien works at Vogue Plastic Surgery in Flushing, New York, where he trades his joystick for a scalpel.
Chien also has become something of a connoisseur in arcade cabinet repair. His own "Donkey Kong" machine, a 33-year-old antique, frequently requires some tinkering.
"The old arcade games break down fairly often. However, they are also easier to fix than, say, a modern console. The circuit boards aren't nearly as intricate as modern circuit boards. Also, the wiring isn't packed as tightly as they are for modern electronic devices," Chien said. "If you want to play arcade games, you end up learning a bit about how to repair them whether you like it or not. I even had to do some soldering on my own machine when I first got it. Fortunately, my machine has been pretty stable, but I've had to take apart the joystick a few times to tweak it."
Chien's occupation also allows him to pursue his passion on the side. Surgeons and medical employees often work erratic schedules, putting in 12-hour days for three days at a time and then having several days to spend as they wish.
“On my days off I will try to put in about three serious sessions, bear in mind a good game of ‘Donkey Kong’ takes two to three hours,” Chien said. “It's very hard to keep this up for long periods of time. However, you can get burned out very easily. I've taken months, even a year off just to keep my sanity.”
Unlike modern professional gaming pros, who can win six- or seven-figure prizes at tournaments, Chien doesn’t compete for money.
“It's very difficult to play classic games professionally. The highest prize at any classic gaming tournament was $3,000 at ‘Kong Off 3.’ If you want to play video games professionally, I'd suggest focusing on the modern games.”
For Chien, classic games always will hold a special place in his heart. And he’s not surprised by how many people still care about them.
“I think the classic games will always live on just like classical music still has its place today. I believe the recent surge in interest is due to two factors,” he said. “First, the ‘King of Kong’ reminded people that there are still those who play classic games. Second, the people who grew up in the arcade era are now in their 40s or 50s and have expendable income and time. Eventually, as this generation ages, that interest will die down just like interest in vinyl records has died down. However, I don't think it will ever be completely dead.”