For more than three decades, the record for Dragster, a racing game for the Atari 2600 console, could not be toppled.
In 1982, a player named Todd Rogers supposedly recorded a time of 5.51 seconds on Dragster, a driving simulation – in the most rudimentary, early-’80s sense, anyhow – that requires shifting gears at just the right time to maximize the “car’s” speed across the screen.
To prove his feat, as his story goes, Rogers said he took a Polaroid picture of his 5.51-second time and sent it to Activision, the game’s publisher, which confirmed the score.
In 2000, Rogers’ score, as recorded by Activision, would eventually be formally imported into the databases of Twin Galaxies, a group that keeps track of video game records around the world. Through the ensuing years, other game records would rise and fall on the Twin Galaxies scoreboards, but the closest anyone could come to beating Rogers in Dragster was 5.57 seconds.
In 2001, Guinness World Records recognised Rogers as having the longest-standing video game record in the world. His 1982 Dragster time, it seemed, was ironclad.
Faced with a growing number of complaints that Rogers had falsified his time, as well as an increasing pile of evidence suggesting that a 5.51-second run on Dragster was technically impossible, Twin Galaxies announced Monday that it had thrown out all of Rogers’ records – not simply his 1982 Dragster time – and banned him for life from its scoreboards.
“The presented software analysis model concluded that achieving score times of less than 5.57 seconds [in Dragster] is not possible under standard and normal play conditions,” a decision posted on the Twin Galaxies site Monday stated. “Beyond the software analysis evidence, which speaks directly to Todd Rogers’ Dragster 5.51 score time, this dispute case has collected a significant amount of circumstantial evidence as that extends well beyond Todd’s single score performance. We have evaluated this evidence carefully and found it to be compelling and relevant.”
One line in particular was emphasised in italics in the Twin Galaxies statement: “We have notified Guinness World Records of our decision.”
According to Twin Galaxies, some of the evidence against Rogers included an analysis by a video game player and computer engineer named Eric Koziel, who constructed a frame-by-frame model to show that – even with a computer assisting to optimise the time – the fastest anyone could complete a Dragster run was 5.57 seconds.
Rogers hit back at Koziel’s model, defending his record to the video game news site Kotaku last year:
“There’s like nine ways to shift in Dragster – and I don’t share that with too many people – but [Koziel is] going on one specific pattern where you stay in first gear and second gear quite a bit of time,” Rogers told Kotaku’s Heather Alexandra. “I could sit in front of a TV right now and play for an hour straight and get 650 different types of play and it would never be the same. If [Koziel’s] basing his spreadsheets and his shifting on one particular pattern, then that’s pretty ignorant and closed-minded, because you’re not factoring in the human element of how the game would respond.”
Unfazed, Koziel challenged Rogers again by saying his reasoning was “factually inaccurate.”
“[In Dragster] there is exactly one code block responsible for checking whether a player is changing shift state,” Koziel wrote in response to the Kotaku article. “That shift is completely binary: either the player is engaging it, or they are not.”
Last August, another player named Dick Moreland filed an official dispute with Twin Galaxies challenging Rogers’s 5.51-second time, citing Koziel’s analysis. Rogers was by then undoubtedly one of the most prominent video-game players in the world, known as being the first to go “pro” and one of the early members of the US National Video Game Team. However, many of his records had also attracted suspicions for seeming to be almost comically impossible.
Rogers’s record on the classic Atari arcade game Centipede, for example, had been listed on the Twin Galaxies site as being 65,000,000. The second-highest score, 58,078, barely comes close. (As of Monday afternoon, those rankings were adjusted after Rogers’s scores were removed.)
Rogers could not be reached for comment Monday.
For months, Twin Galaxies’ investigation – and the back-and-forth, often heated debates about the validity of Rogers’ records – dragged on. It was further complicated by Rogers’ many supporters, including Dragster game designer David Crane, who continued to defend the 5.51-second score as recently as last week.
“My position is very simple. The high scores published by Activision in the 1980s were authenticated using the established methods at the time, by the governing authority at the time,” Crane told Twin Galaxies for a blog post on its editorial side. “I have no doubts, then or now, that Todd Rogers achieved the scores attributed to him, provided the necessary corroborating evidence to support those scores, and earned the right to be named world champion by the accepted validating authority. Sorry that I can’t provide anything more concrete than my opinion.”
None of that would matter in the end. In its decision Monday, Twin Galaxies said they could not find any of the material Activision used to confirm Rogers’s score – including the alleged Polaroid picture – or “anyone who would on-the-record testify that they directly saw the evidence that was presented to Activision.”
“We cannot change Activision’s acknowledgement of this score but we have an overall responsibility for gaming achievements and can no longer accept their historical records as the sole justification for scores set at the time,” Twin Galaxies stated, calling the process an “ordeal” and a learning experience. “We care very much about our scoreboard integrity and will continue to improve it step-by-step, no matter how painful it might occasionally be. Twin Galaxies is dedicated to absolutely rooting out invalid scores from our historic database wherever we find them.”
Koziel said Monday’s ruling by Twin Galaxies was a relief and that his efforts to disprove Rogers’s time wasn’t personal – the two don’t know each other and have never spoken, he said – but rather “a question of integrity” to the speed-running community, those who try to find new ways to play video games as quickly as possible.
“This was a long time coming,” Koziel told The Washington Post. “It’s all about trying to encourage everybody who wants to pick [speed-running] up and go. If you have some times that are blatantly impossible and will stand forever, that’s a great discouraging piece to a whole lot of people who would otherwise try it.”
As for those who continued to support Rogers’ now-disqualified 5.51-second score, despite the evidence to the contrary, Koziel said there was probably little else he could do to change their minds.
“I’m glad that it’s over,” Koziel said, “at least as far as I can reasonably see.”