Please cancel the Game Doctor’s appointments…

Bill KunkelThe Game Doctor is out.

One of the founders of Electronic Games Magazine, the very first publication devoted entirely to video games and computer games, Bill Kunkel and his cohorts Arnie Katz and Joyce Worley created the field of video game journalism, at a time when no publisher thought an entire magazine could be devoted to a topic and support itself with both advertising and subscriptions. Electronic Games Magazine managed to prove them wrong, and Katz, Kunkel & Worley were suddenly on the ground floor of a whole new field of entertainment journalism. Oft-imitated by copycat publications that occasionally managed to look cooler but never quite read like they were written by the Katz/Kunkel/Worley team, Electronic Games was suddenly making its publisher a boatload of money. As with the rest of the video game industry, it flamed out in the mid-1980s, mired down by indecision on the publisher’s part on whether or not to ride out the apparent crash of the “fad” industry on whose coattails it rode. Its three founders moved on to pastures new. Bill Kunkel eventually moved on to a whole new field of publication, getting aboard the strategy guide train when the getting was good.

It would be a disservice to imply that Bill’s entire career was wrapped up in video game journalism. He had already done seminal work in other areas of entertainment reporting that dwelled, like Electronic Games, in areas that no publisher would’ve thought profitable – until he proved them otherwise. He had covered professional and semi-pro wrestling, and written comics in the company of some of the greats in that industry, among other things.

Of course, it was Electronic Games that I latched onto as a kid, making its debut when I was almost ten years old and had come down with a bad case of Pac-Man Fever. The writing in EG was funny, to-the-point, and called a spade a spade. You could trust the opinions in those pages. The art direction was near-legendary, with incredible painted artwork depicting scenes that the games’ own graphics weren’t quite up to showing us yet. (The art department also came up with that nifty E-and-G-in-a-circle logo that I misappropriated back then, since it happened to be my initials, and continue to “borrow” now. In case you’d missed it somehow.) To put it mildly, I was in love. I still maintain to this day that, somewhere between Electronic Games, Starlog Magazine, Douglas Adams and some Harlan Ellison books I had as a kid, I learned more about how to write than I ever have in any journalism or creative writing course I ever took at any level of my education.

It didn’t ever even occur to me that I’d have a chance to thank Bill personally for his part in that. I just went about my business writing for print, the web and broadcast, eventually winding up as one of the frequent-flyer freelancers for Classic Gamer Magazine about a decade ago. (Indeed, there was one issue where apparently there were a couple of complaints that I had written too much of the issue. Oops.) It was understood by everyone on the staff of Classic Gamer that we were trying to evoke a little something of the “feel” of the long-defunct Electronic Games – unapologetically so.

To my amazement, our editor-in-chief, Chris Cavanaugh, made contact with Bill Kunkel himself and got the man himself to critique our little magazine. I went back to dig up the e-mail that Chris forwarded to me to see exactly what was said that made my day back in early 2001:

…on first look, my favorite piece was Earl Green’s superb overview of
the Odyssey2.

Not to toot my own horn – and to be fair, there was a fairly even-handed critique of my article to follow – but I’m not sure it’s even possible to get better validation than that from someone whose writing I looked up to with intense admiration from a very young age.

Oh, but it gets better. A couple of years later at the 2003 Classic Gaming Expo, I was lucky enough to win a drawing to hang out and dine with the special guests (i.e. the ones who we were all paying to show up and hear from) the night before the show actually started. There was an open bar shortly before a really great meal – the kind you spend the rest of the weekend recovering from – and I did my best to blend into the wallpaper. I wasn’t even in the industry. What in the world would I have to say to these guys? Fortunately, the feeling wasn’t mutual: Steve Woita got me out of hiding and took me around to introduce me to everyone else in the room. Finally, Chris Cavanaugh made sure I was introduced to Bill, who stunned me by remembering exactly who I was and what I’d written (keep in mind, this was two years after Bill’s critique of Classic Gamer Magazine), and insisted that I join him at his table for dinner, where we were easily the most boisterous table for the entire evening. Every year that I was able to make it to CGE after that, there was no question and there wasn’t even time for me to ask permission – it was just assumed I’d be hanging out at Bill’s table year after year (though I don’t think were ever got around to quieting down). And sure enough, I did.

Nobody – nobody – could tell a story like Bill. When he later put some of his best anecdotes in print in Confessions Of The Game Doctor (Rolenta Press, 2005), my only beef was that the book could’ve been twice as long – and it should’ve been an audiobook, because the only thing better than reading about Bill’s misadventures in the industry was hearing him tell those stories personally. Here’s a pretty good example of Bill preserving the oral history of the early video game industry, as he read a chapter of his then-upcoming book at CGE 2005:


I wish I could pass along some of the stories from the CGE dinner table discussions, but I’m not sure I could. Not that there was any priveleged information exchanged, but I couldn’t do justice to the way Bill told his own stories.

They say you should never meet your heroes. I think you should, on the off chance that they’re as cool as Bill Kunkel. As starstruck as I was initially, it quickly dawned on my that he was as much a fan of my work as I was of his. He was as interested in hearing about my unlikely adventures (namely the horses) as I was about his. Once we got that obstacle out of the way, he was more than just a childhood idol. He was just my friend, Bill Kunkel. And this is in no way a name-drop on my part: everyone who approached him at Classic Gaming Expo, or e-mailed him out of the blue, seemed to have the same experience. Bill was just Bill.

Bill Kunkel died unexpectedly this weekend at his home. That particular piece of news is still busy kicking me in the gut with steel-toed boots. I wish our paths had crossed sooner and that we’d had more time, but I’m proud – and I consider myself lucky – to have had the mutual friendship that we had. I have yet to see a tribute from anyone who doesn’t feel that way about Bill. He’ll be keenly missed.

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