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Arts & Culture

Super-Size It: Eugene Techies Haul Out Giant Controller Inspired By Old School Video Game PONG

Tiffany Eckert

A group of artists, musicians and tech-types have transformed an old-school video game into a larger-than-life, interactive experience in downtown Eugene. At sundown, on every last Tuesday of summer months, people are invited to play the game—PONG—with a super-sized twist. 

Raise your hand if you remember PONG. The sound, the speed? The mind-numbing wait for the ball to stop pinging in the same trajectory and just get over the edge already! (sigh)

It was one of the earliest arcade video games and it had a nifty home version you could plug into your television set, whether color or black and white.

“In the before time, PONG was the very first game and it was really boring.”

Mark Davis is a software developer. Yeah, he’s a full-on tech geek.

“All you could do is you could move a dial and your pong paddle would go up and down,” Davis says. “And there was a single ball that would go ‘boop’ and it would go across the screen, ‘boop’ the then if you missed, the other guy would get the point.”

Credit Tiffany Eckert

PONG was pretty much an electronic table tennis game of the 1970’s. Davis, who created EugeneTech, says it was partly nostalgia that prompted him to choose this particular game to play around with now.  

“Well, I just wanted to make something that was fun first. Like we do a lot of things and we say, ‘Oh, it’s STEM! It’s science!’ And I wanted to do something to flip the story on that,” Davis says. “I was like, ‘let’s just do something that’s amazingly cool and then if anyone asks us how we do it, we’ll tell them all about it.”

Credit Tiffany Eckert
Announcing the start of a new King PONG game.

What Davis did was create King PONG. With the help of dozens of artists and makers, he adapted a giant-sized controller which runs through two swivel-based footstools, now used as knobs. The action is projected on a huge screen hanging on the back wall of Kesey Square in the heart of downtown Eugene.

Michael Jones is a sound designer with Pipeworks Studio. He’s been in the gaming industry for 17 years and thinks King PONG is going to be a huge hit.

Credit Tiffany Eckert
Eugene sound designer Michael Jones contributed music for the King PONG event.

"It's is a pretty faithful recreation of the classic PONG system from Atari, the home version,” Jones says. “And it’s blown up to –I don’t even know what the scale is but—it’s ginormous.”

Jones is here to make sure everything sounds right for this modern version of PONG.

“I contributed music to the experience,” says Jones, “so we’ll be playing music in the background while people play the game.”

MUSIC plays

Once the summer sky darkens, the spectacle begins.

An announcer calls to the crowd:

“I say ‘King’ you say ‘Pong,’ King Pong, King Pong! Alright let’s hear it for our first round! Are you ready?”

As the game gets underway, the crowd reacts with gusto!

“Whoa! She’s on fire!”

From all indications, this new take on PONG is fun. Besides the crowd-pleasing gaming audio, there is the comical image of adults bear-hugging big leather knobs on an oversized console in the heat of competition.

Artist Kelle DeForrest works in props and scenic art for the Ballet. She also produces digital art for computer games. To build the huge King PONG console lying before her, DeForrest chose her materials like a carpenter. As we watch 40 and 50 somethings line up to play King PONG, DeForrest muses.

“I hope that the last Tuesday of every month that they bring this thing out, there’s lots of people that will laugh and have great flashbacks of their childhood,” DeForrest says.  

Credit Tiffany Eckert
King PONG Chief Instigator Mark Davis and Commotion Creator Julie Anderson (left) give a tee shirt to a game enthusiast!

Credit Tiffany Eckert
Artist Kelle DeForrest built the giant game console for King Pong.

She should know about ‘80s flashbacks. DeForrest designed costumes for the Gremlins II movie!

Dressed for the part, a towering Mark Davis struts around the square. He’s wearing a bright orange, feathered robe and his red hair pokes out from beneath a bejeweled crown. Davis says he’s satisfied with the way this retro King PONG event is going down.

“If we can do it,” Davis says, “then we can have more awesome things like this and we can take King Pong and other large interactive art installations and have it show up at all sorts of things happening in the city.”

Eugene is quickly emerging as a game design hub and employment opportunities abound. Davis and other members of the tech community plan to enhance the educational component of King PONG and use the platform to teach kids how to design and code. Old-schoolers and newbies can take part in King PONG events on the last Tuesday of the month through September.

Credit Tiffany Eckert
Brandon Durocher says he had Pong when he was a kid. Now he's playing the game on a giant console in downtown Eugene.
Credit Tiffany Eckert
Mark Davis sits on a super-sized chair to watch people play his game, King Pong.

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