On the Thursday night when I visit the arcade, Heather and her dad Keith, 44, are showing this kind of passion. They've already dumped eight hours and hundreds of dollars into DOC over two nights of play, and they're just getting started. Heather is visiting her dad on a summer vacation trip from South Carolina, where she lives with her mom, and the pair is making the most of their time at the machine. Heather is on her fifth horse already, while Keith is on his second (horses are usually good for 20 to 40 races before they can't keep up with their younger competitors).
When Keith first saw the game, he said he "didn't think it'd be interesting at all," but his horse-loving daughter, a four-year show jumping veteran, dragged him over. Now he admits he's hooked. To Keith, there's a sense of pride in developing a good relationship with his horse, indicated by a series of small hearts at the bottom of the screen. "I like to see the hearts. I take the card with me. It's my horse."
Keith's pride has extended into the real world, where he has showed his personalized trainer's card to his coworkers and, as his daughter laughingly admits, "the video store guy." Explaining what the card was took a little doing, according to Keith, but once people understood it "they thought it was pretty cool. I told them, 'if you go once, you'll be hooked.'"
Both Heather and Keith say they play lots of games on their PlayStation 2 at home - Keith prefers sports games while Heather enjoys fantasy and adventure. Keith says he enjoys DOC because "it's not as stressful" as other games, but it still gets exciting. "It gives you a break occasionally and allows you to enjoy your horse," Keith says. "You can go back to your farm and relax, train it a little. When the race comes in the blood pressure goes up and - "
"- It's got a lot of tension," Heather adds.
The game's unique premise and loyalty-building memory card system can attract a pretty varied audience. "Players representing every demographic you can think of are spending time on DOC," Gustafson said in the same press release, and the crowd at Jillian's seems to confirm it.
Among that crowd are Mike and Scott Diurso, gruff-looking 40-somethings who are playing the game for the first time. Mike admits he doesn't really know what's going on, but says the point seems to be "just trying to make the horse happy so it makes you money." Mike has named his horse "A' Bird," after his grandson's nickname. Scott has named his horse "KickMikesButt." For him, the goal of the game is "just beating [Mike], really."
Victor Lagunez, a pre-teen in a red basketball jersey, sits to their left. Victor said he has been playing the game for over a year, spending roughly $20 each time he plays. His current horse, (which he named with a string of capital A's because he "was in a hurry,") is "pretty good ... but other horses were way better. I trained them better, [but] they were getting too old, and they stopped winning, so they had to be retired." His voice remains steady as he says this, but you can sense a hint of regret as he describes his past accomplishments.
Fernando Lagunez, Victor's dad, sits in front of his son. He doesn't play many video games, but admits that this game "could be addictive." His early performance hasn't encouraged him, though - in his first three races he's had one 11th place finish and two 13th place finishes in a field of 13 horses. He's not sure whether or not he'll keep his horse card to continue the futility later. In the end "I'd rather watch them play," he says.