A Horse of a Different Color

Heather Dubé knows horse racing inside and out. In her short career she has done it all: picking out sires and dams to produce winning foals; working her horses through a specialized training regimen; and selecting carefully controlled diets to maximize her steeds’ potential. Heather even serves as the jockey, utilizing an early whipping strategy that she says “leaves them in the dust in the end.”

Heather’s latest horse, a chestnut-colored thoroughbred named Crypto’s Fate, has gotten most of Heather’s attention recently, and has quickly become her favorite. Crypto’s Fate has only won six of his 33 races, but Heather has plenty of time to improve her skills. After all, she’s only been training horses for two days. She’s 13 years old.

The game that has turned Heather into a horse owner, trainer and jockey overnight is Sega’s Derby Owners Club (DOC). The massive machine she plays sits along a dark sidewall of Jillian’s arcade/restaurant/dance club/Japanese hibachi megacenter at Arundel Mills Mall in Anne Arundel, Md. The game is set far apart from the arcade’s lines of beeping ticket- redemption games, auto-racing simulations and shoot-’em-ups in both location and subject matter.

If you haven’t been to one of the mega-arcades that are the only locations large enough to house a full DOC setup, you are missing out on a unique experience. The DOC arrangement is made up of eight individual 19-inch screens, comfortably spaced in two rows of four. Each screen faces up at a 45-degree angle for players seated in attached, padded, doublewide stools. On these individual units, first-time players can create a new horse to race and returning jockeys can insert a thin, magnetized card containing the data of a horse from a previous session. Each player then trains their horses in one of 10 exercises, and feeds it a good meal in an effort to maintain good health and a good relationship. Happy horses will whinny and gallop appreciatively – unhappy horses might kick over the feeding trough.

Then it’s off to the races, where the action transfers to two 50-inch widescreen monitors hanging above and in front of the eight individual units. An animated bugler sounds the call and the horses are off, with an excitable announcer calling the positions and screaming things like “Go, baby, go!” in the background. Players use large, brightly lit “whip” and “hold” buttons on their units to control the speed of their horses. A sliding scale on each screen shows the whip’s effectiveness, which goes down with each strike but increases with time, according to the horse’s stamina. When the race is over, players are awarded virtual prize money and get the opportunity to give the horse encouragement or derision, based on its performance on the track.

The game then asks players to pay another $1 to $2 (depending on the arcade) for another race, which they often do. “It’s not uncommon for players to remain on the game for over eight hours, in some cases taking their lunch and dinner right at the game,” said Peter Gustafson, Sega Entertainment USA’s director of sales and marketing, in a press release announcing the game’s 2002 US release. “In fact, one of the most loyal players, a man in his early 50s, owns a stable of over forty horses. He keeps track of [them] on an excel spreadsheet. I’m not familiar of [sic] any other video game that elicits this kind of passion.”

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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.

Danny Ripple, a white-bearded tractor-trailer repairman from Glen Burnie, sits on the opposite side of the setup, nursing a Bud Light. His wife stands to his side, looking on with a mix of confusion and excitement. Danny admits to knowing nothing about the game when he sits down, but he’s plenty confident when it gets to the feeding portion. “I figured that horse would like carrots,” he says. “I’ve been around farm horses. They like carrots.”

As each of these players drop in and out of the game’s periphery, Keith and Heather remain seated in the two front-row center seats, whipping their horses for at least an hour after Keith says they’re “probably finishing up for the night.” Heather laughs as her dad describes their friendly competition, which “hasn’t been friendly all the time,” Keith says. Despite a focused training strategy and careful jockeying, Keith admits he usually isn’t able to keep pace with his daughter’s horses. Heather is quick to console her dad, reminding him of a recent neck-and-neck race that Keith actually won.

When most people think of video gamers today, the image quickly coalesces into the nerdy teenager or college student, sitting alone in a darkened room for hours at a time with no interaction with the real world. For me, the laughing, talkative racers at the Derby Owners Club provide a much stronger image of today’s gamer.

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