My Short Time With Bill "The Game Doctor" Kunkel

Jesse Collins,

January 10, 2018 12:00 PM

Jesse Collins explores his own memories and being mentored by Bill Kunkel, the very first video game journalist.

I met him November 2007, during the America’s Video Game Expo in Philadelphia. I had just gotten myself some contacts in the industry, but I was still very new to it all. I was just a kid with a personal mission. My goal was to meet as many people as I could in the shortest amount of time with limited resources. If I was going to work in video games, this was my best shot.

I took everything out of my savings, finding the most instrumental and cost-effective option available. Sure, CES and E3 existed, but I’m not made of money and I still wasn’t actually in the industry in a real capacity at that point. I found the America's Video Game Expo (or VGXPO for short), being held in Philadelphia, PA, and looked up the guest list. Looking down the list, I was happy that Hal Halpin, president of the Entertainment Consumers Association, was on there, which I was a founding member of. I got a hold of him and asked his opinion, where he referred me to the VGXPO staff for possibly getting a pass as a volunteer. I had an in and that came to be how we got in.

All or nothing, here we go!

Once everything was thumbs-upped, a friend and I booked our flights to Philly. It was in November, I recall, but had not yet snowed (though it supposedly had a blizzard there the week after the event). We got there, relaxed our first evening, and then hit the convention center the next morning. We handled the setup of video game systems and got our work done. I had paid a little extra to get myself into a “Breaking in to the Industry” panel, because I loved writing about video games, so maybe I could get into that side of the industry. Aside from Hal and the ECA folks, I also got to meet some awesome people like Lorne Lanning (Oddworld Inhabitants) and Tommy Tallarico (Video game composer), as well as not-so-awesome people like the infamous (ex) attorney, Jack Thompson. After a brief discussion on my hopes and dreams, Tommy introduced me to a man named Bill Kunkel, known also as The Game Doctor. He explained that Bill was the very first video game journalist. He said that Bill was there to receive a lifetime achievement award. Bill corrected him, “Well, Arnie Katz and Joyce Worley were first alongside me, but more or less, yea.”

Bill was the founding editor of Electronic Games Magazine (EG Magazine) in 1981, after writing some fanzines prior with Arnie and Joyce. He handed me a card, which had him as the Editor in Chief of Tips and Tricks. He explained that in the 1990s, EG Magazine was purchased by Larry Flynt and he was brought back on board for that time. The card was old, since he was just leaving Tips and Tricks, but still had useable information on it. He had recently started working for a company called J2Games and he noted that he liked my enthusiasm.

I’ll be honest. I think I just stuck with him the rest of the event, where he introduced me to multiple additional people that would define my career. It was strange to me that he’d let me essentially follow him around like a lost puppy, but over the next few years, I realized that’s just how he is. I remember that first night in my hotel, I researched and learned everything I could about Bill Kunkel. I read almost everything he had ever done that was available online. I learned about the history of The Game Doctor and how he pretended to be two people (Bill Kunkel and The Game Doctor) when EG Magazine started to make their ranks look more filled out.

The first step into a larger world

Alas, the VGXPO ended and I went home. After a few days, I finally emailed Bill. He was very forthcoming and told me to go join the forums at J2Games, where he introduced me and set me up with the owner, Jay. After some discussion, Bill got me a shot at working with him at J2, writing articles on the (now-defunct) forums and helping with advertising on the site itself. Bill slowly taught me about writing and the more grounded, old school type of journalism. He taught me about getting my hands dirty when I had to and to never trust a first look at something. He became my mentor.

I remember the first thing I ever wrote for him, a discussion on the “Console war” and it was terrible. Well, he did compliment it and say that if he was a highschool teacher and this were an expository essay, that he’d give it a solid B+. “But, it isn’t and I’m not a teacher, so it sucks. Do it over!”

As a 19 year old student that never had this level of guidance from any previous newspaper or magazine teachers, it was polarizing to learn from one of the greats. He told me to throw it away completely and start over. He said I need a voice. “Write how you talk. Do exactly the opposite of what you’re doing right now and you’ll be perfect.” After a few false-starts, I finally handed him something that made him say “There you go. Now, you can post it. This one doesn’t suck!”

A webcomic featuring myself and Bill Kunkel by Chris Holm
A webcomic featuring myself and Bill Kunkel by Chris Holm in 2008.

Confessions of Confessions of the Game Doctor

Bill was very well known for his anecdotes, telling stories anytime anyone would listen. A couple years before I met him, he wrote a book that collected several of his memories and interesting stories called “Bill Kunkel’s Confessions of the Game Doctor”. Early into our friendship, he sent me a signed copy of it, as well as three issues of EG Magazine from the early 1990s. These became some of my most prized possessions. The copy he had sent me was well-read in the following years, having almost memorized it at one point.

My personal copy of Confessions of a Game Doctor.

Kunkel-esque Side Note: Unfortunately, my copy of Confessions was stolen years later. But, Michael Thomasson, the previous Guinness World Records holder for the largest video game collection in the world and the guy that designed the cover of the book, had an extra Bill Kunkel signed copy. I had him and the publisher, Leonard Herman, sign it as well and that copy has since gone into my personal collection instead.

This is the signed page from the replacement copy of the book.
This is the signed page from the replacement copy of the book.

It still sticks with me...

Over, roughly, three or four years, Bill taught me with his anecdotes, helped me focus on particular topics, and (generally) just was a good friend. He had a long-standing co-op article that we'd write together, called "Young Gamer/ Old Gamer" (or YG/OG), where the young, energetic newcomer to the industry would debate with the grizzled, cynical, aged gamer. One thing I'm sad about is that in the years we knew each other, we never got a picture together. He passed away on September 4th, 2011, suddenly. The man that had helped me define my career and future was no longer there. It’s been over six years since. But, I trudged on, learning more and more every day since I met him. It was a short time with the good Doctor, but he prepared me to be who I am today.

Re-reading this article, I realize how much my writing emulates his, based on everything he taught me, and I’m very proud of that fact. He lives on in every game journalist that questions or is cynical of something stupid in the industry and every game writer that wants to innovate. He loved games and working in the industry. He adored people that wanted to learn and actually listened to him. There will never be a true replacement for Bill, but we're all a bit of a Game Doctor in our own ways.


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