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Arcades are no longer king, but Doris Self, 79, is still a high-scoring queen

Doris Self of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., shows her mastery of Q*bert.
Doris Self of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., shows her mastery of Q*bert. (Globe Photo / Robert Spencer)

WEIRS BEACH, N.H.-- As she flailed away at the video arcade console, Doris Self found it hard to concentrate. It wasn't a matter of age; she's sharp as ever at 79. It was all the distractions -- camera crews, reporters, curious onlookers of every age. They'd come to the Funspot arcade to see Self in action. You'd think they'd never seen an old lady playing a video game before.

In fact, they probably hadn't seen anyone Self's age playing so well. She sat at the console, one of those tabletop-style arcade games that let you pull up a chair, and ran up hundred-thousand-point scores with casual ease. It helped that she'd spent eight hours playing the previous day. ''Then I went next door and played poker for four hours," Self said with a laugh.

It was an unusual regimen for a player who'd come all the way from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to set a world record -- two of them, in fact. Self came to Funspot last weekend to reclaim her old titles from the 1980s -- world's highest score on the classic video arcade game Q*bert, and world's oldest person to hold a video arcade record.

Born in Boston, raised in Cambridge, Self has a knack for making history. At 19, she became one of the first female flight attendants at Eastern Airlines. ''The DC-3 I used to fly on is hanging from the ceiling of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum," she said. She later married an Eastern pilot and raised two children.

Then in her 50s, Self discovered video arcades. Her husband had passed away. To cheer her up, Self's daughter took her to a movie and then to a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant for pizza. The Chuck E. Cheese chain was launched by Nolan Bushnell, cofounder of video game maker Atari, and each restaurant has a video arcade.

Self's daughter goaded Doris into trying a few games. Soon she was hooked. It was the 1980s, the peak of the arcade craze, and Self soon discovered a large game room near her Florida home. It was full of younger kids during the day, and she preferred an older crowd. So she'd wait till 11 p.m. before heading for the arcade to play all night.

Q*bert was her favorite game -- an odd little title featuring a goofy-looking creature who hops around on a grid made up of dozens of cubes. The cubes change color with each hop, and the goal is to make them all the same color, while dodging a variety of critters who are trying to devour poor little Q*bert.

The young adults at the arcade welcomed their middle-age rival. ''Everybody wanted to adopt me," said Self. ''They couldn't have been nicer." And Self got so good at Q*bert she developed a reputation as a sort of hustler. ''They got to the point where they'd trick kids to play against me," she said.

Then, in 1984, Self ran up a Q*bert score of 1,112,300--the highest ever recorded up to that time. The news reached Walter Day, an Iowa resident who ran an arcade called Twin Galaxies and collected and published world record scores on hundreds of games. According to Day, Self wasn't just the all-time best Q*bert player; at 58, she was also the oldest person in the world to hold a video-gaming world record.

Self's high score was surpassed the very next year. But her ''world's oldest champion" title lasted until 2003, when 72-year-old New Hampshire resident John Lawton set a record for playing the game Depthcharge.

By then, Self had moved on to other interests -- mostly playing bridge and poker with her friends. She's also active in Silverliners, an organization of former Eastern Airlines flight attendants. Self's arcade days are over, because the old arcades are long gone, killed off by the rise of home gaming consoles.

But last month, Self heard from Billy Mitchell, a fellow Florida resident who manufactures Rickey's World Famous Louisiana Hot Sauce. Mitchell is also a famous gamer -- the first person to attain a perfect score on the arcade game Pac-Man. Mitchell offered to provide Self with a Q*bert game machine so she could polish her old skills. Then he sponsored a trip to Funspot, where she'd spend four days at a classic arcade game tournament with skilled players from around the country. Self would try to regain her crown while playing under the watchful eye of Day. His Twin Galaxies arcade has morphed into an Internet site and a massive book of gaming records -- a sort of Guinness Book of Records for geeks.

The challenge attracted plenty of attention from serious gamers. Ron Mowry of Plymouth, N.H., came to lend Self his support. Thirty-one years ago, Mowry played a pinball machine for 72 hours and eight minutes straight, a record that still stands. That's just as well; the 59-year-old Mowry would never try a stunt like that again. ''I'm smart now," he said.

But even with Mowry cheering Self on, her dream of renewed glory would not come true. ''There was so much distraction," she said. Funspot was crawling with journalists and spectators, and nobody had thought to set up a special area where contenders could play in peace. Instead, Self's machine was right on the arcade floor, amid dozens of others. ''They were fixing the machine right next to me," she said. ''The guy's inside with a flashlight and was hitting me in the face."

Self isn't too upset about it. ''It was fun," she said, ''and everyone was so nice." And besides, she's only 79. There's always next year.

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