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There Will Be (Digital) Blood: For Big Buck Hunters, it's always shooting season 

Thor Fox

William A. Rice

Thor Fox

October is just dawning as Thor Fox and a buddy pile into Fox's tan-gold minivan and head north. They will ultimately put more than five hours of driving behind them, toward more friends and two days of serious hunting.

The weekend of October 1 is laced with gusts of cool wind, swigs of cooler beer and the contentment that comes with watching tons of meat fall to the ground. Fox alone will fell dozens of bucks over Friday and Saturday.

Of course, the breeze ruffles only the dead leaves on a Chicago sidewalk. And the tonnage exists only in a pixilated world, behind the glass of an arcade game's screen. Fox will do all of his shooting with a plastic rifle cocked against his shoulder, a cup of Jack Daniel's and Diet Pepsi close at hand. Still, he'll walk away with $400 in prize money and the satisfaction of knowing that he is the sixteenth best in the world at something.

For Fox, and thousands worldwide, Big Buck Hunter isn't just a bar game. It's an obsession.

Big Buck Hunter has been around in one incarnation or another for the last decade. The basic idea has been the same since developers at a Chicago arcade-game manufacturing company began testing the first prototypes in the spring of 2000. With apologies to Michael Pollan, the game's mantra could well be: Shoot animals. Not cows. Mostly bucks (and some critters).

If the concept is simple, however, the frenzied fan base it has inspired, and the almost cultish subculture that flocks to the 18,000 Big Buck Hunter cabinets around the world, is not. There's a complex amalgam of players and costumes, traditions and superstitions, with the cheap beer and potent mixed drinks served by the game's host bars fueling instant camaraderie. Somehow, this mishmash forges a worldwide bond between virtual hunters — a community.

You won't find Big Buck Hunter and its twin rifles at Dave & Buster's arcades, Chuck E. Cheese's or other traditional midways and arcades. More often, the games lurk in sports bars and hunting stores and in the dark, dusty corners of the dark, dusty strip-mall bars that cling to the border of the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County.

Though the game is most popular in the Midwest, it's still the bar arcade game of choice for most of the rest of the country. It has permeated the Zeitgeist: Ivanka Trump claims to love playing with her friends; Hayley Williams, singer for the chart-topping pop-punk band Paramore, shoulders the plastic rifle as often as she can; Florida Panthers defenseman Dennis Wideman has a machine in his bachelor pad. When Bernie Madoff's chief financial officer's belongings were auctioned off, among them was a Big Buck Hunter cabinet.

Peroxide-haired stars and pop-culture touchstones aside, Big Buck Hunter is part of a much older, now dying, breed. Manufactured by a company called Play Mechanix in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, Buck Hunter used to be just one of a herd of standup arcade cabinets made in the greater Chicago area. Pac-Man, played for a quarter a round, was a hit, the most successful coin-operated game in history, until its popularity was surpassed by the Golden Tee golfing games that took up residence in bars in the mid-'90s. Now, Big Buck, at $4 a round, is the industry's leading game, and it may be the last — and the biggest — of the bucks.

"Chicago was a huge, huge center for coin-operated games back in the day," says George Petro, president of Play Mechanix, "but, boy, I think we're pretty much — besides Golden Tee — the only ones around here. I think a Japanese company has an office around here. Our old company, Williams, only makes slot machines now."

Less than a decade ago, Chicago alone was home to four different pinball-machine manufacturers. Today, Stern Pinball is the only one left.

When computers were slow and monochrome, and early gaming systems unreliable, arcades were a mecca for gamers. Now, the advent of the Wii and other home gaming systems, which seem to do everything but change diapers — have kept many game aficionados at home, competing on online networks. These days, Americans aren't just bowling alone; often, we're playing nerdy video games alone, too.

The little boys who grew up playing Nintendo's Duck Hunt on their bedroom floors in the '80s are the men aiming their Technicolor rifles at bucks today. But instead of turning exclusively to the home and mobile-phone versions of the game (though those do exist, complete with tiny bucks trotting across touchscreens), Buck Hunters flock to bars. They like the lure of animated violence and the sharpshooting notoriety. Most of all, though, they like the community.

Big Buck Hunter is popular enough, in fact, that Play Mechanix created an online network to connect players and give them a place to record and boast about their scores. It later expanded that network to enable national online tournaments for cash prizes.

Three years ago, the company hosted the first Big Buck Hunter World Championship in a Chicago bar, bringing together Big Buck players from all over the country for a booze-soaked celebration of the game. The winner earned $10,000, a year's custody of the fake moonshine jug dubbed "Pappy's Jug" and, of course, the pride of being the big buck of Big Buck.

Kane Teeter, a Big Buck Hunter enthusiast and officer with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, says the immediate kinship he gets from the game is unlike anything he has encountered before.

"The machine's high-score list shows you the player's name, city and the bar they play at," he says. "So I know some pretty personal stuff about these guys, but I wouldn't know their faces."

Teeter's first introduction to Thor Fox, one of the best Buck Hunters in the St. Louis area, wasn't in person, though they live mere miles apart.

"I kept getting Facebook friend requests from some guy named Thor, and I'm like, 'Who the fuck is this guy?' A few days later, I was playing Buck Hunter, and I made the connection: That's how I know this guy!"

Even if Teeter and Fox hadn't eventually met in person (at a Buck Hunter tournament, naturally), Teeter still would have been able to predict where Fox would be on a weekday afternoon, based on Fox's entries on the game's high-score list: Murphy's Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge in Creve Coeur, playing Buck.

Which of these fine creatures would you most like to slaughter?"

Thor Fox, 27, is a solid six-foot-three inches. He wears wire half-frame glasses and styles his short hair, which is just beginning to thin, into a vague approximation of a fauxhawk. He's quick to smile and flirts easily with waitresses wherever he goes, dropping darlins and winks alongside the cash it takes to cover his order of fries. He has a way of zeroing in on women; he casually expects and accepts worship. It's not surprising to learn he has three younger sisters.

"I just wanted to be your hero!" Fox exclaims at one point.

Appropriate as his moniker would be for a hero (either born or manufactured), Thor Fox was actually named for his maternal great-grandfather. The son of Swedish immigrants, Great-Grandpa Thor was the first generation of his family to be born in the United States. Fox says he's trying to live up to his namesake.

Regardless of whether he's succeeding, Fox's name is a hard one to forget — not only because it is unique, but also because he often wears Fox Racing brand hooded sweatshirts and jackets coupled with a sky-blue custom belt buckle that shouts THOR from over the zip of his shorts.

Fox is an emergency-room technician who's taking classes to gain full paramedic certification. Along with the Red Cross certification cards and the Missouri driver's license in his wallet, Fox carries two scuffed identification cards: a Big Buck Hunter Pro card with a graphic of a large-antlered deer against a green background and an orange one for Big Buck Safari, emblazoned with a lion and Fox's name. Players slide these cards into Big Buck machines to track their stats.

Fox worked through the night before, mopping up blood, handing out urine specimen cups, setting temporary casts and soothing with splints. Now it's mid-afternoon, and he's rolled out of bed for his weekly lunch-and-Buck man date with Derek Tower, another Buck Hunter fanatic. Fox orders a Bud Light, deeming it "a good breakfast."

"I'll work my way into whiskey later," he promises.

Tower and Fox are in a dimly lit back corner at Murphy's. The thermostat is set to 79 degrees on this unseasonably warm September day, and it takes several minutes to adjust to the darkness after the bright sunlight outside. Fox alternately sips his beer and waves an orange plastic gun, giving a verbal run-through of the Big Buck Safari game glowing a few feet in front of him.

Fox points the gun at a selection of animals, most of them illegal to hunt in reality: kudu, gembok, sable, cape buffalo and wildebeest. Big Buck Safari takes place on African safaris, while its counterpart, Big Buck Hunter Pro: Open Season, offers a North American experience, complete with mountain goats, mule deer, bison, caribou, elk and moose, all free for the shooting.

"For each site, you get a chance at three bucks, five critters and, of course, your trophy animal," Fox explains. He selects the kudu as his buck by pulling the trigger and neatly blasting its image on the screen.

A sweeping savanna lights up the screen, and a kudu meanders by. It's identifiable by its large antlers, the one constant in all iterations of the games' so-called "bucks": All have some kind of antlers or horns. Every game also has off-limits animals, or "cows" in players' jargon. Cows can be does, they can be bears, they can be many things. (With knowledge of the game's secret shortcuts, they can even be turned into cow pies or UFOs.) They just can't be shot. If a cow gets caught in the crossfire, that player's turn is automatically over.

"It takes three shots to the body to down a buck," Fox explains. "But only one if you get 'em in the head or the heart. The key is quickness."

The plastic guns, umbilicaled to the machine by a thick silver cord, look like shotguns but shoot like rifles, and they require a quick shuffle-slide of the grip every once in a while. Elite players like Fox and Tower slide the pump almost simultaneously as their other hand pulls back the trigger, ensuring the ammo will never run low.

"And these armadillos here are what we call 'critters,'" says Fox, squinting and pelting them one by one, the kudus having exited the screen either via bullet or by sashaying off under the convenient cover of an off-limits cow. The light from the game is bright in the shadowy bar, smoky even in midday. "And there he is," mutters Fox, sighting a giraffe wandering though the background of the scene: the trophy animal.

The trophy animal and the critters, which only exist in the Safari version, are worth bonus points. "Pro is really about accuracy and patience," Fox says. "On Safari, it's about killing everything."

Fox plants two bullets in the giraffe — not enough to take him down.

"It's hard, but you'll want to try and get those guys in the head," Fox says casually. "Those giraffes have tiny heads, but when you get them, you get them."

Fox tosses out advice on how to best kill endangered species, but not without acknowledging the absurdity of his words with a smile. He's not above repeating a particularly good joke two or three times, just to make sure everyone hears it.

Though he's shot clay pigeons, Fox says he's never hunted an animal with actual blood pumping through non-animated veins.

"God, no, I watched too much Disney," he insists — even in a room where everyone knows full well that he's taken down thousands of pixilated versions of every one of Bambi's family members.

In his four years of playing, this isn't the first time Fox has walked a novice through the game. Indeed, he considers his greatest coaching achievement to be his pal Aaron. Fox taught Aaron to play Big Buck Hunter in exchange for a tutorial on the virtual golfing game Golden Tee, which intrigued him at first, but proved ultimately boring.

"It got to the point where he was doing everything for me except rolling the little ball," he says, "and even then he was telling me exactly how to roll the little ball. We just realized that Big Buck is way more fun. It's point and click. It's easy to get into, but after that, there's a lot more going on in your head."

Fox's friend got better and better, eventually matching Fox's scores. The two leapfrogged each other in tournaments and rankings, peaking in the top twenty scores online. Then Aaron became a father and didn't have time to play, and Fox moved on to a new protégé: Derek Tower.

Tower is a lanky guy, dwarfed when standing beside Fox. He's a history major ("this time," he says, smiling) at the University of Missouri-St. Louis by day and a server at the Syberg's in Maryland Heights by night. It's a heavily neoned place with bright bowling alley carpet and blaring Top 40 songs.

Syberg's is also home to a Big Buck Safari cabinet. It was on this machine that Tower began taking turns with his manager after work, and on this machine that he first met Thor Fox.

It was the ultimate bro meet cute: Fox was shooting away at Syberg's when a fellow server saw Fox entering his three-letter handle — FOX — and made the connection between the big guy standing in the bar and the name he always saw on the high-score screens.

"He was like, 'You're Thor Fox! You gotta play my buddy; he's the best!'" Fox recounts. "To which I said, 'The hell he is!'"

Tower was shoved toward the game, and they played. Now, more than a year later, they are Big Buck frenemies and, as Fox tells it, "fierce rivals."

"It's true!" Tower cuts in.

"...if you can call somebody who always loses to me a rival."

"That's not true!" Tower crows, laughing.

"You're right, that's an inaccurate statement," Fox concedes.

Helped along by the friendly competition, Tower — whose game handle is his initials, DRT, which he pronounces dirt — will be making his first appearance in the regional tournament this year. This will be the third time Fox has played in the regionals; he's appeared every year since their inception. The two spent long hours together shoving money into the machines at Syberg's and Murphy's to qualify, egging each other on.

"I take some credit for making Derek better, but he can take some credit for making me better, too," says Fox.

Fox pulls the trigger, and he and Tower groan in unison as one of the omnipresent cows falls to the ground, grinding Fox's turn to a premature halt. Tower immediately begins to jibe him ("Taken out by a cow! Oh! Oh! How does that feel?"), but Fox shrugs, turning suddenly and self-consciously philosophical.

"Sometimes, you just shoot a cow. It happens."

The first weekend of October is the Big Buck Hunter World Championship, and that means a complete takeover of the Cubby Bear, a bar literally a stone's throw from Wrigley Field in Chicago.

The whole event is referred to as if it's one tournament, but in actuality, it's ten tournaments: Friday night is for regional tournaments, and Saturday is for the championships. There are four regions and two games to compete on: Safari and Pro.

One Australian player, who has earned the highest score in his country for four consecutive months, is flown in and automatically qualified for Saturday's tournament as the last-place seed. It's his presence as the only non-American that makes it the "world" championship.

The winners of the Safari and Pro tournaments will get $10,000 each, plus a trophy (the aforementioned Pappy's Jug for the Pro winner and a ten-pound plastic tusk, christened King Shaka's Tusk, for the Safari champ). Sixteen players from each region will compete Friday, and the top six from each regional tournament are bracketed for Saturday's world championship. Any player who advances to the world championship pockets some cash as well.

George Petro, the 44-year-old president of game manufacturer Play Mechanix, says the staff looks forward to the tournament as much as the players do. They stage mock competitions throughout the year to test the bracket system.

"The bottom line is, we're game guys," Petro says. "We love to make games and have a good time doing it. We're just happy to have created Buck Hunter and that all these guys love playing it. I love that they can play this game and get some kind of notoriety from it."

This year, more than 350 people — players, their entourages and even some members of the curious public — cram into the Cubby Bear. There, eight Big Buck machines are lined up shoulder to big, hulking, mechanical shoulder in the center of the bar: the tournament machines. Four more Big Buck machines are set to free-play mode for spectators, as well as a Terminator 2 game (another of Petro's creations), a few boating games and a Big Buck Hunter-themed pinball machine that comes with its own side competition during the tournament.

The event is all you can drink, and alcohol's free once a player qualifies for the regional tournament. And once play is over for a hunter, by no means do the free drinks stop flowing.

"It's just part of having fun with it," Petro says. "These guys are crazy, and they'll drink as much as they can if it's an open bar. But see, you can't drink too much, because, you know, you might end up taking a free drink and screwing yourself out of ten grand!"

The atmosphere at the Cubby Bear is as close to Buck wild as it gets: In addition to the plethora of machines and the usual beer signage, all the TVs are commandeered for the tournament. Their screens scroll with lists of players with the best accuracy, most bucks shot, number of perfect sites and highest point totals overall, plus intricate brackets and standings.

And the trappings of the bar aren't the only things complying with the theme: There's camouflage in the house. A lot of camo. Competitors sport trucker hats galore, camo T-shirts, bright orange hunting coveralls, homemade matching shirts, even bandoliers strapped across their backs with cans of sugar-free Red Bull in the ammunition slots. Another dude has an ammo belt and holds four cans of Miller Lite at his waist, ready when he's ready. Complimentary orange and green Mardi Gras-style beads are draped around necks with medallions of lions and deer.

Trevor Floren, a Chicago favorite who will go on to win the world title on Pro, is surrounded by more than a dozen family members and friends including, it would appear, his mom. They all wear dusty green camo T-shirts with "Team Trevor" proudly stamped in peeling letters across the shoulders.

Dave Snipes, who is in charge of organizing the tournament, says that Floren's fan base has been around since Floren competed in the first world championship two years ago.

"If you come out once, I don't think you're ever not going to come," Snipes says. "Even the people who aren't players can't stay away from the tournament. They look forward to it every year and keep coming back. And the new players, their eyes just widen as soon as they get in here, because they don't know what to expect."

Friday begins with a match between Tower and Fox in the first bracket of the north region's Safari tournament. The two are wearing matching black "Team 314" T-shirts that Tower's wife made for the pair. The Arch is depicted in silver over their bellies, and their game handles are inscribed across their backs, stretching and rippling as they tense and shoot.

"He actually beat me!" Fox says later, holding a drink in each hand. "It doesn't happen all that often, but Derek's good enough to do it, obviously."

In the photo that will eventually appear on the official Big Buck website, Fox says, "you can see loss all over my face. Derek's all smiles, and you can just see me biting my lip while I'm trying to shoot and focus."

Tower loses his next two games, knocking himself out of the double-elimination regional Safari tournament, the only one he had qualified for. Meanwhile Fox, who competed in both the Pro and Safari regional tournaments Friday, recovers from his loss: He ends Friday in fifth place for the northern region on Safari, though he's eliminated from the Pro tournament early in regionals. Fox is actually the nineteenth seed for the next day's Safari World Championship.

That night, the entire hillbilly-hipster hybrid that makes up Big Buck culture is on full display. A comedian rags on the players over the P.A. with an ongoing commentary of the game: "Chicks love Big Buck Hunter guys! If you're good with a gun, we know what else you're good at, if you know what I mean."

Not many women are competing at this year's tournament. (The highest-ranking woman in Safari, Kristina Lucas, took 20th place, and Melinda Van Hoomissen, who competed alongside her 19th-place husband, took 24th place in the Pro tournament.) There are decidedly more wives and girlfriends in attendance, ready with a consoling or congratulatory kiss at the end of each round, than there are female competitors.

But wherever there is a large Big Buck event, there the Big Buck Girls will be. Imagine Hooters girls dressed in camouflage: big chests tipping out of black Big Buck Hunter tank tops, flouncy camo miniskirts and fluttering false eyelashes. You can see them surveying the scene and hanging off players' shoulders as they play, or cooing to them at the merch table, flirting near the bar.

"I love it; I seriously love that game," says Katie Williams, 25, a Big Buck Girl from southern Illinois who toured with Big Buck events this summer and worked the world championship. "Our job is to just make sure they're having a good time. We're brand ambassadors."

Fox remembers meeting Williams at a Big Buck promotional party in St. Louis over the summer. He let her pick out all his sites while he played. "She was my lucky charm. I came out with the top scores," he says, then adds slyly, "and her number."

As for the purpose of the Big Buck Girls, Fox offers, "Does there really need to be a purpose to have a hot girl in a miniskirt?"

Thor Fox wakes in the early gray light of Saturday morning, hours before he needs to get up and head to the Cubby Bear for the world-title competition.

Leaving the television on a movie channel in the wee hours can pose danger in the form of softcore porn, he will explain later. But instead of waking to a raunchy, thinly plotted flick, the half-asleep Fox found himself watching the middle of the classic baseball movie Bull Durham.

"It was that scene where Kevin Costner sits Tim Robbins down, and Tim Robbins is moving up to the major leagues, and he's saying, 'You know, I don't know what to do, I don't know who I'm supposed to be.' And he tells him to go after everything with a mixture of arrogance and fear. To stay afraid inside and use that to fuel everything but never let people on the outside see it," Fox says.

It seemed fitting at the time.

"I took that with me the next day, I channeled a little Kevin Costner. Yeah, I was afraid of losing, I was afraid of an embarrassing finish, but you walk around like the cock of the walk, and you don't let other people see that you're scared. You put on that mask that you are the man to beat, and for a few hours, I was."

Play starts at 2 p.m. Saturday, no doubt set to a cinematic score only Fox can hear.

But by 4 p.m., he is out. Fox's ascent in the brackets stops abruptly, placing him at sixteenth in the world, in a loss that he will only call "devastating" as he sips his drink, another full cup close at hand. Cows were shot, focus was lost, and his inner Costner fell silent, Fox says. "I really just beat myself on this one."

Still, Fox is glad that he improved his rank from last year's tournament, when he finished next-from-last in the finals. He's already looking forward to exacting his revenge next year.

"Occasionally you'll get people who'll laugh at you for things like this, which is fine," he says. "Sometimes people just take themselves a little too seriously, saying, 'Oh, why bother?' But how many things are you actually top sixteen in the world at? How many things can you certifiably say that you've proven you're sixteenth-best at?"

He pauses. Then he grins, thinking of a doctor who had teased him for his Buck habit. "And when I am a paramedic, I will absolutely be top sixteen in the world at that, too."

Later that afternoon, Derek Tower stands at the front of the crowd with his wife and sister-in-law, drinking and cheering. He seems untroubled by his early elimination the day before at the hands of Minnesotan Chris Fream.

"Goddamn, he's good," says Tower admiringly, watching Fream and New Yorker Alex Derhohannesian square to the machine for the final Safari match of the tournament. They're nearly shoulder to shoulder, feet positioned carefully along a T taped to the floor demarcating each player's space, two batters standing side by side in twin boxes, readying to swing at the same pitch. "I don't know where he came from, or who the fuck he is, or how the fuck he's winning."

Fox is leaning over Tower's shoulder, equally intent. Fream also delivered the kill shot for Fox's world-champ aspirations.

Fox and Tower lead the cheering section for Derhohannesian — usually known as "Derho," because his full name is just too damn long — straining and chanting "Derho! Derho! Derho!" They are surrounded by people, surrounded by drinks, by neon, by mildly graphic animated violence rated T for teens, surrounded by sound and surrounded by Buck.

The final buck falls, and it falls in Derho's favor, prompting a mass wave of players toward the bar, while someone holds Derho's fist aloft like a victorious wrestler. The tournament is over.

Derho and Fream settle at the bar to toast each other with amber liquid in opaque white plastic cups. As cheering and congratulations ring through the bar, the emcee prattles on, and Tower turns to his wife.

"So...where are we gonna go play Buck tonight?"

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