Playa Rater: The 10 Most Influential Video Gamers Of All Time

Our expert rates the 10 gamers whose skills have influenced the culture, creation or business of video games.

Do gamers matter?

Over three decades of video game history, joystick genealogists have debated the impact of top-10 video games and 10-best game designers. They have discussed the five coolest first-person-shooters and the five worst 3D-fighting games. They have argued the relative merits and impact of various controllers, consoles and characters.

In short, they’ve rated everything except the players.

So how do gamers themselves rate? Gaming is a more interactive medium than reading a book, listening to music or watching a movie, so theoretically gamers play a role in their chosen form of entertainment. But can the roles they play — or the ways they play those roles — exert enough influence to create a list of the 10 Most Influential Gamers of All Time? (One thing’s for sure: trouncing your friend in “Halo” probably doesn’t earn you a spot on the list.)

So who qualifies?

Famous people who talk publicly about their gaming habits like Elijah Wood, Jon Stewart and Method Man? How about the first well-known female gamer, Stevie Case, or members of girl-gamer groups like the Frag Dolls and PMS Clan, who may have inspired girls to take up a keyboard or controller? Should the list include filmmaker Uwe Boll, the casual player of PC and Xbox who became the world’s most notable — and notorious — creator of video game movies? And what about game journalists or even developers themselves, most of whom started as serious gamers?

Sticking to a basic principle — gamers whose time playing actually affected the culture, creation or business of video games — we have assembled a first-run ballot for the 10 Most Influential Gamers of All Time. Let the debate begin …

  • The Advocates: Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins. If there’s one thing game-playing generates, it’s vociferous opinion about all that is right with games — and so much of what is wrong. Most of that group-grumbling has no clear effect, but that’s not the case for Washington state’s Krahulik and Holkins. Eight years ago, the two friends created the online comic strip Penny Arcade and began merrily skewering all that was wrong with games. They developed an online following of millions and have become proven tastemakers, even on a Web that is cluttered with gamer opinion. They do exert some influence — like last year when they cowed “World of Warcraft” publisher Blizzard Entertainment into an apologetic interview regarding that game’s early troubles. But more importantly, they have become the closest the medium has to leaders of a gamers’ movement, going so far, a couple of years back, to launch [the equivalent of] an annual E3 for gamers, the Penny Arcade Expo.
  • The Egg De-Scrambler: Adam Clayton. In 1980, give or take a year, a Salt Lake City-based gamer named Adam Clayton (age 12 or 13, as best he can remember) found something strange in one of the walls in a board of the Atari 2600 game “Adventure.” He poked around and discovered a hidden room that brightly proclaimed Warren Robinett the developer of the game — a secret Robinett had hidden in 1979 as a protest to his bosses at Atari. “I almost thought, ‘There’s something wrong with this game,’ ” said Clayton, who now works for game developer Avalanche Software. So he wrote a letter to Atari about his discovery. Independent of Clayton, other gamers had found the hidden bonus — or Easter Egg — that the game’s creator had laid, but as far as Robinett knows, Clayton’s letter was the first tip-off to Atari. The popularity of the “Adventure” surprise, and the ability of players like Clayton to find them, helped make Easter Eggs a gaming staple for decades since.
  • The High Score Hero: Billy Mitchell. These days, he runs a hot-sauce company. But back in the early 1980s Billy Mitchell was a bona-fide arcade king. In 1982, Life magazine featured a 17-year-old Mitchell in a spread about the masters of those wild new video-game-things. Mitchell’s claim in Life was 25 million points scored in “Centipede” — but that wasn’t all. Among the high-score chasers chronicled by the gaming referees at the record-keeping outfit Twin Galaxies, Billy was one of the best. He hit the maximum level in “Donkey Kong.” He rocked “Pac-Man,” eventually scoring a perfect game in 1999. Mitchell’s accomplishments helped fuel the motors of thousands of players determined to play well and rank well in gaming record books, a fever for achievement that still manifests itself in online rankings and Xbox Live leader-boards.
  • The Land Baroness: Ailin Graef. For one thing, credit is due to any gamer who becomes renowned by the name they use while playing. In the case of the Germany-based Graef, that name is Anshe Chung, the persona she inhabits as a self-made real-estate maven in the online game “Second Life.” Since 2004 she has been one of most visible, notorious and entrepreneurial citizens, flipping virtual land rented from “SL” developer Linden Labs into prime plots of spruced-up real estate that she sub-lets to her fellow residents. News accounts estimate her 2005 profits at over $100,000. In the wild west of the malleable 100,000-player “Second Life,” Graef and gamers who run casinos, shooting ranges or even develop in-game games have proven that the way you play a game can redefine the game you’re playing. The same can be said for the citizens of the six-million-strong “World of Warcraft,” or of other large multi-player games where clever profiteering based on the re-selling of precious virtual items makes playing games a profitable experience.
  • The Never-Winded Athlete: Im Yo Hwan. In America, pro gamer Jonathan “Fatal1ty” Wendel appears on “60 Minutes,” endorses his own line of computer equipment and serves as living proof that, yes, you can make money for being really good at video games. But it’s in South Korea — where at least a third of the country plays online games, where multiple TV stations broadcast pro-gaming tournaments and where tens of thousands of thunderstick-waving fans pack outdoor, rock-concert-style pro-gaming showdowns — that players enter by speedboat. The nation’s favorite game is the sci-fi strategy title “StarCraft,” and the most famous gamer who ever played it is Im Yo Hwan, a.k.a. “Slayers Boxer,” who mastered the game’s least-respected warrior class to become, for a time, the Michael Jordan of “StarCraft.” With bodyguards and screaming female fans, a 2003 autobiography and at least a quarter-million dollars in annual profits (one longtime game announcer pegged his annual take at over $1 million), Im Yo Hwan isn’t an underground curiosity. He’s a national sports icon.
  • The Re-Makers: Minh Le and Jesse Cliffe. At some point, every great game designer crossed a line that transformed them from avid player to accomplished play-maker. In the 1990s, the onset of software modding blurred that boundary by empowering gamers to tweak their favorite games into new, playable experiences without getting a job in the industry. None were more successful than Le and Cliffe, who in 1999 re-engineered the first-person shooter “Half-Life” into a team-based multi-player game they called “Counter-Strike.” Thousands played — then millions. It became a top online game and a standard sport for pro-gaming competitions. In 2000 Le and Cliffe were hired by “Half-Life” developer Valve, making “Counter-Strike” official. Even today the game is among the biggest titles online, logging 120,000 players during a random lunch-time check last week — and a mighty 4.6 billion minutes of logged playtime over the last month.
  • The Sex Spotter: Patrick Wildenborg. “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” wasn’t just Dutch gamer Patrick Wildenborg’s favorite thing to play last year. It’s also the game he inadvertently managed to get knocked from store shelves for a time after he discovered animations and controls for a half-cooked sex-game buried in the code. Hackers have been scouring game guts for years, sometimes finding cool extras developers never fully programmed (like a skateboard also found in “San Andreas”) or sometimes to fix games they think are broken (like the mangled ending of the second “Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic”). But no previous discovery quite outraged U.S. politicians and parents, got a game re-rated for Adults Only and forced publisher Take-Two to re-print a sellable M-rated version at a $24 million cost.
  • The Unwelcome Guest: Peter Ludlow. It’s not every day that getting kicked out of an online video game puts you on the front page of The New York Times. But University of Michigan professor Peter Ludlow’s disputably “bad” behavior in “The Sims Online” did just that in January of 2004, after the game’s publisher, Electronic Arts, revoked Ludlow’s online citizenship. The offense was Ludlow’s publication of a “TSO”-centric newspaper that chronicled creative and sometimes troublesome behavior of other gamers in the world, including allegations that under-age players were involved in virtual-sex-related activities. EA claimed Ludlow’s newspaper violated the terms of service for playing “TSO.” Ludlow quickly took his act to the online world “Second Life,” where he began to rake muck for a new newspaper, “The Second Life Herald.” If you, too, dream of playing a game so sensationally that the game’s creators take notice, then Ludlow is the role model.

Who do you think are the Most Influential Gamers of All Time? Do you belong on this list?