Woodstock — A media event pitting video gamers against dairy farmers was meant to showcase a new, milking-themed video game in the authentic setting of a Vermont cow barn, but what began as a marketing stunt may have unintentionally broken down some of the cultural barriers standing between its participants.
The actual milking competition was brief, held on Wednesday morning in Billings Farm and Museum’s cavernous milking barn, where the odor of cow muck easily overpowered the layer of fresh sawdust that the farmers had spread to welcome their visitors.
As a competition, it was pretty low stakes, an all-in-good-fun faceoff sparked when Billings marketing director Tom Remp wrote to the video game maker, challenging Nintendo staffers to come to Vermont and match their skills against actual dairy farmers. Compared to authentic farmers, Remp boasted, “you guys are pretty slow.”
The Nintendo crew, who work in northern California, accepted the challenge, and the two marketing teams began arranging to set up a milk-off.
But instead of milking real bovines, the competitors harvested digital milk from digital cows, the stroking and squeezing action of each person’s hand captured by small, wireless video game controllers packed full of accelerometers, gyroscopes and a motor that buzzed to simulate action on the screen.
Those who did the best job of manipulating the controller, part of the Nintendo Switch gaming system that was released worldwide earlier this month at a price point of $299.99, would be rewarded by the most voluminous stream of milk from the cartoonish teat on the display screen.
Though the competition wasn’t meant to be serious, there was a hint of tension in the air when Billings Farm manager Alayna Perkins, 23, sat down on a milk crate to represent Vermont’s dairy industry.
Like many New England farmers, Perkins is sturdy, with heavy boots and a serious expression. She prefers spending time with her animals to making small talk.
“I work with cows for a reason,” she said. With the exception of a short practice round of the milking game on Tuesday, Perkins had never played a video game of any sort. Never had the urge, she said. She was always too busy.
Facing her was Tim Kwong, a 37-year-old Nintendo marketer whose black and red Nike sneakers matched his black skinny jeans and wide-open flannel shirt. Kwong was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and had never been to New England before.
“I’m going to put ‘milked a cow’ on my LinkedIn account,” he joked, referring to a professional social networking website.
Earlier in the week, the Nintendo team had flown into Rutland, then traveled by car over Route 4 and through snow-covered terrain before checking into the Woodstock Inn.
“It was absolutely beautiful,” Kwong said.
But the lack of bumper-to-bumper traffic also was a little unnerving. He wondered where all of the people were.
“It was almost kind of eerie,” he said.
One of the unusual features that distinguishes the Nintendo Switch’s 1-2-Switch game, which features the minigame Milk, from other video games is the relative position of its players. Rather than facing the video display, Kwong and Perkins sat facing each other, knees almost touching.
“The key is constant eye contact,” Kwong said, only half joking.
With a crowd of media outlets watching, the contest began. Holding the controllers at head height, Perkins and Kwong stared into each others’ eyes as they milked the air with all they had.
With each downward stroke, they squeezed their controller, releasing it so that they could grab hold of the virtual teat again at the top. Behind them, their success on any particular stroke could be measured by the length and strength of each stream of milk on the display.
In terms of competing for America’s hearts and minds, it’s a close race between dairy and video gaming.
Statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that U.S. milk sales topped $35.5 billion in 2012, while video games brought in $23.5 billion in 2015, according to the national Entertainment Software Association.
Although dairy still seems to have a significant edge there, Nielsen reports that the average video gamer now spends more than six hours a week playing video games, presumably far more time than they spend thinking about dairy.
And the people and cultures behind these two enormous industries couldn’t be more different.
While dairy farming, Perkins has had her finger broken by a cow. Another time, a bovine head-butt gave her a concussion. Yet another time, a cow kicked her in the side, breaking her ribs.
Tyler Catterall, a 19-year-old dairy farmer who squared off against another Nintendo employee a bit earlier in the day, said his grandfather had to quit the farm after a bull gored him, causing him to lose 3 feet of intestine.
By contrast, Kwong, a long-distance runner, said he’d never suffered an injury while playing the Nintendo Switch. After hours of consecutive game play, he allowed, his arm might get a bit sore, but he said it likely was his own fault for not properly stretching beforehand.
Each side came in with preconceived notions of what their opponents might look like.
Perkins said that, before Wednesday, she pictured video games as the domain of college fraternity brothers sitting on the couch and gaming all day rather than doing work.
“I thought they were going to be more nerdy,” Perkins said.
Kwong said he came into rural Vermont with no preconceived stereotypes.
“I have never set foot on a farm before,” he said. “Yesterday I had a cow licking me in the face like a puppy.”
But the milking game and its marketing materials feature film clips of actors pretending to be farmers — an obese man and a thin woman, both in green overalls and straw hats who beam toothy, simple smiles at each other as they compete, hoe-down music playing in the background.
“Farmers don’t look like that anymore,” Perkins said. “I’m sure they expected me to be in overalls.”
Asked about the portrayals, Kwong avoided using the word “stereotype,” but said that the images were not meant to be any more realistic than other characters in the game package, which includes tin-starred cowboys facing off in a quick-draw shootout, and headband-wearing samurai competing in swordplay.
As the milking competition drew to a close, Kwong and Perkins were still looking into each others’ eyes. Perkins’ face, once serious, was now laughing, and Kwong wore a broad smile.
The dairy farmers got creamed.
The game display revealed that Kwong won, milking 15 virtual cups of milk to Perkins’ 13. In the other matchup of the day, Catterall lost to his opponent, Nintendo assistant public relations manager David Young, by a wider margin, 13 cups to eight.
But Young and Kwong weren’t celebrating.
“These guys are up at 4 in the morning working,” Young said afterward. “We don’t hold a candle to them.”
Though some people think of both video gamers and farmers as socially withdrawn, Kwong said, playing on the Nintendo Switch proved otherwise. By encouraging its users to interact with each other, rather than the screen, the Switch is meant to create a social, party atmosphere different from many solitary gaming experiences.
“It forces interaction,” he said. “It’s all about bringing people together.”
Perkins said she walked away with a new appreciation for both the Nintendo staffers and video games.
“That one was fun,” she said. “I might do that one again.”
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3211.