PLAY A MEAN PINBALL (YES YOU CAN)
For weeks now I’ve been hung up on the saga of the resurgence of Pinball — that American-made quintessential mix of skill, chance, and enticingly challenging distraction in a glassed-in box that swept up the world and wrapped it up in the epitome of American “cool” and then nearly got killed off by the advent and rise of the now-ubiquitous video game.
The pinball industry lay there gasping at the end of the 20th century.
The death watch began around the time that New York’s legendary Broadway Arcade closed in 1997.
By 1999 only one manufacturer of the games, Stern Pinball Machines, was left standing.
The naughty, “bad-boy” games that used to be “everywhere” during the boom times in the 1970s fell and then rose yet again to new highs in the early 1990’s before they were overshadowed by the huge tsunami of the video gaming onslaught.
The games, in their long history since the 19th century had already survived social and political censure and the “Pin-hibition” (Prohibition-style banning of the games due to their lack of moral rectitude and their wicked influence) in the 1930’s shortly before a World War effort in the following decade ate up the resources needed to produce the machines.
Pinball gaming weathered assorted cultural upheavals, and other vicissitudes quite handily before being blindsided by the popularity of their flashy electronic offspring.
In the last decade, however, Pinball has been staging yet another comeback, due to the efforts of aficionados, collectors, entrepreneurs, game designers and other creatives.
The following YouTube video, published in 2019 by WIRED magazine, “How Pinball Survived Video Games, the Mob and Politics,” features Michael Schiess, a pinball enthusiast who collects and repairs old machines and founded the Pacific Pinball Museum. It chronicles his story.
There are many others like Schiess.
HERE’S A QUESTION: WHY DOES PINBALL KEEP ON COMING BACK?
Many observers watching this scene unfolding say that the resuscitation and resurrection of Pinball is primarily nostalgia-driven. Pinball machines call up recollections of the carefree, halcyon days of youth, they say.
Parents and grandparents want the youngsters in their lives to experience a part of the history they lived, and many of the themes and the music from the older people’s youth are part of the Pinball way-back-when vintage machines.
Some of the games are tied to important moments in the older people’s lives and become a part of the stories they tell.
Others say that the real-life visceral experiences of the games themselves and the pop-retro culture that has grown up around them make a big change from the only-ness and isolation engendered by the more severe forms of video gamer geeky-madness.
This is appealing to a new generation that never knew the joy of Pinball, they say.
Some of the present-day world-class tournament-grade pinball wizards talk about the “zen” of Pinball and the magic of the “zone” that they can reach as they focus down on the games for hours on end in tournament play.
They talk about how sometimes they can suss out how to synchronize their play action to the rhythm and tempo of the machine’s game, which very often changes every time they play.
Some of them move their bodies in a physical dance that connects them to the machine and to the whizzing ball. It becomes an elegant ballet.
For these top-notch players, the game becomes a physical form of fast-moving mathematical calculations of trajectory and positioning and timing that are tied to the laws of physics and to dealing with the forces of gravity and entropy.
It occurred to me that these players are reaching for what researcher-psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi calls “the state of flow.”
The players are playing with Chaos and there is a magic there, they say. Perhaps, for them, this is a truth.
THE NEW GENERATION OF PINBALL GAMES KEEPS EVOLVING
The designers of the new pinball games just want to make the games “more fun” for the players and they bend all their creative efforts to produce that effect.
The best games, as legendary game designer Steve Ritchie says in the “Special When Lit” film, are “easy to learn, easy to play, and hard to win.”
Game designers spend a lot of time setting up the games in ways that challenge players to reach for the very edge of their competence levels.
The designers work on fine-tuning the frustration levels the machine can induce in the players.
Ritchie is a great believer in appealing to the senses. He’ll use flashing lights, bold colors and distinctive sounds, and he’ll figure out multiple alternative paths and actions a ball can make to add to the experience.
He says it’s like the silver ball is having fun in its own little world and the player is helping it to do that.
The very best games, Nevada game designer Joe Kaminkov says, are the ones that leave you “one shot away” – the ones that make you want to try again and again to make that silver ball dance your way.
The entrepreneurs who are riding the wave of the Pinball lifestyle are just glad to add yet another already-proven attraction to the arsenal of their ongoing entertainment and amusement enterprises.
In any case, à la Mark Twain, the rumors of the death of Pinball are “greatly exaggerated.”
MORE ON THE FLOW AND THE GUY WHO NOTICED IT
In his classic 1990 book, FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes how learning to notice, induce, and dance in what the scientist-philosopher called “the state of flow” can lead to developing oneself into a person who consciously experiences a total involvement and enjoyment of life no matter what the external circumstances.
Csikszentmihalyi actually coined the name “the state of flow” in 1975 when he was trying to describe the mindset of a person fully immersed, focused, and involved in the process of any activity.
These days we call this state “being in the zone” and it happens in any situation that requires concentration, problem-solving, and physical and mental performance.
The book neatly balances philosophy – ancient wisdoms as well as the musings of various deep thinkers down through the ages — and 20th-century science’s extensive research into so-called “positive psychology” which looks at human strengths such as optimism, creativity, intrinsic motivation and responsibility.
In his book, Csikszentmihalyi presents ideas that have been validated by scientific studies (as well as more esoteric wise-guy stuff). You can learn to use these internal human strengths, he says, with conscious intent and purpose to meet and resolve various life-challenges. He shows you how doing that is very likely going to affect your daily living and your own personal happiness.
Even now, FLOW (the book) continues to influence and inform researchers and regular people all over the world. It has been translated into more than 20 languages.
The late researcher with the impossible name made studying the concept of the flow state and how to use it to engineer life-long happiness his lifetime’s work. He wrote many books and articles that explored more fully how one can manage one’s mind to flow with life gracefully, bringing the high-flying ideas down to earth for us ordinary sorts.
His major focus, it seems to me, was figuring out how to live an ordinary, messy, complicated and complex modern life in an extraordinary way – one with meaning and mana in it.
His works help you construct your own flippers that help keep your silver ball in play.
THE SELF THAT HAS SELF-CONTAINED GOALS
In his book, Csikszentmihalyi introduced a mindset that he calls the “autotelic self.”
He said developing this self is one of the benefits of consciously playing in the flow state.
“A person who is never bored, seldom anxious, involved with what goes on, and in flow most of the time may be said to have an autotelic self. The term literally means ‘a self that has self-contained goals’ and it reflects the idea that such an individual has relatively few goals that do not originate from within the self.”
He pointed out that for most people, the goals they have are shaped directly by biological needs or social conventions. These goals originate outside the self.
The primary goals of people who have an autotelic self, on the other hand, arise out of their own evaluations and thoughts about real-life experiences they have undergone. Autotelic people make up their own goals using the lessons they’ve learned from their own lives.
This is a self I find most attractive. Being able to embody lessons learned from life and to actually use them to walk through the world better sounds pretty darned good to me.
People with an autotelic self are easy to recognize, Csikszentmihalyi said.
- They know how to make choices without much fuss and a minimum of panic.
- They know how to become deeply involved in whatever they are doing and work on developing skills that help them do the thing better.
- They pay attention to what is happening as they work through whatever is in front of them and remain sensitive to feedback as well.
- They learn to enjoy the Now they are in.
THE WIZARD’S WAY
You know, it seems to me that those pinball wizards may be onto something.
If, like Broadway Arcade owner Steve Epstein, you equate pinball with “a universe in a box that is a lot like life,” then you’d probably agree with him when he says, “You never know what you’re gonna get around the next corner, but you’ve gotta go and be involved in it.”
That, it seems to me, is a grand way to walk through life.
Here’s a poem:
Life is like a pinball game.
(It’s all just rock and roll)
And waiting for us, one and all,
Is the deepest darkness of the Hole.
None of us can win,
But we can wizard-out with style.
We’ll be heroes of the gath’ring crowd
Just for a little while.
Gravity’s the King, yeah,
And Entropy’s his Queen,
But in that time, that space,
We can be the best the world’s ever seen.
The numbers stack on up
As we keep that ball in play,
And the streaming lights blink on, blink off
As the startle-noises fade away.
The bumps, the grinds…no TILT allowed…
Our flashing hands do fly.
For us, it’s all about the Zone,
At “Game Over” we may curse, but we don’t cry.
‘Cause that plunger waits…a challenge:
There’s another run to make.
Just one more time we go, we go,
As our freedom-thirst we try to slake.
‘Cause this time’s done, but here’s another,
One more opportunity to take…
And this time we might make it
To the magic past the fake.
By Netta Kanoho
Header picture credit: “Pinball” by Paolo Viscardi via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]
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28 thoughts on “PLAY A MEAN PINBALL (YES YOU CAN)”
Really great article. I grew up in the 80’s and going to the arcade, was just part of my childhood. I loved playing all the different pinball games. It is still sad to me that this particular era had just faded a way. Now games are so different and not that they aren’t fun, because they are. It is just that pinball is such a game of chance, it really kept me coming back in hopes of doing better the next time.
Life and pinball are so similar, just like you said. I learned so much from reading this post about Pinball, it was like I was transported back to that in just a flash. Great job and I really enjoyed it, so thank you.
Thanks for your visit, coralie, and for sharing your story and thoughts. I am so glad you enjoyed the post.
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It was such an enjoyment reading this story for couple of reasons. First, you reminded of great times and childhood with pinball. The video games were in its beginnings and pinball and few arcades was the only fun. Pinball, however, was and still is the endless fun for me.
I did not notice it was coming back, but it was years since I enjoyed a good pinball game. Also, poem at the end was cherry on the top Netta. I love your writing style and I will bookmark your website for future articles.
Thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts, Strahinja. I’m pleased you enjoyed the post and are bookmarking the blog.
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Wow! I got the drill of this discourse well. The way you’ve successfully weaved your discourse around pinball playing makes it a top notch presentation of an admixture of life enclosed where we get tossed around unknowingly by various factors. As you’ve quoted in this post “a universe in a box that is a lot like life,” seriously, I cannot agree less with you about this because life is full of uncertainties. Thanks for this
Thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts, RoDarrick. I’m pleased my presentation worked for you.
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This is a very in-depth look at pinball games through the ages, and I must say that it brought back a lot of memories for me.
I grew up in an age when there were no computers or video games. I can remember spending hours playing pinball games down at the local bowling alley. Their bank of six pinball games was almost always full of people doing the pinball ” dance.”
You are spot on when you say that the best pinball games are made to be very difficult to win. What would be the challenge if you could set the new high score record every other day? I would love to see someone take a chance and open up pinball arcades in large cities across North America.
I truly believe it would attract both the young and older crowd. It would also be a welcome relief from slick video games. Video games certainly have their following, but don’t have the ability to put you “in the zone” as pinball does.
I’m sure visitors who grew up with pinball games will enjoy your post very much. It’s well done, and I’m a big fan of great looking images like yours that are relevant and match the content.
Thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts and story, Ray.
Pinball is definitely making a comeback in America as well as in Europe, Canada, Australia, Asia and many other places. The Pacific Northwest has been leading the way on that and on the east coast, barcades and museums are proliferating. I even ran across a pinball museum that opened in Las Vegas a few years ago.
One of the best Flickr/Creative Commons image I did not use was one taken of guys in Nigeria playing pinball on a handmade mockup of a pinball machine. Shucks! It was one of my favorites!
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I absolutely love pinball!
Playing pinball as a kid was a blast. I always had so much fun playing.
Hours and hours of pinball, I was addicted.
Even now whenever I have the chance to play I go for it!
There’s something about the challenge of keeping that pinball in play that is exciting.
And what’s even more exciting is playing new games when they come out.
I loved your article on the history of pinball!
Just curious? How much does it cost to purchase a pinball game?
Hey Rob, thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts. I’m glad you liked the post.
Used, collectible pinball machines probably start at around $3,000 (if they’re working) and go on up from there, it seems. Broken machines that are intact probably cost less than that, but you probably would have a lot of competition from the pinball maniacs who are adding to their collections.
There seem to be a bunch of companies who sell the things.
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Hey, first talking about the pinball post, I just love the way the article is so informative. I used to be a pretty much pinball fan apart from the fact that I only got to play it on computers, lol. So, reading your post gave me a good amount of depth in the topic. Would love to see that era of pinball again.
One question is how much diiferent the computer pinball and the actual pinball are?
By the way reading your post makes me feel really nostalgic as I indulge in more of childhood thoughts. I just wish children of these era knew how fun it was to actually play pinball at the arcades and gaming centrals.
Thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts, Rounak. It seems like Pinball is probably going to be a never-ending story, I am thinking!
According to the guys who are good at real Pinball, the major difference with the computer simulations is that while you can, if you’re good enough, figure out the patterns and play strategies that work for any computer pinball simulation, it is not possible to do that with the real-life pinball machines even when they become hybridized electronic and mechanical things.
The reason, they say, is that the physical wear and tear on the actual machines do affect the way the game happens. It really is always a different game even if you use the same machine over and over.
Even somebody like Roger Sharpe, the guy who saved Pinball back in the ’70s, says that eventually you can suss out how your virtual pinball game is going to play. Nobody knows how the real-life games are going to act from one time to the next.
A whole other level, I’d say.
Thanks for your question, Rounak!
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Great article! I love to realize the similarities between life and pinball and you made quite a few connections. One quote that I think sums up pinball’s popularity and magic is from one of the greatest engineers of the game, Harry Williams, inventor of the Tilt mechanism among others. He said, “The silver ball is wild!”.
Thanks for the visit and for sharing your thoughts, Michael. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, especially since you are working so hard at making the pinball revival happen. I love the Williams quote.
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I love what you mentioned about pinball wizards talking about the “zen” of Pinball. My husband’s aunt recently passed away, and we found an old Pinball machine in her storage unit. We decided to take it home for our kids to play on, but there are some broken parts. Hopefully we can find a great repair service to get it back into running shape!
Shayla, thank you for your visit and for sharing your story. How wonderful!
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It’s interesting to know that in the last decade, Pinball has been staging a comeback. My father is thinking about building a game room in our house, and we are looking for advice to choose what machines to add. I believe that a Pinball machine will be a great addition to our game room.
Thanks for the visit, Ellie. I agree. A pinball machine would be a really cool addition to the game room.
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Hi! Yes, I think this is Pinball’s final comeback before it definitely says goodbye. I recognize it has been a long goodbye, as Raymond Chandler’s novel, and that’s comforting.
Our generation has been the one responsible for rekindling the fire, but as we, one by one go fading away, so will this unique arcade say goodbye to this earth. What excited us is no longer what excites this new generation.
Abel, thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate it.
My own take on the whole new excitement about pinball is that the physicality and very real randomness of playing pinball for real can be appealing for the new generations who are so good at the video iterations that the things have gotten less challenging for them. Some of them seem to have taken to going retro and I don’t think it is all about nostalgia.
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The works of Dr Csikszentmihalyi appears really striking and intriguing. Many points you made referencing his work stands out really boldly. Most notably from this post, his findings about the autotelic self. The idea of setting goals based on a previous experience almost gives you a sense of genuine expectations. I must say, the idea seems really appealing.
The scientists’ work seems to revolve around being grounded in the present. It also appears to have a striking connection with the pinball game since it requires your involvement every step of the way.
Rhain, thanks for your visit and for sharing your thoughts. I am always intrigued by the ramifications of Csikszentmihalyi’s work. It gets mind-boggling to me.
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“WHY DOES PINBALL KEEP ON COMING BACK?”
I’m glad you asked. Search me! 😉
Back in the day, I spent some money trying to work out whether or not there was a way, a secret method, to winning at pinball, but gave it up as a fool’s errand when I gained nothing for my trouble but sore feet and an empty pocket. And although I broadcast to one and all that pinball was a mug’s game, I couldn’t help but notice that the same names kept coming top of the leader board. I guess I knew, somewhere deep down, that there is a technique to playing pinball, only I could never figure it out.
Now that I’ve read your article, I can see that pinball was never meant for the likes of me. “The Zen of pinball?” You’re kidding, right? I will always be jealous of those whose names top the winners list in flashing lights and bold colours, but now I can rest easy.
“Easy to learn, easy to play, and hard to win?” Yeah, I know. 🤣
Any game for which the instruction manual begins with, “Feel the Force, game player, let your feelings guide you”, is not for me. If I could feel the force and had feelings which could guide me, I’d be in a casino making a mint…
Anyway, cool article; it cleared up a long-standing mystery for me.
Welcome back, Tayo! Hee! Glad the post helped clear up the mystery.
It is a truth. Some things, much as we would love to be able to do them, just are not ours to do. (Rats!)
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Hey there, I will start off by saying that I really really love your website.
My family was lucky enough to get their hands on several pinball machines and we stored them in a room called “the party room” where we had people over and let them try our pinball and arcade machines. Pinball has been a pretty significant part of my childhood because I played terminator 2 pinball when I was younger and after I saw the movie.
What are some of your favorite pinball machines?
Oooh! Lucky you! I’ve never had the chance to own a pinball machine, but I do have a certain fondness for the old classics….like Bally’s “Fireball” and “Pinball Wizard.” I’m a lousy player, but who cares?
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Hmm, I didn’t realize that pinball was making a comeback.
There are a few machines in a favorite place of mine that have been fixtures for as long as I can remember, but they have always seemed to be popular. I also like that they are visceral experiences, plus big enough for people to gather around so it’s not as isolated as playing a game on a smartphone.
I definitely notice the best players getting into the zone when they are doing well!
Aly, I love watching pinball wizards and other gamers play. Personally, I think the things are specifically designed to stretch the strengths of ADHD people. Very cool stuff!
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