All About Pinball

Bobbye Claire Natkin, Steve Kirk

Whim prompted me to research what I could about pinball, but there unfortunately wasn't much on the subject. The world of book publishing had absolutely no interest in the topic, and no academic discipline ever deigned to take up the study of pinball or pinball machines. The largest academic library in Canada had only three books on the subject, and one of them wasn't even in English. This was the only thing I could get my mitts on, and it was a long-discarded public library copy from the late 01970's.

The majority of the text was written by Bobbye Claire Natkin, who wrote it as a social history of pinball from its very beginnings up until the late 01960's. There are many analogues between the pinball of this time and how video games were introduced to society in the 01980's through to the mid-aughts, in the social pressures applied to the new form of media, as well as how those social pressures changed both the medium itself and the medium's overall reach.

Like computers and video games, when pinball arrived unto the world for the first time, it attracted everyone's interest: men and women, young and old. It was only as pinball evolved through time where larger social forces shaped pinball's opinion of itself. When the Great Depression of the 01930's hit, it began “the golden age of pinball,” noted for the time in which it was most profitable to own and run pinball machines as a business move. In this newfound golden age the medium finally gained a primary audience of adolescent men, all unemployed due to the lingering economic depression, congregating in largely homosocial commercial spaces: dive bars serving copious amounts of alcohol. Even as the golden age died down, this androcentric viewpoint remained in how pinball marketed itself towards the larger world, and how the larger world chose to view pinball. This quasi-gendered social migration mimics how video games were marketed to mass audiences during their early days: first as a general-purpose source of nuance, towards another androcentric viewpoint. When console manufacturers pivoted to compete for space with children's toys, adopting that other industry's business style and marketing practice, they also inherited the latent sexism which saw the majority of young girls “pushed out” of a space that was solely choosing to pursue male demographics to the exclusion of all else. (A choice we would all begin to dearly regret come time for the 02010's when the piper was paid for this falsely-given sense of psychological ownership from the men who grew up under that old system.) It was so interesting to me that this dynamic has happened multiple times throughout history in reaction to new game-based media.

Another point of commonality were the many—in this case, successful—attempts at subjecting the new medium to regulation. However, unlike the industry-backed, anti-competitive hatchet-jobs which video games had to endure during their years subject to the whims of older society's moral entrepreneurs, the regulation of pinball had a more realistic grounding. Pinball's earliest days, and even earliest forms, were designed as a means of real-money gambling. Accordingly, “the pinball laws” attempted to control pinball's influence and its connections to criminal networks. (The majority of the material at my academic library relating to pinball was actually sorted in the law and criminology catalogues.) Yet the actual attempts at legislation often left much to be desired. One instance of the “slot laws” banned pinball machines and slot machines by outlawing the slots needed for coin-operated machinery, which had the unfortunate side-effect of also banning coin-operated vending machines for serving bottled soft drinks across many states in the US.

Subject to these pressures, the game of pinball itself transformed into something else entirely. While commonplace in our minds today, the introduction of flippers to pinball machines was a comparatively late innovation in the sphere of pinball gaming. The anti-gambling pressures forced the function of flippers to change from a once-small-and-unreliable gimmick towards becoming the central point of focus. When it came time for the United States Supreme Court to consider overturning the pinball laws in 01976 (two years before the publication of this book), the question of if pinball was a game of skill or a game of chance was eventually put to the test. Roger Sharpe demonstrated for the court how pinball was a game of skill by successfully predicting the outcome and trajectories of various flipper shots. This won the court over and saved the game of pinball from being federally banned from the country, but it was predicated on a hidden secret, how the game of pinball was no longer the same “pinball” which justified the existence of those harsh laws in the first place. Even Natkin and Kirk are very open about how the “pinball games” of that supposedly-golden era were comparatively much more “boring” compared against those of (then) modern design, where anticlimactic “house balls” (launched from the plunger which drain from the board almost immediately) were more the rule than the exception.

Further proof of this can be seen in the existence of pachinko in Japan, which was originally based on the games of “corinthian bagatelle” which also influenced early pinball. Pinball itself even gets its name from this older form, being a game of pins and balls. Yet, pachinko is purely a game of chance hardly much different from a slot machine, and is treated as such even in Japan. Further comparing pinball to its arrival in Francophone countries, which happened after the Second World War, pinball isn't even called pinball any longer—but rather as flipper. “I want to play some pinball,” becomes “je veux jouer au flipper,” or “ich möchte flipper spielen,” or even “voglio giocare a flipper.” The game is referred to by its most obvious element at the time of naming, and the differences between these two names are traces of change in essential form. In this sense, the true inventor of pinball might not be any one person or company, but instead the combined weight of the entire US legal system.

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  • ISBN: 0-448-14033-0
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