As the American chariot rumbled through the 19th and 20th centuries, the world witnessed a curious but irresistible burst of sparks from its wheels. The planet’s first mass democracy, built up of human energies more diverse than the Old World’s imagination could bear, spread far and wide the artifacts of its hydra-headed creativity: jazz and the jukebox, Hollywood and the home run, Prohibition and, perhaps most characteristic of all, the pinball machine.
Certainly, in the heyday of post-World War II international pop culture, the pinball machine meant America no less than Coca-Cola or Marilyn Monroe. But alas, the mighty pinball has fallen on hard times. Pinball has been assaulted by newer pastimes, its last lone manufacturer forced into “branding” like so many newly named sports arenas. Stern Pinball of Chicago, the only remaining producer of pinball machines, has introduced six new models in the past two years. Each of these concepts has been pre-determined by its corporate sponsor—a far cry from the glorious market cornucopia of pinball’s golden era.
And what an era it was. Only weeks before the stock market crash of 1929 marked the onset of the Great Depression, a Youngstown, Ohio furniture manufacturer created “Whiffle Ball”, the first electro-mechanical pinball machine. Within two years, pinball sales shot upward while the Dow Jones index plummeted. By the outbreak of World War II, manufacturers had devised hundreds of different pinball games, and pinball became a fixture of American pop culture.
William Saroyan’s 1939 play, The Time of Your Life, attested to the new game’s significance. Willie, a regular at a wharfside tavern in San Francisco, yearns to beat the bar’s pinball game. A “marble game maniac”, as Saroyan calls him, he struggles in vain not to drop his spare change into the machine’s coin chute, but he cannot resist hazarding “just one more nickel.” After countless tries, Willie triumphs over the machine, bringing the entire bar to a standstill. An American flag springs up from the machine as it plays “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”
Observers struggled to account for pinball’s sudden popularity and the seemingly compulsive behavior of pinball players. When a player dropped a coin into the chute and released the plunger, he did not merely launch a ball bearing into a playfield filled with electro-mechanical gadgets. Simultaneously, he entered into an almost symbiotic, even erotic, struggle between Man and Machine. Pinball’s mixture of skill and chance almost immediately led some to see the game as a metaphor for modern life’s unpredictability. The player, standing over and gripping the machine as the ball caromed across the playfield, personified the mixture of agency and contingency of human existence in a modern and rapidly changing world. The game soon became a staple of editorial cartoons and animation.
For the player, pinball is literally an uphill battle, as gravity inexorably pulls the ball toward the lower end of the playfield. Ultimately, even the best player watches helplessly as the last ball drains down the outlanes along the edges of the playfield or “SDTM”—”straight down the middle”—and the machine’s backglass glows with the crushing but inevitable verdict: “Game Over.”
In addition to the challenge of competition, pinball dangles the promise of absorbing yet fleeting pleasure. The game’s riot of colors and lights, its panoply of bells, gadgets and sound effects, are calculated to engage and even overstimulate the senses. The ball moves too frenetically and unpredictably for the eye to track it. Pinball’s flat playfield and backglass offered manufacturers a blank canvas on which artists could emblazon virtually any theme or fantasy likely to attract spare change. In pinball’s heyday manufacturers ceaselessly updated the game’s design and themes in an effort to maintain its novelty and allure. In an era in which Americans had become accustomed to technology, and in which movies and radio had made mass entertainment ubiquitous, pinball utilized machine technology to ensure that Americans’ idle moments—sitting in a bar, waiting for a bus or train, lounging in a hotel lobby—would not lack for amusement.
In the early 1930s, manufacturers and players alike were uncertain what to call these new games, variously dubbing them “table games”, “marble games” and “bagatelles.” By 1934 “coin men”—as manufacturers and distributors of pinball machines proudly dubbed themselves—invented the word “pinball” and launched a public relations campaign (“Let’s Play Pinball!”) to burnish the game’s image by likening it to established sports such as baseball and football. Themes inspired by the world of sports, such as “10th Inning”, “Touchdown” and “Hole-in-One”, were common not only on machines in the 1930s but throughout the game’s history. Pinball, its defenders insisted, offered a new sport suited to machine-loving Americans that required the same skill, hand-eye coordination, quick reflexes and diligent practice as conventional sports.
The public relations campaign apparently worked. Dozens of manufacturers sought to cash in on the game’s booming popularity, but, as in so many other American industries, the initial flurry of entrepreneurship soon gave way to a relentless process of consolidation. Within a few years, the number of manufacturers had dwindled to 14. A few companies, such as Bally, Gottlieb, Williams and Midway, endured for decades and produced hundreds of different games in a rising cascade of technical complexity. The earliest pinball games consisted of little more than a wooden game table, a spring-loaded plunger to put the ball into play, a few pins to alter its course and several scoring holes. Within a few years, the machines became electro-mechanical, hosting lights, bumpers, kickers, gates, scoring holes and other gadgets—a veritable Rube Goldberg contraption. In the 1930s, players could affect the ball’s course only by shoving or shaking (“gunching”, in pinball parlance) the machine. To prevent players from manhandling the games, manufacturers devised the “Tilt” mechanism—which automatically shut off the machine if a player gunched it too hard—as early as 1933 and perfected it over the next decade. The flipper, the most characteristic device on today’s pinball games, was introduced in 1947 and revolutionized the game by enabling players to propel the ball upward on the playfield and to aim for particular bumpers, holes and targets.
Despite its increasing popularity, pinball almost immediately acquired a reputation for seediness. Many Americans considered pinball a kind of slot machine, and the new game was typically found in taverns, arcades, bowling alleys and other less-than-tony locations. Many early pinball machines, too, awarded cash payouts to players who topped a specified score, and these machines were often adorned with themes such as “Poker”, “Roulette” and “Casino.” Coin men defended pinball as an innocent diversion for thousands of hardworking Americans. Critics, who were legion, blasted pinball as a form of gambling, and legislators soon banned the game in many cities. New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia decried pinball as “plain mechanical larceny” and the game was outlawed—although scarcely unknown—in the city until 1976. By the late 1930s, as pinball ran afoul of anti-gambling statutes in more cities and states, pinball machines in most locales began to be labeled “For Amusement Only” (as they are today), and players were prohibited from winning anything more valuable than a free game.
During the Depression, when millions of Americans were unemployed or under-employed, manufacturers soon created games designed to offer a vicarious experience of the world of high finance. In the mid-1930s, games such as “Stock Market”, “Broker’s Tip”, “Wall Street”, “Tycoon”, “Finance” and “Prosperity” (like Parker Brothers’ wildly successful board game “Monopoly”, introduced in 1935) invited Americans to play the stock market for the small investment of five cents. “Broker’s Tip”, according to one advertisement, was, “The game that transforms Main Street into Wall Street in thousands of towns! The machine that makes every player a ‘big shot’ STOCK BROKER. The nearest duplication of the FRENZY, EXCITEMENT and SUSPENSE of a real STOCK EXCHANGE.” Capitalism, as depicted under the glass of these pinball machines, was far from rational; the stock exchange was a casino in which pinballs ricocheted recklessly and distributed rewards capriciously.
Over the past 75 years, the cost of playing pinball has increased tenfold, from a nickel to 50 cents, while the income of the average American family has increased more than twentyfold. In these same decades, however, pinball scores have far outpaced the inflation rate in the American economy. Over the past two decades, electronic pinball machines have enabled manufacturers to create ever more complex scoring options and to tabulate exponentially higher scores on a LED (light emitting diode) display. From the 1930s to the 1970s, players might get a kick out of scoring a few thousand points on an electro-mechanical pinball game’s “totalizer.” Today, pinball scores have soared to six, seven and eight figures, and the score necessary to win a free game has risen into the tens of millions. In what other game or sport can a player rack up 90 million points and still lose?
Playing pinball has been overwhelmingly a male pastime. Coin men soon recognized that, for many players, pinball was not a surrogate for economic competition or a struggle of man versus machine, but man and machine. The men who built and marketed pinball machines in the 1930s discovered that much of the game’s appeal lay neither in competition nor in the prospect of cash payouts, but in the visceral interaction between player and machine. By the late 1930s, many manufacturers were convinced that the sheer stimulation, rather than competition, accounted for the game’s extraordinary popularity. Pinball engaged and stimulated the player’s senses, and, if he hit the right targets and bumpers, the machine invariably responded.
Manufacturers soon began to design game tables that were explicitly eroticized, and images of scantily-clad, curvaceous women became a staple of pinball art by the early 1940s. Themes such as “Miami Beach” and “Ali Baba” lent themselves to the inclusion of dozens of cartoonish women, but the ostensible theme was irrelevant; even games such as “Captain Kidd” prominently featured almost ridiculously curvaceous women. Pinball games, like sideshow art and comic books, beckoned players into a world of improbable bodies and garish hues, both of which accentuated the heady experience of tracking a streaking ball across the game’s playfield.
Coin men increasingly began to characterize the player’s interaction with the machine in frankly sexual terms. Machines began to be known within the trade as “virgins” and were touted as the surest way to satisfy the player’s craving for novelty. A 1935 advertisement for the Mills Company’s “Cannon Fire” boasted excitedly that the game’s rather prominent artillery piece would “send the ball into a HOT SCORING AREA where nature takes its course, where delight or disappointment may ensue.” Another advertisement boasted that the game’s “basic psychology” was “deep…powerful…enduring”, while its playing table was “entirely visible, tempting, alluring, agitating.”
The Pacific Amusement Company’s “Leathernecks”, introduced in 1936, was among the first machines adorned with illustrations of women. Each of the playfield’s “scoring holes” was marked by a different female figure and woman’s name (Ruby, Charlotte, Myrtle, Lucille, Jeanne). Advertisements for the game boasted that “‘Leathernecks’—with its powerful principle of play—where the boys ‘make’ the girls, and the girls ‘pay off'” would prove wildly popular with players and profitable for operators: “What fellow doesn’t like to make ’em? Especially with that top payout of $1.50 and your favorite girl awaiting the stroke of a plunger!”
Now the player’s physical interaction with the game began to be characterized as something other than an athletic contest. An advertisement for the Shyvers company’s “Kickers” (the name referred to the game’s chorus line motif) claimed,
Day and night they play and sway and groan and gasp and then play some more. They holler,—they Jump—they Jerk—they Twist—they Groan and they Grunt…Whatever it is people want from a game, KICKERS gives them. They walk from a game of KICKERS with a contented, happy feeling. They leave smiling, satisfied they got what they wanted. Next day they are back for more. KICKERS gets generous and gives—then freezes up and teases and torments—then tears loose like a battery of machine guns. Action, brother? You ain’t seen nothing yet. Beautiful women presented in a magnificent setting. A real work of art.
Pinball’s visceral appeal endures to the present. In the early 1980s, the female cyborg adorning Bally’s first “vocalized” machine, “Xenon”, cooed mechanically at players, urging them to “Try a tube shot” and coaxing them to “Try Xenon again” after their last ball drained. In Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), Madonna’s goofy boyfriend, Jimmy, pants around his ankles, kisses and gunches the singer, who is perched alluringly atop Gottlieb’s “Top Score.”
The advent of video and computer games has sharply undercut pinball’s popularity over the past two decades. The game’s legendary manufacturers—Bally, Gottlieb, Midway and Williams—have gone out of business or concentrated on the far more lucrative market for gambling machines. Computerized games can’t duplicate pinball’s gadgetry, physicality and almost uncanny sensation of chanciness, however. Without computerized graphics or the illusion of entering into a virtual world, pinball powerfully engages a player’s eyes, ears, hands, even his entire body.
As cultural critics such as Neal Postman, Neal Gabler and Frank Rich have pointed out, mass entertainment has colonized virtually every aspect of American life over the past few decades. Pinball is no exception. As noted, Stern’s recent machines are “branded”, relying on the “synergy” conferred by blockbuster movies, hit television shows, cartoons and products to attract players’ quarters. A list of some of Stern’s recent games maps out much of the landscape of American popular culture at the outset of the 21st century: “Lord of the Rings”, “Titanic”, “Terminator 3”, “The Simpsons”, “The Sopranos”, “NASCAR”, “NFL”, “Harley-Davidson” and “Playboy.” As these titles suggest, pinball still appeals primarily to young men. Don’t expect to find an “Oprah” pinball machine in your local arcade anytime soon.
Solid state electronics, computerization and sheer gadgetry abound in contemporary machines. Stern’s machines are “vocalized”, speaking to players with the voice of Bart Simpson, Frodo or Tony Soprano. These games are not merely painted with movie and television themes, but feature figures and familiar plot devices from movies and television. In “Lord of the Rings”, for instance, players no longer simply aim to hit bumpers or roll-over targets, but embark on a quest to vanquish the hideous Balrog or destroy the Tower of Barad-dûr. “The Sopranos” machine even allows players to gawk as tiny mechanized pole-dancers strut their stuff at the Bada Bing! Club. The gadgetry and lighting on these games severely taxes the eye’s ability to follow the ball as a network of tubes (“habitrails”) and sinewy wire tracks conducts it from the playfield to upper levels. Traps swallow the ball, then launch it suddenly back onto the playfield or straight toward the flippers. Multi-ball features, in which three balls are released into the playfield simultaneously, allow players to tally up higher scores, but require almost superhuman concentration.
Pinball has proved both remarkably durable and protean over the past three-quarters of a century. The game’s themes have changed and its technology has become more ingenious, but pinball’s basic form remains unaltered. Today’s machines, despite their dazzling array of digital technology, are recognizably similar to their ancestors from the 1930s. Although the game’s themes have changed repeatedly, pinball machines still beckon with a combination of bright colors, lights, sexy women and popular characters calculated to capture players’ attention and spare change.
Pinball still says “America” to the world, too, as machines have found their way to dozens of other countries. If Saroyan’s Willie returned to his old watering hole today, his eyes would immediately settle on the pinball game standing in the corner, and he would no doubt begin nervously jingling the coins in his pocket.