There’s no shortage of stimuli than can take a person back to the endorphin-filled days of one’s youth: the tickle of a cool summer breeze, the colors of a favorite sports team—the taste of mom’s meatloaf? Sure, why not. And for many, the sights and sounds of a pinball machine strike a powerful and joyous chord straight from the past.
Once synonymous with bars, malls, pool halls, and arcades, pinball machines have all but disappeared into the pages of history. The bells, whistles, voices, and knocks—the excitement of winning a free game and beating the high score—are still entrenched in many peoples’ minds. This uniquely American invention, evolved from European bagatelle games and home-grown trade stimulators, became a staple of leisure activity for more than fifty years. The game we now call “pinball” has gone through many phases, from flipperless games of chance, to 15-hole gambling devices called “bingo machines,” to the more modern incarnations that bring together flippers, skill, and luck.
One constant through it all has been gravity, pinball’s ultimate enemy, always pulling the ball out of play eventually, no matter how skilled the player. And what better metaphor could there be for modern life than a game where the objective is to score as much as you can before the game inevitably ends—but it’s not really about winning or losing. It’s about enjoying the game and coming back, time and again, playing better and advancing farther.
New generations of people have now grown up without ever seeing a pinball machine in the wild. What a loss! If they spot the rare exception, they may glance at its odd rectangular shape, with fewer controls than their phone and a display resolution that makes Minecraft look high-tech, and think, “Meh. Big deal.” Yes, pinball is not as fast-paced as your average console game. Yes, the objective is to bat a steel ball bearing under glass and try to make it hit things, most of which don’t move and aren’t trying to turn you into the undead or grant special power-ups. But this modest pastime boasts a great beauty that many people young and old are now re-discovering.
Playing pinball really is the “zen” experience of gaming—a simple, yet elegant interaction of hands, eyes, and mind. A battle not between an imaginary avatar and a horde of enemy villains, but between you, actual physics, and inexorable gravity. You are actually competing against yourself. In this game, taking the most obvious path often leads to disaster, while those who can consistently maintain control and grace under pressure will achieve the most satisfying results. But no matter what, there’s always a huge element of luck in the mix to make any game, anyone’s game. Pinball is incredibly easy to understand and learn, yet incredibly difficult to master. And no matter how colorful a picture I paint of this activity, which has elements of everything from visual arts to competitive sports, if you ask a hundred other enthusiasts, you’ll get a hundred different answers. It’s part of the allure of the silver ball. There’s even an international competitive league that hosts events locally, nationally, and around the world.
Playing pinball really is the “zen” experience of gaming—a simple, yet elegant interaction of hands, eyes, and mind.
So where can you play this game? While the machines are still hard to find in public, it’s not impossible. Your best bet is to talk to someone who knows someone in the “pinball community”—they’re a tight-knit group of folks who usually love to share their hobby with others. A handful of bars around the city host a few games, and New Orleans is now set to showcase its first old-timey pinball parlor at 2315 St. Claude in partnership with the award-winning Kebab restaurant in the exploding St. Roch area of New Orleans, just down the street from Siberia, Hi-Ho, LA46 and the new St. Roch Market. An array of vintage pinball games covering more than 30 years awaits!
So put in your quarters and give pinball a try; the hands-on, tactile experience may bring you back to your youth, or introduce you to a different kind of electronic gaming: the kind where you fight gravity with steel balls and plastic-and-rubber flippers.