I’ve always been attracted to various types of pinball games. As a very young child (five years old or so) my parents would take me to Far Rockaway beach. There was a boardwalk there, lined with concessions. We’d get a Tuckee cup (a hard noodle cup filled with Chow Mein) and then walk over to Sam’s Italian ices, freshly squeezed lemons and oranges, my earliest exposure to the sublime pleasure of summer confections. Then we’d go to the Skee-Ball parlor. On one wall there was a row of Skee-Ball machines. You would roll a ball up a modest incline aiming it so that it would land in the bullseye of a circular arrangement of scoring holes. On the opposite wall there was a line of pinball machines, including various baseball games. I took great joy in the baseball pinball games, marveling at how you could push a button and a fat steel ball lurched from an opening, spat out in a straight line. By pushing another button or pulling a lever you could hit the ball. The batted ball would roll into an out alley, or if you hit it well, and were a tad lucky, it would roll down a single or double alley. I remember one machine with little ramps. If you hit the ball up the ramp it would land at a higher level. That’s where the doubles, triples, and home runs were. You could hit the ball so hard that it would bounce off the glass. It was fascinating to watch all the places the steel ball might travel.
Next to the baseball games were the traditional pinball machines. These were exceptional devices and I was hooked from the first moment I saw one. To think that you could insert a nickel and then push a button, watch a ball appear, and then shoot the ball with a spring loaded lever, so that the ball careened around and slowly made its way through a field of bumpers, buzzers, bells, and other obstacles, all of which constituted a system of prizes, scores, and incentives, on a mysterious path, to the bottom of the machine, closer to you, where you had flippers that you could control, miniature bats swinging at a metal ball, that allowed you to keep the ball in play and gain more rewards. This was a battle against gravity, luck, and time, where it was your job to keep the ball alive. What a joyous responsibility! To insure the ball’s life was to prolong the fun, the possibilities, the endless loops and bounces, creating sounds and rhythms, movements and rebounds, routes and passages. I wondered how a ball could live such an enchanted life—drop through holes into secret passages, only to reemerge elsewhere, disappearing into a vortex, traveling up and down ramps, bridges, and elevated highways, in their own convoluted, simulated, transportation system. As a five year old, I knew these things, although I couldn’t describe them this way. Most importantly, it was the mystery and magic of the pinball machine that I found so appealing.
It was amazing to me how all of this was contained in a big machine, one so tall that I needed a stool so I could reach it and play with it. The glass and metal served as a containment barrier, deepening the mystery, beckoning me inside as both participant and observer, allowing me to identify with the ball and to watch its progress reflect my skill and desire. The narrative of the ball itself was far more compelling than the silly artistic themes that served as the patina for these games. I never paid attention to the clowns, cowboys, or dinosaurs, or whatever storyline was stamped on the package. It was the life story of the ball that enveloped me and how its fate and mine were inextricably entwined.
To this day if I discover a pinball machine in the lobby of a movie theatre or in the lounge of as motel or wherever it might appear, I’ll take out a few quarters and give it a spin. However, I typically emerge disappointed as I find these machines too noisy and loud, screaming instructions that I can’t decipher, telling me what to do and where I am and what I should aim for, not unlike a modern baseball stadium where your told when to cheer (“Everybody clap your hands”) and there’s music and noise blaring at you from every conceivable direction. Still, underneath the surface, and within the tacky, ridiculous, often blatantly sexual or violent themes, there is a ball waiting for me, now launched automatically, now moving through an even more complicated system of paths, and still finding its way to the bottom of the field, yearning to extend its life, requesting a partnership, a temporary agreement between its world and mine, so that for a brief moment we can share stories of movement and frolic, exchange identities, and set ourselves free. How can I explain this to the young boy who is bemused at watching a big bearded man, old enough to be his grandfather, hunched over the pinball machine, searching perhaps for his own boyhood, recalling his wonder, keeping it alive in such an unlikely places, through the fleeting life of a steel ball?
When I was ten I thought it would be fun to build my own pinball game. That was the only time during my childhood (or for that matter in my entire life) when I took up the hammer and nail. I had no interest in such tools when they kept me from doing what I most loved (playing ball or music), but in this case I could put them to good service, using these otherwise uninteresting tools to construct a field of play for my marbles. The basic idea was to find a piece of wood about 2x1 feet, to elevate it slightly providing the necessary gravity and momentum, and using nails, tacks, and rubber bands, I would build a home-grown, miniature pin-ball game. There was a lot of trial and error involved, dropping the ball from the top of the board, seeing how it would travel and where it would land, learning how to direct its passage so there would be enough variety and intrigue. The most fun was building bumpers out of rubber bands, finding exactly the right tension so there was enough spring to send the marble back where it came from or to guide it down a choice of paths. These homemade pinball games were always much more fun to build than to actually play. They lacked the speed vitality, and I suppose electricity of the real thing. Yet in the construction process you always held out hope that you could build a path and network for your marble that would take it on a glorious ride, and that as its creator, you could take great pleasure in its passage.
Many years later with the advent of personal computers I took great interest in the emergence of virtual pinball. My first piece of gaming software was the Electronic Arts Pinball Construction set as it allowed me to relive my childhood projects viscerally with more detail and action. One of the great accomplishments of computer gaming is its ability to simulate ball physics, first exemplified with Pong, a very sophisticated way of playing catch, and eventually elevated to all manner of marble races, moving ball puzzles, pinball variants, and countless games based on guiding balls through complex networks of passages and obstacles. I must confess my admiration for many of these games and the ingenious minds (who obviously shared my childhood fascination for watching balls move through networks) who have translated this interest into computer simulacra. How far the pinball has travelled from its primitive electro-mechanical steely origins to its digital, pixellated, morphing through infinite visceral landscapes. In merely two generations, pinball has become so complex and embellished. Yes, I’ve gotten lost for hours in computer pinball games—old Macintosh games like Crystal Caliburn, and now on my iPad, where the classic games have reemerged, and new dimensions of pinball are continuously morphing.
I still get a thrill when I can extend the life of a ball beyond its typical sixty-second journey into a death defying, life extending, boundary navigating extravaganza of speed, balance, and vitality. I both loathe and relish the utter frivolity of it, guilty of squandering time when I should instead be doing something much more virtuous, temporarily forgetting that sometimes a few moments of meaningless entertainment is a healing lacuna. Really there is nothing meaningless about iPad pinball, just as there is nothing meaningless about tossing a Frisbee on the beach, or practicing three point shots on my driveway, or playing wiffleball in the backyard. We use the ball to find our way through the world and often the path is more circuitous and complex than we imagine.