Tag Archives: pinball

Why pinball disappeared, and why it’s not coming back (sigh)

When was the last time you played pinball?

If you’re a normal person — i.e. you don’t make pilgrimages to arcade “museums”, like I do — I’d guess a decade or more. Where would you even find one to play? The only place I know of in D.C. that has pinball is the Black Cat (Attack From Mars and Spider-Man, I believe).

I thought about pinball’s physical disappearance as I watched Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball the other night. The 2006 documentary charts the inexorable decline of Williams’ pinball division, as the pre-eminent pinball maker of the ’80s and ’90s tried to “reinvent” pinball at the turn of the millennium.

While Tilt studiously avoids positing a direct cause for Williams’ demise, its subtext is pinball’s cultural disappearance. After all, Williams wouldn’t have needed to make pinball relevant again if it were still part of the culture. But it’s hard for something to stay culturally relevant when people rarely encounter it.

Pinball didn’t reach the brink of extinction — Stern is the only manufacturer left — because people lost interest, but because people forgot pinball even existed. And for this we can’t blame Williams’ doomed-from-the-start Pinball 2000 initiative, Jar-Jar Binks (who played a role in said doomed initiative), or simple disinterest and flipper fatigue. Rather, pinball disappeared from the American cultural map because the one place where most people encountered pinball — the arcade — disappeared, rendered irrelevant by the home-video-game boom heralded by the first Playstation.

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Hey, Smithsonian: How about an American Amusements exhibit?

Over at Kotaku, Maggie Greene highlights a recently launched cultural project: Preserving Virtual Worlds, an attempt to collect and preserve video games before they’re lost to the ages. It’s an important undertaking, and unlike other massive entertainment archives could be relatively easy to complete and bring to the public. After all, video games are only decades old, whereas recorded music and film are more than a century old. And old video games would become the tiniest of files, making it easy to make nearly anything pre-PlayStation available without crashing servers. (Go here for an in-depth look at the project.)

But as far as I can tell, the project only covers video games from the modern era — and the history of video games is much older than Pong. I was reminded of this when I visited Musee Mecanique in San Francisco last year. The attraction is the closest thing I’ve seen to a museum of American amusuments: modern-day arcade games and pinball machines sit beside 80-year-old cast-iron baseball games, penny-movie players, and moving dioramas — nearly all of them playable. I wrote about Musee Mecanique when I returned home:

The saddest part of Musee Mecanique is how unique it is. These games are a vital part of modern America’s entertainment history, but I’ve never seen a place besides this one that understands that and takes the kind of curatorial approach to old amusements that is necessary to preserve and show them to future generations. … It’s tough to think that most of the old machines that haven’t long since been trashed are probably just sitting in someone’s attic fading into a rust-and-dust obscurity.

These days, there are any number of collections of 80s video games available. Anybody interested in seeing what the early games were like can download Joust from Xbox Live Arcade or try GameTap. But the arcade dates back much further, and it’s a shame there are so few places where we can see that earlier history. The Smithsonian should be collecting these cultural artifacts; given the growth of video games in the last 20 years, the American History Museum should have a permanent exhibit dedicated to American amusements and include a room with playable games like the ones at Musee Mecanique so kids can see what their great-great-grandparents played long before there was Mario and Grand Theft Auto.

After reading Maggie Greene’s post, I am officially resurrecting this idea. At first I thought it might be a tough sell to get the government to put its imprimatur on video games, but the Library of Congress is already behind the Preserving Virtual Worlds project. And after major exhibits on Star Wars and Star Trek, not to mention all the pop culture artifacts that are in the American History Museum’s permanent collection, the idea of video games in the Smithsonian isn’t so far-fetched.

What would this entail? For funding, it would be relatively easy to assemble an industry-spanning lineup of companies and groups eager to see video games get the kind of cultural acceptance that only the Smithsonian can bequeath. Say Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, the Entertainment Software Association, plus MIT and Stanford for some academic heft. Get a Henry Jenkins or Ian Bogost figure to co-curate with someone from the Smithsonian.

The exhibit could combine traditional historical artifacts behind glass — like those from the Sackler Gallery’s 2005 Asian Games exhibition — with cultural history (trace the fear of pool halls and pinball to today’s worries over violent video games) and, crucially, a room of playable amusements and video games spanning the last century. Include some pachinko machines and other foreign amusements for some global flare. And bring in Shigeru Miyamoto and Nolan Bushnell for the grand opening. It would be the most popular exhibit the Smithsonian’s ever had (take that, Vermeer!).

The need for an exhibit like this will only become more pressing as video games become ever more popular and sophisticated. And old, forgotten amusements are only going to get rustier. Movies, TV, and comics have all been embraced by the curators of American culture. It’s high time video games had the same chance.