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.