Pinball as three elemental forms of fiction

By frdelrosario

September 20, 2021

33 days ago

While old Gottlieb electro-mechanicals were giving me fits today, I wondered why I subject myself to this frustration. I think the allure of of pinball is that it encapsulates what TV used to call "the human drama of athletic competition", where the drama can be broken down into three basic types of conflict.

Man vs. Nature

Tales of lone adventurers facing relentless heat or blinding snow or hungry badgers are classic. The pinballer's 2nd-greatest enemy is gravity. (The tilt mechanism is triggered by too much nudge. That is, another force of nature.) 

Man vs. Machine

These stories get better with the inexorable improvement in the machines, though there's a limit. The best chessplaying computers are now two rating classes ahead of the human world champion, which ruined that drama, but between the mid-'70s and the late '90s, there was a fascinating development almost daily.

Then there was the 1984 sci-fi classic The Terminator. The aspect that made that movie great was that the titular cyborg would hunt Linda Hamilton until she was dead, and the script made clear that Arnold was unstoppable and tireless.

The Terminator was a monumental  Man vs. Machine story, I think, and I also think those who thought Terminator 2 was an improvement don't get it. T2 was machine vs. machine, far less interesting than cyborg vs. human vulnerability.

Pinball is fascinating because the machines are designed to eat quarters, which makes them adversaries, but we are in control as much as we are able, which makes them our tools.

On really good days, the machines become extensions of ourselves, like musical instruments. It's a remarkable and rare feeling, considering that we're temporarily overcoming gravity, and the designer.

The designer's job description is building death traps for one's nearly-missed shots, while his torture tools evolved from '60s electro-mechanicals to today's sophisticated, software-driven, pop-culture-branded monsters.

Man vs. Man

We can say the playfield designers are our nemeses, but they're just building the machines.

In most competitive endeavors, man's greatest obstacle is himself. Not the other Joe in the boxing ring, not the chap on the other side of the chessboard -- sure, like us, they struggle to kill or be killed, but competition reveals one's truest self. If one's character flaws include weakness under pressure or choking in the clutch, pinball, Go, Scrabble, and golf bring that to the surface.

Golf is much like pinball. One must make shots under competitive strain, while sand traps and water hazards are the slingshot bumpers and outlanes of the golf course. The difference between a successful shot and a golf ball in the pond or a pinball in the drain is a thousandth of an inch on the golf club or flipper.

We can play against another at pinball by taking turns and comparing scores at the end, but the real hurdle is one's best score to date. Man vs. Man conflicts are as much Man vs. Self as Man vs. Another Player.

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13 days ago

Really cool insight! Thanks for writing it up :)

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