Tech­nol­ogy: From pin­ball to Fort­nite

Long be­fore par­ents freaked over Fort­nite, they flipped out over an­other new­fan­gled game

Smithsonian Magazine - - Features -

THIS SUM­MER , a British firm that pro­cesses di­vorce fil­ings dis­cov­ered a star­tling fact. Of the 4,665 pe­ti­tions for di­vorce they’d re­ceived in 2018, two hun­dred of them claimed the mar­riage had been de­stroyed be­cause one of the part­ners had be­come ad­dicted to video games like Fort­nite. Or to put it an­other way, Fort­nite and its ilk were re­spon­si­ble for fully 5 per­cent of all di­vorces the firm was see­ing.

Fort­nite, for those who haven’t heard the news, is the wildly pop­u­lar game du jour. Launched in 2017, by this sum­mer it had al­ready amassed 125 mil­lion users, all of whom love its most pop­u­lar mode: You play as one of 100 com­bat­ants dropped on a bu­colic is­land, where you scav­enge for weapons and try to kill the oth­ers be­fore they kill you. The last one stand­ing

wins. It sounds grim, but the game’s aes­thetic is very car­toony—there’s no blood or gore—so it’s ar­guably closer to paint­ball than, say, The Hunger Games.

Both fans and crit­ics agree on one thing: It’s re­mark­ably com­pul­sive. “I work with a lot of kids who sneak down at 3 in the morn­ing to play,” says Jen­nifer Pow­ell-Lun­der, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist. Twit­ter is afire with par­ents com­plain­ing about their glazeeyed chil­dren: “Ad­dicted to it like a drug. Had to take the Xbox away for a few days,” one mother posted. Schools have banned it af­ter find­ing kids play­ing un­der their desks on their phones.

The ad­dic­tive­ness of video games is now squarely in the pub­lic spot­light. For years, crit­ics wor­ried the games would breed a gen­er­a­tion of hy­per­vi­o­lent kids, a fear that never panned out. But now the panic has shifted to how the games are de­signed to get kids hooked—par­tic­u­larly given that game-laden smart­phones are with kids all day long. In mid-2018, the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion be­gan of­fi­cially rec­og­niz­ing “gam­ing dis­or­der,” char­ac­ter­ized by “im­paired con­trol over gam­ing.”

As with vi­o­lence, th­ese fears are prob­a­bly overblown, as psy­chol­o­gists like Pow­ell-Lun­der note. The great ma­jor­ity of kids learn to self-reg­u­late, and ap­pre­ci­ate when par­ents help set lim­its, she says. Plus, Fort­nite has many ben­e­fits, she notes: “It’s enor­mously so­cial—it’s a re­ally good con­nec­tor,” at­tract­ing many girls and other kids who nor­mally don’t play games.

So Fort­nite won’t turn kids into zom­bies. But it’s in­ter­est- ing that so many fear it will. There’s some­thing about new­fan­gled games, it seems, that deeply un­set­tles us—as we can spy by look­ing back 100 years, when a new form of play rocked the na­tion, in­spired in­flamed head­lines, and then was ac­tu­ally banned in many cities for decades. That dread game? Pin­ball.

PIN­BALL ORIG­I­NALLY EMERGED from bagatelle, a 19th-cen­tury pas­time that was like bil­liards, ex­cept play­ers pro­pelled the ball through a se­ries of pegs to­ward a tar­get. The boozy, deca­dent cour­te­sans of the French king loved it. “They’d play th­ese games, and they’d go off and have sex,” as Michael Schiess, founder and cre­ative di­rec­tor of the Pa­cific Pin­ball Mu­seum, de­scribes the gen­eral air of courtly ex­cess. “Then they’d drink more and they’d play this game.”

Not long af­ter, the game ar­rived in Amer­i­can bars, and lo­cal in­ven­tors be­gan tweak­ing it. In 1871, the British im­mi­grant Mon­tague Red­grave patented Im­prove­ments in Ba­gatelles: He in­creased the tilt of the board, and the player shot the ball up­ward with a plunger, try­ing to land it in scor­ing ar­eas while bounc­ing through the thicket of pins—hence, “pin­ball.” Red­grave turned the game into a tango of physics, “com­bin­ing grav­ity with mus­cu­lar power to act as an­tag­o­nis­ti­cal forces,” he boasted. Soon, coin-op­er­ated ver­sions spread all over the coun­try.

But pin­ball wasn’t a true phe­nom­e­non un­til the Great De­pres­sion. Le­gions of out-of-work Amer­i­cans were look­ing for quick and cheap en­ter­tain­ment, so the man­u­fac­tur­ing firm Got­tlieb cre­ated Baf­fle Ball, the first pin­ball game to be­come a hit. The com­pany be­gan mak­ing 400 a day, and even­tu­ally sold 50,000, mak­ing it one of the best-sell­ing pin­ball cab­i­nets ever.

Pin­ball man­u­fac­tur­ers quickly be­gan try­ing to oneup each other by in­tro­duc­ing new ac­cou­ter­ments that made the game more dy­namic. They added round bumpers bum that would bounce the ball around chaot­i­cally, bells and lights and au­to­mated score-coun­ters.

As pin­ball p ex­ploded in pop­u­lar­ity, though, it be­gan to de­velop a rep­u­ta­tion for en­cour­ag­ing lazi­ness and vice. v Some of this was pro­pelled by a pu­ri­tan dis­dain disd for un­em­ployed De­pres­sion vic­tims dar­ing to spend a coin on some en­ter­tain­ment. “There was this angst of, are th­ese peo­ple ever go­ing to be pro­duc­tive?” says Karen Stern­heimer, pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and au­thor of Pop Cul­ture Pan­ics. Play­ing pin­ball was a symp­tom of their bore­dom from lack of work, but it was read as the cause of it: “An adult spend­ing their hard-earned money watch­ing a ball bounce around in­stead of buy­ing food for their fam­ily,” notes Adam Ruben, au­thor of Pin­ball Wizards.

And many wor­ried that

kids were par­tic­u­larly at risk. “The ma­chines hold a spe­cial fas­ci­na­tion for chil­dren,” as Perry Githens, the pub­lisher of Pop­u­lar Sci­ence, wrote. New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia ful­mi­nated about pin­ball in count­less in­ter­views, blam­ing it for “rob­bing the pub­lic” and the “pock­ets of school chil­dren in the form of nick­els and dimes given to them as lunch money.” The op­er­a­tors of the ma­chines them­selves? “Slimy crews of tin­horns, well-dressed and liv­ing in n lux­ury on penny thiev­ery.”

Plus, pin­ball back then was of­ten re­garded as a form of gam­bling. This wasn’t en­tirely wrong: In those early, cruder games, all you did was pull back ack the plunger and see where the ball went, mak­ing it mostly a game of chance. Many pin­ball lounges egged on play­ers by hand­ing out prizes—like boxes of cig­a­rettes or silk stock­ings—for lucky high scores, which made them seem like casi­nos. Worst of all, the mob liked pin­ball: It was a cash en­ter­prise, good for laun­der­ing money, so gang­sters fi­nanced pin­ball-mak­ing firms. “It was the De­pres­sion,” Schiess notes, “so if you wanted to open a fac­tory and man­u­fac­ture pin­ball, the only peo­ple who had the money, who would lend you the money, is the mob.”

By the late 1930s, La Guardia had enough. He be­gan com­mand­ing the po­lice to seize pin­ball ma­chines, smash them to pieces and dump them in the Hud­son River, even­tu­ally de­stroy­ing fully 11,000. (Though first the of­fi­cers re­moved the wooden legs, 2,000 of which were re­fash­ioned as billy clubs.) The mayor him­self lustily swung a huge sledge­ham­mer and, in press pho­tos, wore a white suit while tipping a ma­chine over to its de­struc­tion.

S O O N, P I N B A L L E X I ST E D in a cu­ri­ous state: Many towns and cities banned it out­right—Los An­ge­les and Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, fol­lowed New York’s lead—while oth­ers per­mit­ted pin­ball par­lors to ex­ist, or al­lowed bars and bowl­ing al­leys to have a few ma­chines.

In 1947, pin­ball changed dra­mat­i­cally when Got­tlieb de­buted Humpty Dumpty, a game with a de­light­ful new fea­ture: elec­tro-me­chan­i­cal flip­pers. Sud­denly pin­ball was no longer purely about luck— it truly was a fight against grav­ity, with the player bal­let­i­cally tim­ing the flip­pers to keep the ball in play. Play­ing a sin­gle game for a long time be­came a mark of cool so­phis­ti­ca­tion. Teenagers loved it— and, in the post­war pe­riod of af­flu­ence, “ado­les­cence” be­came a pe­riod of rel­a­tive free­dom and leisure for youth.

Pin­ball was their meme cul­ture. De­sign­ers would make games themed off hot trends—ev­ery­thing from surf­ing to block­buster movies to ma­jor pop acts (one 1967 ma­chine called “Beat Time” was themed off the Bea­tles, de­pict­ing four mop-topped mu­si­cians named the Boo­tles). But pin­ball still hadn’t lost its sketchy rep­u­ta­tion; in­deed, the artists who dec­o­rated ma­chines of­ten leaned into it, cre­at­ing cab­i­nets filled with scant­ily clad women and sex­ual in­nu­endo.

The moral rot now wasn’t about gam­bling—it was about teenage delin­quency. “Pin­ball was be­ing played by rock ’n’ rollers—they were go­ing to trash your house,” jokes Schiess.

Par­ents’ fears ran wild. “They’re in pub­lic spa­ces meet­ing with other peo­ple, but it’s not re­ally so­cial in a pro­duc­tive way be­cause it’s con­gre­gat­ing around de­gen­er­ate ac­tiv­ity,” says Daniel Reynolds, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of film and me­dia stud­ies at Emory Univer­sity. Bet­ter Homes and Gar­dens in 1957 warned par­ents to “act now to keep your child from be­ing vic­tim­ized” by the de­based pas­time.

In sheer eco­nomic terms, pin­ball be­came a pil­lar of Amer­i­can en­ter­tain­ment: Between 1955 and 1970, it drew in more money than Hol­ly­wood, ac­cord­ing to NPR. And over the years, the li­bel against the game be­gan to erode.

Part of what re­ha­bil­i­tated pin­ball’s rep­u­ta­tion? That 1947 im­prove­ment of flip­pers. Once pin­ball re­warded skill, even some grumpy politi­cians had to agree it wasn’t a form of gam­bling. By 1976 in New York City, some City Coun­cil mem­bers were ad­vo­cat­ing to end their now decades-long ban; af­ter all, li­cens­ing pin­ball ma­chines and im­pos­ing fees would bring in dough for the cash-strapped city. So the pro-pin­ball pols de­cided to prove it was a game of skill.

En­ter Roger Sharpe, a jour­nal­ist who’d writ­ten about pin­ball for GQ and the New York Times. He’d dis­cov­ered the game while a stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin—where forms of pin­ball were le­gal— then moved to New York, where the only place he could play, il­lic­itly, was in an adult-book store that con­tained a few of the banned, samiz­dat ma­chines.

On April 1, 1976, Sharpe showed up at a court­room in Lower Man­hat­tan, where one coun­cilor guided him to the Got­tlieb ma­chine Bank Shot. TV cam­eras peered over his shoul­der as he played, cap­tur­ing the ball with a flip­per—“cradling” it—be­fore shoot­ing it off to pre­cisely the lo­ca­tion he’d de­scribed.

“I cra­dled, and called shots left and right,” Sharpe says. “I said, ‘ This tar­get over here, I’m go­ing to aim and hit it.’ ” Then he did one last, au­da­cious dis­play of tal­ent: He pointed


out that he could even con­trol the ball with the plunger. “If I pull this back the right way, it’s go­ing to go down the mid­dle lane,” he told them. “And it went in a beau­ti­ful arc, and went right down the cen­ter lane, noth­ing but net.”

Even the coun­cil mem­ber who was most hos­tile to pin­ball was con­vinced. The coun­cil voted unan­i­mously to end the ban; it was a game of skill.

“He sin­gle-hand­edly saved pin­ball,” Schiess says.

PIN­BALL DIDN’T TURN any­one into a delin­quent— in­deed, with the pas­sage of time, the game now feels pos­i­tively whole­some. Its sheer tac­til­ity seems like a brac­ing respite from kids star­ing at screens all day.

“There’s a lot of nos­tal­gia for pin­ball, be­cause it does seem sim­pler,” the so­ci­ol­o­gist Stern­heimer tells me. “You’re not go­ing to get so swept up the way you would with an on­line game. It’s phys­i­cally re­stricted, be­cause the ma­chines are so big—it’s not some­thing you carry with you all the time like a phone.”

Many psy­chol­o­gists sus­pect the panic over Fort­nite—and the hor­rors of video game ad­dic­tion—will dis­si­pate in a sim­i­lar fash­ion. It’s cer­tainly true that some kids (and, again, adults) play in a com­pul­sive way that in­ter­feres with their lives. But as An­drew Przy­byl­ski, di­rec­tor of re­search of the Ox­ford In­ter­net In­sti­tute, has found, “the cir­cum­stances that lead you to play a game in an ob­ses­sive way prob­a­bly have more to do with your sit­u­a­tion than the game.”

There are in­deed as­pects of gam­ing cul­ture that raise con­cerns, though—and iron­i­cally, they’re sim­i­lar to the ones that ini­tially doomed pin­ball: the specter of gam­bling. Many video games in the last decade have evolved a “free to play” eco­nom­ics, where the game costs noth­ing up­front, but it later en­cour­ages the player to buy “loot boxes” that have a ran­dom chance of con­tain­ing a rare “power-up” or item. Play­ers thus wind up ma­ni­a­cally buy­ing loot boxes—and blow­ing money in a fash­ion that’s in­dis­tin­guish­able from spend­ing wildly on lot­tery scratch tick­ets.

Yet Fort­nite, the game of the day, has com­par­a­tively few loot dy­nam­ics in its “bat­tle royale” mode: It’s very much just a test of skill, as the psy­chol­o­gist Jen­nifer Pow­ell-Lun­der notes.

Per­haps video games like Fort­nite will one day evolve, in the cul­tural imag­i­na­tion, the way pin­ball did. Maybe 30 years from now, to­day’s kids will be look­ing at their own chil­dren—jacked into their neu­ral im­plant, and gaz­ing blank-eyed at a new­fan­gled game blasted straight into their cere­bral cor­tex—and wish nos­tal­gi­cally that ev­ery­one could go back in time, to play some­thing that teaches per­sis­tence and team­work, with the good old phys­i­cal skills of us­ing a real joy­stick. Fort­nite, they’ll sigh.

ByIl­lus­tra­tion by

Pin­ball was theiPhone of its age—likely the first place where peo­ple reg­u­larlyen­coun­tered elec­tric­ity used in a game, says Pin­ball Wizards au­thor AdamRuben.

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