What Pinball Tells Us About Gadgets, Groins, and the Galaxy

Anthony Collamati
Alma College

It is easy to write off pinball given its present state, confined to run-down parlors or the private playrooms of collectors. In fact, until recently, Stern Pinball was the only remaining manufacturer of tables. In 2012 they produced just two games—remarkable machines, like state-of-the-art retro robots, replete with gadgets and gears, illuminated playfields and illuminated backglass, diverter gates, pop bumpers, molded figurines, and ball shoots. Manufactures like Jersey Jack Pinball have since expanded the market, but this should not be taken as a sign of pinball’s renaissance. The new tables are being produced for collectors and hobbyists, meant to be treasured as heirlooms, with price tags that restrict their limited editions to older, wealthier players.

While pinball may seem irrelevant in the age of smartphones and app stores, I argue that it still has much to tell us about our situation with technology. For one, pinball bridges two eras of interactive gaming, one mechanical, the other electronic. Erkki Huhtamo calls it a “proto-interactive” machine, serving as a pivotal switch from the stand-back-and-let-play animatronics—which once could be found at carnivals or in shop windows at Christmastime—to devices with rudimentary user interfaces. As this interactivity developed, pinball shifted the locus of play from public fields and social tables towards increasingly individual platforms.

Pinball’s status as the proto-interactive machine also makes it a revealing space to question our relationship to technology. At its helm, players’ presumptions and dispositions become all the more obvious. This is part of the gag that opens the 1986 Italian film Troppo Forte. In it, an aspiring stuntman named Oscar pushes aside a nerdy gamer who is playing a version of Time Warp without much success or passion. It’s not in the wrist, Oscar tells him, but in the groin. Oscar proceeds to hump Time Warp to a new high score. As he is spilling himself across the machine, an image of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man—the Renaissance ideal of a perfectly proportioned human—gazes down at him from the illuminated backglass. This absurd commingling of human and machine proposes a revision to da Vinci’s ratios.

Pinball challenges us—as Oscar so bawdily illustrates—to reconsider what we often take for rote, automated entertainment. It suggests that machines have the potential to draw from us a more guttural and perhaps essential mode of expression.

This idea runs counter to many well-established theorists of technology—ranging from philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Paul Virilio to popular critics like Nicholas Carr and Jaron Lanier—all of whom share the concern that modern technology flattens individual differences and reduces beings to sharable data. Sherry Turkle, in particular, speculates that our machines are eroding our capacities to navigate more complex emotions, preventing us from being authentically human.

Pinball suggests otherwise, or at least hints at technology’s potential to deepen our expressive capacities. In Umberto Eco’s novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, the character of Lorenza Pellegrini is described, like Oscar, as playing pinball from the groin—albeit with somewhat different effects. Lorenza’s dance with the table bears witness to her own individuality and spirit, brimming with surprise and beauty. It transforms the rigid machine into a vibrant interstitial space, where chance intermixes with a fixed design and new life is born. For onlookers, this spectacle is nothing less than a window onto the wonders of the universe.

This brand of pinballing from the groin constructs a cyborg body, much like the one Donna Haraway describes in her seminal work. As a cyborg body, it celebrates mechanical skill and technical expertise. Born of conflict and competition, it seeks to cross boundaries and confuse distinctions. Rather than reducing us, it awakens a more visceral sense of our own humanity, accessible only in a hybrid zone where flesh and machine collide.

What might Lorenza’s and Oscar’s pinball approach offer a digital culture, in which people hourly touch, tap, and swipe their electronic devices? As a form of conjecture, I have filmed a series of vignettes. Each one presents a brief look at a modern struggle with machine technology. In these snapshots, presumed patterns break down, machines do not operate as they should, and we, their users, bare ourselves. We scream, we jostle, we wriggle into new positions, only to find—in the machines that have provoked us—connections much more mysterious than we expected.

Works Cited

Eco, Umberto. 1989.Foucault's Pendulum. San Diego: Harcourt Press.

Haraway, Donna. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge..

Huhtamo, Erkki. 2005. “Slots of Fun, Slots of Trouble: An Archaeology of Arcade Gaming.” In Handbook of Computer Games Studies, edited by Joost Raessens and Jeffrey Goldstein, 3-22. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Turkle, Sherry. 2011. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York: Basic Books.