Is there anything more disheartening than watching a Lazarus ball bleed? From the uninitiated, on a good day, that question might elicit a perplexed “Huh?”, but the ever-increasing crowd familiar with the parlance of pinball would understand that it’s tantamount to tragedy. To them the game is an obsession—a light-and-sound show contained in a glass-topped rectangle the size of a steamer trunk with more colors in it than the eye can count in a mere glance. Using a pair of skilfully deployed flippers to keep that steel ball from being swallowed, the pinballer can rack up points all the way to 999,999, beat the machine and end up top of the heap. It’s rare. Rarer still is a bleeding Lazarus ball. Disgusting as it might sound, it means simply that a ball that has passed the flippers and is presumed dead bounces back but then, reneging on its resurrection, passes the flippers again moments later and is finally interred. Playing pinball, for the majority of those who do it, is just that kind of torturous pleasure. What puzzles outsiders—and sometimes even aficionados—is why they go at it with such addictive abandon.
Call it love. Beginning as bagatelle (“love affair” in slang), pinball in 17thcentury France was basically pool
played on an inclined table with holes in it. Today in Canada pinball is inexpensive, fun, legal and has hooked growing hordes in the past few years. Thomas Nieman of Bally Manufacturing Corp. in Chicago estimates that the four major pinball companies (the others are D. Gottlieb and Co., Williams Electronics, Inc. and Stern Electronics, all in Chicago) turned out between 225,000 and 250,000 machines last year alone, more than twice the amount of four years ago. Canadian airports, bus and train stations, hotels, bars, suburban rec rooms and neighborhood stores in small towns across the country have them. Types as dissimilar as Abraham Lin-
coln and Hugh Hefner have succumbed to the pleasures of pinball. At Toronto’s Osgoode Hall Law School the ladies and gentlemen of the law use the machines to relax between matters of life, death and money.
Married to the machine in an onagain off-again fashion, Canadian Business editor Alexander Ross says he plays it “because it’s a way of venting anger. I swear at it, shake it, kick it, and then I feel better. That’s why I’m the sweet-tempered person I am.” A student from New Brunswick loved the thing so much he lost an entire year of college by playing it constantly; nowadays he rarely plays and regards the machine balefully as he would an evil woman. A salesman from Toronto who feels tense from so much travelling goes directly to the airport after his business trips and spends an hour or so with someone called Mata Hari, who occasionally takes pity on him, rewarding him with a few free games. “She’s my masseuse,” he confided.
Nearly every pinballer will say the machine is relaxing—a release from modern tensions, as good as a hot bath.
The second reason given is that it’s “fun,” and since fun can range from playing bingo to visiting a house of ill repute, the scope of pinball players’ motivations is clearly a wide one. Margaret Eyolfson, a clerk from Winnipeg, gets off on the sensory stimulation: “The noises, buzzers and lights are exciting. Sure it can be frustrating at times, but it’s a great way of dealing with boredom. It’s also self-competitive.” Kirk Hansen, a systems analyst in Toronto, says he loves the sound of the machines—the simple musical cling and clang of the older models. There’s the carny flavor with blazing primary col-
ors and dazzling, flashing iridescence, and the machines’ pop iconography which includes comic book, movie and gambling motifs—the perfect adult toy. Primarily a male game, reaching back to childhood fantasies such as the Wild West and jungle melodrama, pinball also boasts that traditionally male and unbeatable combination: skill battling chance. There’s a tantalizing, seductive lure to it, too, as well as an element of the forbidden. Since 1938, when the pinball business was dominated by underworld figures and New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia took a sledgehammer to the machines and bashed the hell
out of them, pinball has been associated with a certain quasi-seediness.
Technology, however, got the better of morality. “For a while there was a low in pinball,” says Edward Trapunski, author of Special When Lit: A Visual and Anecdotal History of Pinball, “and now technology has brought it back.” He’s referring to the surge in popularity since the introduction four years ago of highly sophisticated developments in the machine by way of solid state components. Now they come in countless variations and make newer and more complex sounds. Gorgar, a machine recently marketed by Williams, can actually talk, claiming in the most irritating tone that he has won, or else mournfully admitting defeat. Another new machine from Williams due in June, Firepower, emits 31 different sounds with 147 variations, has 21 different phrases and, if you hit the right targets, has a three-ball play instead of just one. For the converted, it’s more heaven than headache. “One of the attractions to pinball nowadays, especially in the arcades,” says Trapunski, “is that you can walk into them from time to time and always find something new. And the technology isn’t oppressive, either. A pinball machine isn’t like the computers that run most of our lives—you're doing something to it.” The idea of beating the machine and, in part, controlling sensation is part of the irresistible urge to play.
For the cerebral, mostly writers, pinball is a manual holiday—a way to empty the mind. Trapunski plays to give his reflexes a workout. When J. Anthony Lukas was toiling over his book, Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years, he kept a pinball machine next to his typewriter. Said Lukas: “When the words wouldn’t flow anymore, I moved to the pinball.... If I could beat one machine, I could beat the other.” He went even further, using pinball as a metaphor for life, “pitting man’s skill, nerve, persistence and luck against the perverse machinery of human existence.” Bob Mersereau, another New Brunswick student who retreats to Fredericton’s Broken Cue to limber up the nervous system after a hard day of classes, feels “there must be a God of pinball watching over you. I have this miserable relationship with the thing: I hate myself when I lose and love it when I win.”
Addictive, cheap, restorative, sensational, a way to become a wizard, pinball is a proposition made by a piece of hardware—a come-on from computerized components. Enough to make B. F. Skinner feel beside himself with joy with its maze-like face and free-game rewards, it is, according to its devotees, just a way to feel better. And then there’s something else: 999,999—the orgasm of pinball,
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.