The Strong’s historians, curators, librarians, and other staff offer insights into and anecdotes about the critical role of play in human development and the ways in which toys, dolls, games, and video games reflect cultural history. Learn even more about the museum’s archival materials, books, catalogs, and other ephemera through its Tumblr page.
Play Stuff Blog
Pinheads (or pinball enthusiasts, to the uninformed) rejoice! On November 8, 2018, pinball joined the 67 other iconic toys and games inducted into The Strong’s National Toy Hall of Fame. At its most basic level, pinball challenges players to use plastic flippers to control, aim, and fire a 1 1/16-inch stainless steel ball around a wooden playfield covered with objects and obstacles. It’s no surprise then, that pinball descended from centuries-old bowling, marble, billiard, and bagatelle games that all required players to roll (or forcefully strike) a ball into objects across a playing field. The first modern pinball machines originated during the Great Depression of the 1930s. These glass-covered, countertop “pin games,” which often featured fixed pins and scoring holes, were simple by today’s standards. But these games nevertheless entertained millions of people and paved the way for today’s dynamic, sensory-saturating pinball machines. But why does pinball deserve a place in the pantheon of playthings?
Pinball is iconic. A product of America’s industrial past, pinball symbolizes the nation’s technological ingenuity. In 1930s and 1940s pinball machines were mechanical marvels. Today, their thousands of individual mechanical and electronic parts work together in a symphony of physical and digital play. Even if you’ve never played pinball, the game’s rectangular cabinet, sloped playfield, flippers, and metal balls are instantly recognizable. And to generations of people who grew up playing pinball, the sight of a game’s eye-catching vertical “backglass”—often decorated with beloved superheroes, celebrities, or monsters—or the sound of a familiar “call out” (or sound clip) such as Gomez’s voice from The Addams Family (1992) pinball shouting “Keep the ball I have a whole bucket full!” are invitations to play.
Pinball has enjoyed popularity over time and in various forms. Over the past nine decades, Americans played pinball in bars, amusement parks, arcades, restaurants, family fun centers, and other public places. Although, beginning in the 1930s, moral guardians fearing the spread of gambling and juvenile delinquency instituted pinball bans in major United States cities and the video game revolution of the 1970s and 1980s nudged pinball out of the public eye, the game never entirely disappeared. In fact, in the economic boom years following World War II, pinball machines remained staples of college dorms, bars, and home game rooms. Today, “barcades” run local and regional pinball leagues and tournaments and the International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA) attracts more than 100,000 people to its events. But pinball has also thrived in other forms as nearly every home video game console since the 1970s has included a digital pinball game and one of the first computer games to allow players to create and customize their own in-game content was Bill Budge’s Pinball Construction Set (1983). Child-sized pinball games made to fit into tiny hands or on tabletops also remain popular toys for licensers.
Pinball fosters learning and discovery. The game offers players the opportunity to enhance spatial awareness and sharpen their eye-hand coordination by shooting and tracking a steel ball through a miniature playground of ramps, pop bumpers, and interactive toys. Playing pinball requires quick thinking and reflexes, but it also rewards patience, persistence, and following and analyzing sophisticated rules and complex orders of operation. Although many players are happy to just keep the ball in play, the most skilled players strive to master an individual pinball machine, attempting to experience all the modes, levels, mini-games, and novelties the game has to offer. The Cardboard Teck Institute’s PinBox 3000 has even turned designing, building, and customizing a cardboard tabletop pinball games into a fun way to learn math, science, engineering, and physics.
Pinball changed the way we play. There’s no doubt that pinball offered people new and exciting ways to play, but it also helped lay a foundation for video games. Steve Russell, a co-creator of Spacewar! (1962), one of the earliest computer games, described the dueling spaceship shooter game as “the most advanced, imaginative, expensive pinball machine the world has seen.” Many early arcade video games such as Pong (1972), Pin Pong (1974), TV Flipper (1975), Breakout (1976), and Video Pinball (1978) asked players to hit digital balls with virtual paddles or flippers, much like pinball. Video game designers even borrowed from pinball’s basic game structure of three balls and accumulating extra balls, translating it to “three lives” and “extra lives.”
Today pinball enjoys renewed interest as a new generation of digital natives appreciates the physical, tactile, and kinetic game play that’s easy to learn but difficult to master. In a digital age, Americans are just as likely to play pinball on their mobile phones or tablets as they are on a full-sized, mechanical-action machine that delights and immerses players with thundering sounds, electrifying light shows, and fast-paced play.
In addition to collecting video and other electronic games and materials that document how these games are made and sold, the staff at The Strong's International Center for the History of Electronic Games (ICHEG) is also interested in preserving evidence of player culture.
Video games have a common—and increasingly outdated—image of appealing primarily to males. This misperception is perhaps due to the tendency of the media to focus on the “triple A” market—high-budget games, produced by established game corporations, that highlight violence and sex to appeal to a straight, male audience. At least one company, however, was aware of the potential for a female market for video games in the 1980s.
It seems that now, perhaps more than ever, people everywhere are constantly on the go. Traveling to work or school, the gym, or the grocery store—the list goes on and on. We eat on the run, drink coffee on the run, and even get our information on the run thanks to smartphones that make emails, news, and calls available wherever we are. Today, many folks would tell you that life on the go is hectic but necessary. For a moment, let’s set the necessary aside and look at the more playful side of “things that go!” as children so frequently phrase it.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, my parents frequently looked for family excursions within a few hours’ drive from our home near Pittsburgh. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, became a frequent destination for the Novakovics, thanks in part to my younger brothers. Both Bobby and Billy loved reading the Thomas the Tank Engine series by Reverend W.
I remember my first yo-yo: a blue Duncan Imperial. I was 7 years old and had saved up enough of my allowance to buy it. The drive to the store felt like an eternity. When I finally opened the package, the bright, shiny yo-yo smelled of plastic and felt as smooth as ice—it was perfect. Back at home, I spent hours in the driveway playing with my new toy.
One of the great pleasures of working at The Strong is that every exhibit features a time portal back to childhood, most of which hold innumerable portals. No sooner does a visitor exclaim, “Oh! I had one of those when I was a kid!,” at the sight of Teddy Ruxpin before she is confronted by the Ms.