As I stood outside The Strong’s new permanent Pinball Playfields exhibit, I couldn’t help but see and overhear our guests’ reactions to the flashing lights and distinct pops and thumps of the pinball machines. “Pinball! Yes!” I heard someone cheer. Another guest who noticed I worked at the museum stopped to tell me, “You’ve made my husband very happy.” As I watched smiling children, young families, and adults play in the exhibit, I heard another person ask a companion, “They still make those?” The question didn’t surprise me because at numerous times over its more than 80-year history, pinball has disappeared from public spaces. Given that some people haven’t seen a new pinball machine in decades, I also would not have been surprised if asked why did The Strong create a pinball exhibit? And why now? The answers are that pinball is an important part of American cultural history, and the museum wanted to explore and recognize its resurgence and significance as a form of play for millions of people around the world today.
Although rooted in the 18th-century French parlor game bagatelle, pinball is an American play invention of the 1930s. Over the course of its history, pinball—including its game play, artwork, title themes, and game components—has reflected broader changes in social and cultural values, art, popular culture, game design, technology, and politics. For example, the International Center for the History of Electronic Games has created a new timeline of key moments in the history of pinball in America that considers topics such as the more than three-decades-long ban on pinball in New York City, the first use of microprocessors to power pinball machines, the influence of the Civil Rights Movement on game themes, and how the 2012 release of Farsight Studio’s The Pinball Arcade video game introduced a new generation of digital natives to pinball. The Pinball Playfields exhibit in part explores the evolution of pinball game design through more than two dozen playable games and displays of early pinball machines such as Whiffle (1931), one of the first pinball games, and Humpty Dumpty (1947), the first pinball machine with flippers. The exhibit also features one-of-a-kind drawings that are reproduced from The Strong’s Williams Pinball Playfields Design Collection and that illustrate the transformation of pinball game design in the decades after World War II.
Pinball is also an important form of play that encourages various kinds of learning. Players of early pinball machines, such as Whiffle, focused on plunging a ball onto a playfield and avoiding nails or pins in order to get their balls into scoring holes. By the end of the 20th century, however, players used flippers to control, aim, and fire a steel ball through a miniature playground of pop bumpers, ramps, and interactive toys. This faster-paced game challenged players to track and control ricocheting balls, which helped enhance player’s spatial awareness and sharpen eye-hand coordination. Today’s games also feature complex rules that encourage players to analyze what shots they should attempt at particular times during game play. Stern Pinball’s Game of Thrones (2015) pinball machine even allows players to choose what “house” (or family group, such as Stark, Baratheon, Lannister, etc.) they wish to personify in the game. Each house has its own special attributes that affect how one plays the game. As Stern Pinball explains in the game’s strategy guide: “Each house has unique properties that are useful for different game play strategies. When you choose a house you are essentially selecting which way you want to play the game. Do you want to play the long game, a more satisfying multiball, large end-of ball bonuses, or all of the above?” Features like these encourage some players to mine the depths of a game’s rules to figure out which strategy leads to the most points or to a special “wizard mode” that only the best players can achieve.
Today’s pinball games saturate players’ senses with booming sounds and spectacular light shows, but they also reward careful strategy and thinking critically and quickly under pressure. These are just some of the reasons why The Strong created an exhibit and partnered with exhibit sponsor Stern Pinball—who’s donated some of their games and will continue to do so in the future—to help preserve and celebrate pinball. So, if you never played pinball or didn’t know they still made them anymore, pop by The Strong’s Pinball Playfields and explore the game’s rich history and thrilling play.