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The Art of The Machine

Words:

Edd Norval
February 5, 2018

There’s a time in your life when you can’t get into pubs, but you’re too young to hang around in playparks. The perfect place for this grey area of young adulthood was once the arcade – a space that has sadly fallen victim to the technological revolution.

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The demographic that goes to arcades is specific. It's usually young teenagers, usually to prove themselves against themselves or others. These arcades, when in their heyday, had threadbare pool tables with tipless cues, air hockey that unevenly blows the air and of course, the most quintessential and iconic of them all - the pinball machine.


Although commonplace now, the machines were once illegal in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, as they were viewed as gambling devices. They moved underground into the shadows, finding a home in seedy pornography shops - The Prohibition of the Pinball.


It was with a horny fervour that men were bashing their buttons trying to get high-scores on the hyperactive screaming electronic devices. The NYPD would hold routine raids, smashing up the machines and dumping them in the rivers of New York. They were at war and it only made people want it more.

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It wasn’t until World War 2 that the perception of them changed. They became a kind of propaganda tool for the U.S. Government. Manufacturers began making kits that could be graphically ‘converted’. So the external designs and the inside board could be unclipped and switched, mostly to reflect the American War effort with machines becoming increasingly patriotic and nationalistic.


The pinball machine went from prohibited to paramount. Thanks to their previously illegal status they gained an outlaw image, making arcades just about the coolest place to be, somewhere that disaffected youth could hang out in and play. Setting a high score was a major mark of social credibility.


The designs on the machines adapted to this audience, becoming more counter-cultural and reflecting the post-war air of freedom and possibility. The names became groovier and the graphics became a lot more psychedelic, even including hit songs from the biggest rock bands of the time. Whole arcades were full of them buzzing and whirring at all hours of the night

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Their ‘cool’ status was consolidated when The Who made the rock opera, ‘Tommy’, about a deaf, dumb and blind pinball master - also immortalised in their song ‘Pinball Wizard’. Looking back it might have seemed excessive, but would mean misunderstanding the machine's impact and ubiquity in popular culture.


The machines, now legal, surged in popularity creating a new battlefield, this time for manufacturers. What made a certain machine sell better than the next one? It was quite simply how they looked and sounded - there was nothing else to it.


The most popular of all time was and is The Addams’ Family machine, released in 1991. Thanks in part to the machine's much sleeker design than its predecessors boasted, along with the employment of actors voices to add momentum to the game it became another pinballing icon.


The road of the pinball machine, from pornography shop basements, to countercultural icons by way of a rock-opera is overlooked when we see them now, a barely used or barely functioning relic in the corner of a bowling-alley arcade. There is a huge market for vintage machines that keeps the spirit of the machine alive, but such is the cyclical nature of our world that it may not be too long now until we see a lot more of them again.


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