: Pinball is a worthy alternative to the ‘spiritual opium’ of video games

United States

Anyone who has witnessed a semi-catatonic teen playing a video game might agree with a recent stock market-moving assessment from China that the electronic medium is a form of “spiritual opium.”

On Tuesday, such accusations sent shares of the China multinational technology group Tencent 700, -3.90% and other companies in the gaming industry — including NetEase NTES, -0.04% and XD 2400, -2.12% — tumbling amid fears that a new regulatory chapter was about to begin.

But here’s where the Chinese missed the mark. They should have encouraged teens to play pinball instead.


I say this as a 57-year-old man who has spent many an hour in arcades and bars in a quest to become a pinball wizard. I was once actually ranked by the International Flipper Pinball Association (yes, it’s a real organization), though my current semi-active status on the pinball league-and-tournament circuit has put me out of contention. Let’s just say I’m gearing up for next season.

‘I say this as a 57-year-old man who has spent many an hour in arcades and bars in a quest to become a pinball wizard.’

I also say this as someone who played more than my share of video games, at least back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Granted, that was the industry’s infancy — hey, I’m even old enough to remember the debut of Pong — but I do know what it means to sit captivated in front of screen in an effort to improve my game (albeit, my Marble Madness game, a video classic from 1984).

And here’s my point: Pinball, a pastime that has seen a huge resurgence in recent years with production of machines skyrocketing and even a new Pinball Hall of Fame opening recently in Las Vegas, differs from anything totally electronic like video gaming. It involves a physical machine with moving parts and a silver ball that must make its way through the entire playfield.  

As a result, playing pinball involves your entire being. A good pinball player doesn’t just use the flippers but learns to nudge and shake the machine (while avoiding the dreaded “tilt”) in an effort to keep the ball in play and score more points. As a result, pinball is not so much “spiritual opium” as a contact sport. In a word, the level of engagement is visceral.

‘Pinball is not so much “spiritual opium” as a contact sport. In a word, the level of engagement is visceral.’

At the same time, pinball is a social game. While you can buy a machine for your rec room, most pinball players opt to play in group settings, as in bars or arcades. And machines are actually designed for group competitions, meaning you can have up to four players vie against each other.

Now I know that there’s a social element to video gaming as well, whether we’re talking players connecting remotely or together at someone’s home. But I’d argue this is still different than a bar or arcade, which tend to be more fun-loving, raucous environments. No, I am not suggesting teens should be hanging out in bars. The point, though, is that most pinball players I know are social creatures. I’m not sure that’s quite the case with video gamers.

I could even make the argument that pinball is educational. After all, it’s a game built around the laws of physics: how an object (a silver ball) moves through space, how it deals with opposing forces. It’s also a game, with all its many parts, that’s a study in electricity and magnetism. Little wonder that one famed (though, alas, now shuttered) New York arcade used to welcome school groups for STEM-style classes.

Other things to love and embrace about pinball: its wild and whacky visuals (some older machines are practically treasured as works of art), its proud history (I’ve visited pinball museums everywhere from New Jersey to Paris). It’s a game that’s more than a game. It’s an icon of popular culture, past and present.

Ironically, much like the video games of today, pinball has faced censure over the years, particularly as a negative influence on youth. Former New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia instituted a pinball ban in the city that lasted until 1976.

Fortunately, I came of age just as the ban was lifted and thus began a lifelong fascination with the game. Come this fall, I hope to rejoin the ranks of the Pinball New York City league. There’s still plenty of time to become a wizard.