Saturday, 19 September 2009

Pinball's Vanishing Act

Yesterday I read a fantastic short story by Robert Coover called "The Babysitter", and while its use of multiple perspectives was interesting and (to be honest) somewhat confusing, what I really walked away from the story with was the great metaphor of a woman as a pinball machine.

This made me think of a number of things -- first, if this metaphor existed anywhere else (and if so, "Pinball Wizard" by the Who takes on a new and very interesting meaning) -- and, more importantly, the fact that, even though you see pinball machines around, no-one seems to be using them.

Why is this? Well, it would seem that pinball machines, like bumper stickers and shopping malls, are another part of the old American culture that has been quietly fading away. But, of course, it's more complicated than that; everything from the education of children to the recent H1N1 crisis has contributed to their downfall.

The basic goal of pinball directly contradicts what 21st-century children are taught, and what adults have learned as well throughout the years: Don't do anything that doesn't reward in the end. Use your time wisely. Keep your eye on the prize.

To be blunt, there is no prize in pinball: you insert a quarter or two, flick a ball around and then, if you're lucky, get a high score. It's easy to see why people aren't playing pinball: what's the point of playing if you don't get money, or anything else, in return? After all, there are better things to be doing in the summer, like setting up a lemonade stand with your sister or brother. Now, that brings in the dough.

This mentality is the reason why arcades no longer have their own buildings, and are now incorporated into movie theatres, bowling alleys, airports, etc. -- generally, anywhere people have to wait. But you don't see people -- you don't see kids -- at these arcade spaces either. If they are, it's usually in very small numbers. Why aren't they taking advantage of these areas can be summarized with one word: H1N1.

Actually, to be honest, H1N1 is only the straw that broke the camel's back when it comes to this sort of thing. Americans have been terrified about their health -- and the health of their children -- for years, reflected in the upsurge in sales of Purell and other hand sanitizers. Would there have been as large a demand for Purell before West Nile Virus? Before SARS? I don't think so.

The point is, arcade spaces (and the play areas in McDonald's too, for that matter) are rarely cleaned and, if they are cleaned, not cleaned enough, or well enough, to be effective. (It's no wonder PlayPlaces weren't included in the new McDonald's blueprints; who wants to risk having a birthday party and picking up the medical bills afterwards?) Franchises that thrive on this sort of setup -- Chuck E. Cheese's comes to mind -- are now extinct or a novelty, the spaces they once inhabited transformed into warehouses and country-western bars. (I should know... there's one in Winnipeg.)

If arcades were to make a comeback -- although it doesn't seem likely -- they would have to compete with new-fanged "gaming centres", the newest birthday destination where groups of pre-adolescent children play Super Mario Kart on Wiis and eat snacks. It's smaller than an arcade (so there's no chance of your child getting lost), and there's an actual staff, so it stands to reason that the equipment is well-maintained and, more importantly, clean. (I've also noticed movie theatres advertising "play your games on our big screens" lately; they must be realizing that traditional arcades just don't cut it anymore.)

So, what do we make of all this? In a world where individualization and the personal experience is king, games like pinball, unfortunately, are without a home. They're not communal (like Rock Band or Guitar Hero), they don't have any rewards, and they don't have online play.

It's interesting how the demise of pinball says so much about North Americans and the way the world is moving. Will there ever be a time when, having realized our obsession with the self has gone too far, games like pinball come, slowly but surely, back into fashion?

I wish I had an answer but, unfortunately, it's hard to say.

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