“He’s a Pinball Wizard;” What pinball machines can teach us about making great toys and games

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In my last posting, "Pinball and the Total Sensory Expertience," I wrote about my strong memories of playing and watching others play pinball. I closed by saying:  “If you have never played pinball, I suggest that you try.  You will see, feel, hear and move with what mechanical toys do at their best…provide a total sensory experience.”

We in the toy industry are today wrestling with the essential notions of what a toy is and what play is.  Digital play is becoming integrated with traditional toys and as a result we are getting what appears to be a hybrid play format.   Any direction the toy industry takes is fine with me as long as it meets the needs of children and adults of future generations rather than the nostalgia of past ones.

Having said that, we may want to take a moment and appreciate the pinball machine as an example of what three dimensional world toys do at their very best:  Provide a total sensory and aesthetic experience.

The sound that pinballs machines make is not capricious; each bang, bonk and bing is amplifies and rewards each physical movement in the game.  In the same vein, each time the game lights up it is also there to reinforce the player’s skill and agility.  Body movement was also rewarded or punished.  Bump the machine just right and you could keep the ball moving up the scoring area; bump it too hard and the game would “tilt” and be over. 


And lest you think that that is only three of the senses, there was also a taste and smell experience.  The taste was of a coke or beer as you played the game and the smell was that of cigarette smoke and perspiration.  These two senses were as much a part of pinball as the game itself.

Aesthetically, the games were fascinating to look at.  There was little or no licensing.   Instead, there were depictions of gun slinging cowboys and buxom girls; gun slinging gangsters and buxom girls and even gun slinging space aliens and buxom girls.  Gotta' love those buxom girls. 

The construction of the game itself was in its own way elegant.  There were shiny stainless steel balls that you shot using a metal, spring plunger; a heavy plate glass overlay that covered the playing field; a tightly constructed wooden cabinet with legs and a brightly painted glass backdrop.

Pinball machines were found in arcades, drugstores and candy shops.  They were sometimes, if their parents had money, found in someone’s playroom.  There you could play for free.

As we move forward, the traditional toy industry needs to continually provide products that meet the technological, cultural and aesthetic tastes of the time.  We also, however, must always remember what makes for a great physical play experience; total sensory immersion. 

Maybe we should put a pinball machine at the entrance to Toy Fair so we don’t forget.  What do you think?





2 thoughts

  1. Richard, as I might have mentioned last night at the TIA function (spoke about it to someone; forget who), I really think that as some unique combination of economy (now and what’s likely coming) and a complete disgust by most parents I’ve spoken with that their kids just want to stay inside the house and play video games, our industry might very well soon be ripe for a ‘back to basics’ move….that not only involves outdoor play, but might (OMG…) actually involve play patterns thought up by the kids, rather than predefined for them by the toy.
    We owe it to the kids of the next generation, to provide the sorts of toys that will foster kids’ creativity, instead of just pre-defining their fun by the nature of the toy itself.

  2. I’m really enjoying your foray into the pinball world with your recent articles. As a former arcade owner and pinball enthusiast myself, I have long been an advocate of the reason pinball is such a singular experience – you simply can’t recreate it without a machine, and a space in which to play.
    I do find that such a notion translates well to the play patterns of dolls and action figures, though as you say the brass ring is in determining how to distill the ideas we’ve learned over time, and amp them up with current methodology and theory on how to engage today’s kids. I don’t have any answers yet for the toy industry, though I do still cling to the happy notion that pinball, all these years later, should still work; that in this time of ‘social’ resurgence, that the shared physical experience of that sweaty, smokey arcade that you remember may be poised to return, pulling people from their XBoxes and their quiet, boring living rooms.
    Also – thanks for clearing up the thing about your last name – I had always wondered!

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