1.04.2016

Insert Coin

There is no winning in pinball. Only prolonged losing. Every pinball game ever played has ended with the same unceremonious GAME OVER. No one pulls that sword from the stone. But for some inexplicable reason, we feel compelled to insert our quarters, crack our knuckles, and see if we've got what it takes to be king of a tiny castle.

A pinball victory is as nebulous as it is satisfying. Whether you're chasing a personal best, the high of knocking off a Grand Champion, or trying to edge out a Player 2, the pinball machine is indifferent. The flashing lights and chaotic art call to us like an amusement lighthouse. Press start, it begs. But make no mistake, you do not matter to pinball. The cynical among you might suggest pinball is rigged like a self-contained carnival, but there is no anthropomorphism here. Every ball plunged is met with solenoid indifference. This maddening intersection of human desire and the indifference of the world is what Camus famously coined "the absurd." 

In the distance, someone is shouting "Replay! The point of pinball is replays." On the face, the score-based award of a free game makes sense, but as we dig deeper into the psychology of pinball enthusiasts, a thesis couched in replays disappears faster than a ball save. Survival, as Nietzsche famously noted, is not the goal of life, but rather a side effect. Suggesting the goal of pinball is to play more pinball sounds poetic, but misses something essential about the experience.

The game could easily make an additional credit available to the player once play has ended, but that's not the point of a replay. A replay is an audible, some would say ostentatious, declaration of achievement. It's not an accident. Hell, it's an entire mechanical apparatus built to hammer the side of the cabinet. This same mechanism is engaged when a player places on the leaderboard. The "knocker" sound is a Darwinian flare aurally fired from the machine to signal everyone in within a hundred feet that the player standing in the corner is a champion to be anointed with oils and bathed in adoration. Sadly, however, most bar patrons seem to have largely missed this memo.

Still, the replay is crucial to the pinball experience. I detest free play machines, like playing poker with Monopoly money. Life demands stakes. A fiscally insignificant investment of twenty-five cents represents a substantial emotional gamble. With this quarter, I pledge to pit my timing, patience, and savvy against gravity, chaos, and my inevitable demise. No one leaves this poker room with chips. The replay, however, invites us to play another hand. As with any good con, there's a catch. The replay award becomes exponentially harder to achieve. The score needed for a replay nearly doubles each time it is awarded  making it theoretically possible to achieve, but quickly becomes unwieldy, a cruel inversion of Zeno's paradox of motion (see: Achilles and the Tortoise).    

Still, the game cannot be beat. Sir Isaac Newton curses his own name every time he gets half-ramped. What goes up must come down. The two inch canyon separating your flipper feels like a mother's desperate hands trying to catch an infant that slipped off the kitchen counter. Every outlane is a coin flip. No appeal can be made to the dispassionate, severe, and final rule of the tilt bob. 

So why do we play a game we know to be unwinnable? Why are there golden tokens in every room of my house? Why are there more pictures of pinball DMDs on my Instagram account than people? Because pinball is a microcosm for existence. You find yourself at a table. It could be an immaculately maintained, lovingly tuned gem, or it could be laundromat trash beaten within an inch of its life by kids lamenting its monochrome screen. You can play like a hero on the garbage machine or you can choke on the pristine one. There is always wiggle room. And everything good in life lives in this wiggle room. Amidst the chaos and the myriad of uncontrollable variables, your choices matter. You have agency. Every flip counts. And when you're staring at a flashing question mark mansion room in Adam's Family with your ball cradled, you discover what you're made of.

And while nothing lasts forever, our twenty-five cents buys us a temporary reprieve from this certainty. For the briefest of moments we forget about the inevitability of defeat. When our live catches are effortless, our nudges second nature, and every lit shot our destiny, pinball implores us to believe that, for these three balls, absurdity can be conquered. Our quarter buys the fleeting fantasy of immortal life and the chance to spit in the face of gravity. 

Not a bad deal at all.      

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