On Flippers, Or Delaying The Descent Into Oblivion
There’s a peculiar gap in the early history of pinball. Sources tend to agree that it was in the early 1930s that the first actual pinball machine was invented – as in, the coin-activated ball on a playing field that people would come to know and love.
Amazingly enough, the device grew popular, and that’s amazing because it wasn’t until more than 15 years later that flippers were finally invented.
I mean to say, what were people doing before that? Propelling a ball onto a playing field and then watching – maybe fascinated, maybe dismayed, maybe panicky, but certainly helpless – as it made its inevitable descent into oblivion?
People’s ideas of agency must have been much more modest in the 1930s and ’40s. That’ll be The War, maybe. Something is set in motion and you’re more or less powerless to do anything about it. All you can do is wait to see how badly it will end, and when.
Anyway, along came 1947, and Gottlieb’s ‘Humpty Dumpty’ machine, which had six flippers in it and which revolutionised pinball. Now you could spot the ball’s approach to annihilation and step in in time to stop it.
Now you had agency. The War was over. The War was won! You still couldn’t prevent oblivion (as every pinball player knows to this day) but, with skill and judgment, you could postpone it. Flip-flip.
Early adventures in pinball, though, suggest that fascination, dismay and panic are still the native response to the game, flippers be damned. Introduce people to a certain amount of agency and they fall to pieces.
Like other students of pinball in early life, I made it a point to learn when – at exactly which moment – to flip. The ball is hurtling towards its own demise. You must wait for it to advance near a flipper. You mustn’t wait too long, or it’ll be too late. Yet neither must you flip too soon; you don’t want to startle the ball after all. You must choose just the right moment and just the right angle. Then flip.
But when you invited uninitiated friends over to play, then you remembered what misuse of agency looks like. They shoot the ball, they flip-flip-flip-flip. The ball is nowhere near the flippers. Flip-flip-flip. Panic-panic-panic. You offer tentative advice: “You don’t need to…” Flip-flip-flip. “It’s just…” Flip-flip-flip. “You could wait until the ball is…” but no. Flip-flip-flip.
“Can’t talk! Must forestall oblivion!”, they say, or words to that effect, as the ball hurtles past the blur of redundant flipping and disappears.
All that agency wasted. They’d have been as well off having no flippers at all. Something is set in motion and you expend unnecessary energy trying to demonstrate that you’re capable of changing the way it will end, and you don’t. Flip.