How pinball gave video games their bad reputation


Video games have a bad reputation.
Newscaster VO: Concerns today over the violence in a new video game…
“The latest fad, or dangerously addictive?”
“But while the adults were asking questions,
America’s kids went on their daily shooting spree.”
They’ve been around since the sixties, and
still get talked about like the weird cousin
at a family reunion.
And we have pinball, of all things, to thank
for that.
In 1942 public opinion against pinball was
so bad that mayor Fiorello LaGuardia
ONE: Banned the machines in New York City and
TWO: BULLIED THEM? for a newspaper photo op
The NYPD seized thousands of the machines
in raids.
They were smashed and dumped into Long Island
Sound.
They turned the balls into bullets for the
War Effort.
That is not a joke.
Similar bans were passed in Chicago and LA.
But LaGuardia wasn’t a super uncool dude.
He was actually pretty progressive,
in his time and … even in ours.
In 1926, he famously protested Prohibition
by drinking beer in the House of Representatives.
In 1944, he took a radical pro-marijuana stance
after commissioning a study which showed
that weed doesn’t turn people into criminals
— well, unless it’s criminalized.
But pinball?
That was too much.
Coin-operated pinball machines were invented
in 1931.
The companies that produced them made other
coin-operated machines, too.
Things like jukeboxes, cigarette dispensers
… and slot machines.
So right from the start, there was an association
between pinball and gambling.
Some pinball machines gave cash prizes.
And this was the pre-flipper era, so say goodbye
to trick shots or… aiming.
At all.
What’s a pinball machine without flippers?
Well… you just sort of launch the ball and
pray.
Players would tilt the machines with their
bodies.
It’s hard to call that a game of skill.
But what’s wrong with gambling!?
Well, aside from being illegal or heavily
restricted, boy, was it frowned upon.
More than anything, gambling was associated
with organized crime.
Among other things, the mob owned casinos,
and also distributed coin-operated machines
like pinball.
LaGuardia had both Italian and Jewish ancestry,
and he was very resentful of those groups
being stereotyped as gangsters.
So he set out to crush organized crime.
He arrested a lot of gangsters, he shut down
brothels, and he got rid of slot machines
— and pinball.
So that was the legal justification for the
pinball ban.
The moral justification: was the children.
Here’s pinball historian Seth Porges, speaking
on the Between Worlds podcast:
Pinball machines… it was viewed as this gateway gambling device
that would lure kids in, sucker them in, and they would be tainted and ruined
and forever in the grasp of this moral hazard.
This all sounds really familiar.
NEWSCASTER: Are children gambling when they play video games?
Do you reckon he is addicted? YES! Definitely.
The closest disorder we think video games are like is gambling.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Pinball manufacturers changed a few things
to convince people that pinball wasn’t gambling.
Flippers were introduced in 1947, giving more
credence to the idea that this was a game
of skill and not chance.
Coin payouts had already been ditched.
But pinball still had this bad rep when New
York’s city council overturned the ban in
1976.
At that time, pinball manufacturers like Midway
were diversifying.
They were making arcade cabinets and home
consoles.
We love the arcade!
What a fun place.
FOR CRIME TO HAPPEN.
Arcades carried an aura of naughtiness thanks
to, yes, pinball.
During pinball’s darkest days you could
usually find the machines in back rooms of
sex shops or dive bars.
Not exactly child-friendly fun zones.
Kids hung out at arcades without adult supervision,
which basically made them a black hole of
suburban parental anxiety.
Maybe video games could have overcome that
association but… they didn’t.
In 1976, Death Race became one of the first
video games to cause a scandal.
It looked like this:
*KILL BILL SIRENS*
Okay, I know that’s so… so silly.
But remember, pinball was supposed to turn
kids into stabby little thieves hungering
for lunch money for one more game.
With this logic, of course Death Race was
considered “graphic violence.”
In fact, all the pinball anxiety sort of transferred
over to video games, as the newest media on
the block.
And games never shook the association with
kids’ entertainment.
That’s caused problems even when adult games
have tried to tell adult stories…
And it’s certainly caused problems when games
came full circle, and did start to incorporate
techniques that mimic gambling!
So, where does that leave us?
Video games still have a bad rep today for
the same reason pinball did in 1942.
They’re a convenient shorthand for moral
corruption.
Video game history is a litany of scandals
about sex, violence, brain-washing, you name
it.
Some of that’s earned, and some of it’s
totally baseless.
But it’s part of a conversation that started
wayyyyyyy before video games came on the scene.
A conversation about pinball, and the children.

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