Sympathy for the Devil’s Game

In a world gone mad with wi-fi, razor-thin laptops, and Xboxes, Dave Slabiak is fighting to preserve a questionable American icon—the pinball machine. “I live, breathe, and eat pinball,” he said the other day, staring through his Buddy Holly glasses to make sure his interviewer took in the gravity of the statement.

Slabiak is a charitable guy who will pump a couple bucks of quarters into a pinball machine after he’s done playing, in hopes that some teenage slacker might chance upon the freebie and take a liking to it. He is also a founding member of the Twin Cities Pinball Enthusiasts (TCPE) who are dedicated to all things having to do with pinball.

They meet once a month to drop quarters into their favorite public machines and to practice their “bangbacks” and “drop stops” while talking shop. Players like Jen McGaffey, one of the few women in the group of mostly 30-something men, reconnoiter the Twin Cities in search of surviving pinball machines. “We just drive by spots, mostly bars and bowling alleys, and pick ’em,” she said, explaining her scouting technique between sips of a tall Long Island Ice Tea.

At a recent meeting, enthusiasts gathered around three dinging cabinets in a back corner of the American Sports Café on Como Avenue. There was trouble: The lights on the Attack from Mars playfield were burnt out, so you couldn’t see the silver ball jetting off the bumpers.

“Geez,” 34-year-old Jeff Kasten lamented. “I did recon on this place for the guys who maintain the machines. I told them the lights were out and there was gunk on the flippers making them stick and that ten to fifteen people were showing up to play. You’d think they could fix them.”

Indeed, operators who view the machines as dinosaurs and fail to maintain them are especially scorned by the TCPE. Several big vending operators own machines in locations all over town, but they tend to focus on video games because they generate the most cash. It’s a catch-22, said Slabiak. They don’t see pinball as a big money-maker so they let the machines deteriorate, then fewer people want to play them.

“It’s all about being analog in a digital world,” said one aficionado who was clad in a tight black T-shirt and refused to give his name. “It’s not a Luddite thing or about embracing the old. It is about putting it all in context and enjoying what remains valuable.” After some needling, he explained his need for anonymity. It seems pinball’s unseemly reputation would not be looked upon sympathetically by his boss; he works as a governmental policy analyst.

Pinball’s association with hoodlum culture is long-standing. The image of the greaser with the Camel straight dangling from his lips while he bangs the flippers, or of freaked-out rock operas (think Tommy) don’t help. But the bad rap goes back further than that. It all stems from pinball’s historical roots as a gambling device.

Even though pinball’s precursor, bagatelle, was played by Honest Abe Lincoln himself, many of the early 20th century versions had cash payouts. And when they didn’t, tavern owners would frequently offer prizes for high scores. Early laws actually made pinball illegal in several states until the 70s.

Twin Cities enthusiasts embrace the outlaw image. “It’s an introvert’s way of gaming,” mused the government worker. “You’re turning your back on a crowd in a bar and engaging in something you are trying to get better at—by yourself.”

The game’s more recent evolution has mirrored other dark aspects of American culture. Like six-figure inflation. In the old days of chime-ringing reels, scores in the thousands earned you the knocking sound of a free game. Today, there’s been a clear case of score-inflation, where tallies in the ten-millions are mediocre. Games are also heavily commercialized today. South Park and Austin Powers are recent pinball themes. These newer games are not necessarily a hit just because they’re pinball machines. “Now they are catering to Attention Deficit Disorder,” complained our Deep Throat.

“The arcades, the 7-Elevens—that’s all gone now,” said Slabiak ruefully. “We are just people who are trying to enjoy this hobby and promote the sport.”

As The Rake made our way to the door after a night of free games and mixed drinks, it was put more succinctly by the guy with the backwards baseball hat. “Pinball kicks ass,” he slurred. “Put that in your newspaper.”—John Tribbett