Game On Exhibition Returns To Chicago In 2.0 Form
A Classic American Game May Be on the Verge of Extinction
- But Portland Pinball Pros Aren’t Giving Up Yet
BY JUSTIN W. SANDERS
At Ringler's Pub downtown, the jukebox blares out over a low hum of laughing and talking. It takes me a minute of squinting to locate the bar's lone pinball machine, wedged behind the pool tables. It's called Ripley's Believe It or Not!, and leaning against it is local pinball guru Mink Staccato, AKA Scott McKinnon, who advertises lessons for anyone willing to learn the classic bar game. I'm the first person to have taken him up on his offer.
Kind but firm, Mink handles his debut lesson like a pro—which he is. Ripley's, along with other pinball machines around town, offers a tournament mode. It costs a bit more to play, but the extra coinage is pooled, and the player with the highest score at the end of the month wins the jackpot. Mink is a regular winner on the Ripley's machine.
"I've won enough to pay my rent before," he informs me. He also tells me he often comes to Ringler's on his lunch break and spends the entire hour on a single 50-cent round.
"My coke usually costs more than my pinball," he says. He also tells me he started playing pinball when he was three, using a stool to reach the flippers. At the age of five, his dad wanted to take him on the road and challenge other players for money. He's the real deal.
All grown up now, married, and employed at a clean energy company, Mink buys me a beer and drops some quarters in the machine, encouraging me to show him my stuff. I play self-consciously, banging the ball around randomly. Mink is impressed when I "trap" the ball with one flipper, holding it in place so I can then aim it wherever I want.
"You're not so bad," he says. He gently impresses on me the import of having a strategy when you play, item #3 of his "Eight Commandments of Pinball," an actual document he passes out to interested parties. Other items include #2: "Thou shall covet thy extra balls!" and #7: "Thou shall not abuse thy machine!" Mink relates how hard it is to maintain self-control when some drunken asshole starts beating on a machine because he lost his ball.
Then Mink Staccato tells me that pinball is dying.
"It's dying?" I ask.
"I fully expect it to be dead within the next decade or so," he says. "That's why I'm excited for your story—anytime I can support pinball or promote pinball I'm down, because it's probably not going to be around much longer."
THE LAST PINBALL MAKER
STERN Pinball, Incorporated resides in a single 40,000 square foot building in Melrose Park, a suburb of Chicago. It churns out approximately three games a year, each of which takes approximately one year to design. Each design incorporates an average of 15 songs, 3,500 parts, and 115 lights into a complicated, multi-layered field of bumpers, ramps, switches, and levers. A sophisticated point-earning system is mandatory, as is a story thread—both of which must be complemented by an ever-changing dot matrix display. All these disparate elements merge into a twirling, blooping, delicately arranged box of tricks and possibilities, wherein a single metal ball triggers everything. A brand-new pinball machine is a miraculous blend of artistic expression and sheer physics. STERN is the only company in the world still producing them.
It wasn't always this way. A brief history on STERN's extremely informative website (sternpinball.com) traces pinball's roots from a 19th-century French parlor game to its 1950s American heyday, when bumper-and-drop-target innovations made it the game to beat. At one time, pinball enjoyed an 80 percent share of the coin-operated market.
Unfortunately, like many beloved cultural phenomena, the digital revolution eroded pinball severely. In the late '70s, it went electric, but that didn't stop videogames like Pac-Man and Space Commanders from cutting sharply into its revenue. Pinball rebounded with an early-'90s design renaissance, spitting out classics like the Twilight Zone, and also Addams Family, the industry's bestselling machine of all time. But home gaming systems, computers, and other inventions ensured the resurgence was only temporary, and by 2000, major pinball manufacturers like Williams, Bally, and Gottlieb had gone belly up after decades in the business. Only Gary Stern's company, recently acquired from Sega, remained, and with literally no competition to impede it, it has since survived, but for how much longer is a mystery.
At my lesson, I watch my ball move up and down Ripley's ramps, in and out of its secret pits and pinwheels. The game chirps happily when I do something well. It seems so harmless and delightful, this playful little bucket of parts, and with sadness I begin to envision a world without it. I express my sentiment to Mink, and he tries to console me.
"I think the reason that pinball's staying around now is because it's finally gotten down to the people that really love it," he says kindly.
In addition to a calendar of pinball tournaments happening around the world (there are 17 major ones in 2006), the STERN website offers a comprehensive list of dozens of links to other pinball-related websites, ranging in content from online trade magazines, to repair shops, to secondary markets, to forums, to info centers like the Internet Pinball Database (ipdb.org). Pinball may be dying, but its fans are not letting it die quietly.
Mike Mahaffey is the vice president of sales at Portland coin-op machine distribution company Quality Entertainment. A pinball collector and self-taught repairman, he travels around the country attending different tournaments and expos. He assured me by phone that the pinball scene in Portland is thriving.
I know some guys that are some of the top pinball players in the world," said Mahaffey, "and they think that Portland is a pretty booming pinball area."
A website that supports that notion is portlandpinball.com, a forum of hundreds of local hobbyists who wax ecstatically on upcoming events, buying and trading opportunities, and the Portland Pinball League, which meets twice a week at various locations around the city. A recent meeting at Ground Kontrol (Portland's best pinball spot, incidentally, with about 20 different machines) found nearly a dozen members of the league blasting away on games like Star Trek: The Next Generation and Black Knight.
It's not surprising that, amid the loyal cult of pinball, one of its most loyal factions resides in Portland. This is a literate town with a thriving preservationist mentality that places great value on quirky cultural artifacts and retro-style novelties. But pinball machines, both bulky and delicate, also require effort to maintain, and every year fewer and fewer operators make that effort. In my recent pinball travels, I noticed that several machines were out of order or suffering from malfunctioning flippers and other problems. Mahaffey cites this ongoing neglect problem as one of the key contributors to pinball's status as a dying game.
"[Businesses] blame the machine for not making any money," he says, "but you go look at the machine and it looks like someone spray painted it black and there's like two lights working on it. And they wonder why nobody plays it. If you keep the machines clean and in good working order with strong flippers, they do make good money consistently... between 150 and 200 dollars a week. They out earn a lot of the videogames that are sitting right next to them."
KEEPING THE BALL ALIVE
Whether you enjoy pinball as a game or not, I encourage you to take another look at the machines. Examine the intricate series of ramps and chutes comprising the playing field; read the instructions and notice the intricacies of the respective game's storyline; press one of the buttons and feel the reassuring click of a cocked flipper, ready to unleash its surprising power on an unassuming ball. Feel the love, and if anything seems out of order, tell the establishment's owner they're due for a pinball checkup. Together, we can keep this thing alive.
At Ringler's, the moment I've been waiting for finally commences, and Mink Staccato takes Ripley's reins. Relaxed and smiling, he sends the ball on a precise journey, guiding it wherever he wishes around the grid. In seconds he's achieved multi-ball status, and four balls rain down from the heavens. He gathers three of these balls on one flipper, storing them as the other flipper continues to whack away at the fourth ball. Later, he'll "juggle" a ball, flicking it from one flipper to the other, never losing control.
He is as smooth as his name suggests; indeed, in Mink Staccato's hands, the game of pinball is raised to an art form, a kinetic sculpture of light and sound.
For lessons, contact Mink at firstname.lastname@example.org
More Parents Playing Video Games
SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) - In a sign that video games are becoming more popular as family entertainment, a national survey released Thursday indicates joysticks aren't just for kids.
Thirty-five percent, or about one in three parents, say they play, too, and 80 percent of that segment play video games with their children, according to the new survey commissioned by the Entertainment Software Association, a video game industry group.
The average "gamer parent" spends 19 hours a month playing video games, and spends roughly half that time playing alongside kids, the survey found.
Two-thirds of the gamer parents said they feel that playing video games has brought their families closer together.
Count among them Andrew Bub. "It makes us all laugh at each other," said the Milwaukee stay-at-home father of two.
As the founder of GamerDad.com, a Web site with game reviews and a discussion forum for parents, Bub has promoted the idea of video games as a family-bonding tool for years.
"Kids are going to play what they want to play, and parents are better off getting involved instead of sitting on the sidelines," he said.
Other survey findings: The typical gamer parent is 37, and almost half the group are women. Twenty-seven percent of gamer parents began playing video games around the same time their children started.
The survey of 501 parents with children between the ages of 2 and 17 was conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates in November 2005. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.4 percent.
The Entertainment Software Association, which is challenging various state laws banning the sales of violent video games to minors, noted that about two of every three parents surveyed agreed it is not the role of the government to protect kids from violent games.
Study shows video games reduce pain
How many of you play video games when you are feeling ill? I know I have on several occasions. Now, a new study from Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia shows that video games not only reduce pain, but certain types of games are more accomplished at it.During the pain study, participants played 6 different types of video games: action, arcade, boxing, fighting, puzzle, and sports. While all game types had some degree of success, fighting and sports games were the most effective in pain distraction. According to Dr. Bryan Radenbush, director of undergraduate research, "These gaming distractions may be most helpful in children and young adults undergoing painful procedures or suffering from chronic pain." He also added, "Physicians could possibly implement this in their office to aid in distraction during a painful procedure such as injection or dental work." Now, while playing a video game during a root canal may be out of the question, Dr. Radenbush suggests that games could be used in the waiting rooms for those patients expecting painful procedures. Read more at Gamasutra.
Study: Video games can help parents and children bond
A new survey suggests that video games can be a form of bonding between parents and children. The survey, released on Thursday by the Entertainment Software Assocation, found that more than a third of American parents play computer and video games themselves and that of those, 80 percent play those games with their children.The video game business is a massive one, with more than 228 million games sold in the U.S. in 2005, nearly two games for every household in the country. Sales grew to US$7 billion last year, a 4-percent increase.One eyebrow-raising figure to come out of the study is that although children play video games at home on average of 9.1 hours a month, their parents play video games 19 hours a month. Another possibly surprising find was that 47 percent of the parents who were playing all these video games were women. (A common perception is that men dominate the video game numbers.) Many parents contacted by the study, which had a sample of 501 parents who have children between the ages of 2 and 17 at home, said that their video game play was a result of habits when they themselves were children.The study, conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, found that the most frequently played type of game was cards, with 34 percent. Puzzles and games were next, with 26 percent, followed by sports at 25 percent and action and strategy games at 20 percent. Downloadable games made up the last category, with 18 percent.
Smack! Bam! Kids craft video games
Antonio Trujillo has made one video game with a friend and is working on another, which he plans to finish by the end of 2007.
He's in ninth grade.
"I like being able to control things and get them to do fun things or just something," he says of his interest in making video games. "It's fun."
Trujillo is a student at Desert Academy in Santa Fe, a private school that plans this fall to launch a four-year computer science program that will tie into video game development.
"The whole point of this is to allow high school graduates from Desert Academy to graduate . . . with career skills which they can either use directly in getting employment or they can use it to get advanced placement at a college or university," says Greg Malone, director of technology at the school. "If you look at what's going on in the country, both higher education and some high schools are beginning to teach computer game development as a form of computer science. That's pretty much what I'm establishing here."
Trujillo says he'll enroll in Desert Academy's computer science program. A career in video game development is possible.
"Mostly I would like to work on the actual movement and getting things to walk around, like character graphics," he says.
But it's not easy work.
"There's all these little parts you have to move, and get them to move right, and have the correct timing and the correct amount of movement for it to look good," he says. "It's a little complex, but it's fun."
Sex, boys and video games
I'VE ALWAYS been scared of 17-year-old boys. Particularly when I was 17, but even now. I have learned to avoid their hormone-amped, hostile glances, figuring every one of them is in some kind of dangerous gang. Especially if he's wearing red or blue, or making any kind of complicated shadow puppets when there is no nearby wall or light source.
But it turns out I have nothing to worry about. Los Angeles is now so safe, the city is looking not to protect society from 17-year-old boys but to protect them from society. On Thursday, the city sued the firm that makes the video game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" over a hidden sex scene that can be unlocked by hacking into the computer coding. The city believes that parents who simply wanted to buy their boys a wholesome cop-shooting, hooker-killing, car-stealing game were unfairly duped. Because if the ratings board had known about the scene, the game probably would have been bumped up to an "Adults Only" rating (restricting it to those 18 and over) instead of "Mature" (which keeps it away from anyone under 17). That means that all across Los Angeles, innocent 17-year-old boys with advanced computer skills were being exposed to moderately rendered, computer-animated soft-core pornography. And City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo wants to make sure someone pays for doing this to our kids. Because if these teen computer geniuses are given the opportunity to unlock a video-game sex scene, then they'll be just one step away from breaking the code that allows them to type dirty words into Google.Although I wish a teenage boy's world were as full of innocence and wonder as Delgadillo does, I wondered if consensual animated sex was really the kind of thing that would offend a 17-year-old male who grew up in Los Angeles. So I tracked one down and asked him if this was the kind of thing that would warp his impressionable mind.Harrison Schaaf, a junior at Oakwood High School, turned 17 last month, placing him among the most vulnerable and malleable 17-year-olds in L.A. Schaaf has played "GTA," but he has avoided the sex scene you have to unlock because it sounded hard to do. "But I'm sure it would be hilarious," Schaaf said. "I'm absolutely certain." He has, however, gotten the game's main character to chase after women with a baseball bat. It can be frustrating, remember, to be a 17-year-old boy.Crossing "chasing women with a baseball bat" off the list of things that offend a 17-year-old boy, I pressed him for what he did find offensive. Schaaf spent a lot of time thinking — and came up empty. None of the sex he's seen on the Internet bothered him. At first he had thought "Kill Bill" did, but then he decided to watch the movie again and thought it was "awesome."When pressed, he admitted that really racist stuff, such as the 1915 movie "Birth of a Nation," was kind of obscene. And when I asked him if a column about not supporting the troops was offensive, he immediately said, "Yeah, that's kind of bad. That's offensive." So I'm thinking that even though Delgadillo's heart is in the right place (namely, shoring up easy votes for his run for attorney general against Jerry Brown in June's primary), he's fighting a losing battle. As the documentary "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" points out, all our rating systems are arbitrary and ultimately ineffective. Though XXX, while completely made-up, is still kind of exciting.Now that kids can surf the Web, rent movies through online retailers, watch hundreds of cable channels and download gangster rap, it's impossible for society to restrict the flow of information to them. And even though they're a lot more jaded and harsh, it hasn't made them any more violent or sexually active. I understand that we wish a prelapsarian childhood for our kids, because, in our daily stresses, we long for that simplicity for ourselves. But when you're a kid, you want the opposite: You're desperately curious about the world and excited for all the information you can get. And no lawsuit is going to keep 17-year-olds away from that. Besides, the more time they're playing video games, the more time they're away from me.
WPT Pinball Game to Light Bowling Alleys and Bars Everywhere
by Bob Pajich
The World Poker Tour (WPT) has quickly become a pop-cultural phenomenon in America since the day the season premiered in 2002. Now, the television show my have reached the penultimate level of pop-cultural status with the release of a WPT-themed pinball game.
Stern Pinball, Inc., the Chicago company behind “The Simpsons Pinball Party,” “NASCAR,” “Harley Davidson,” and “The Lord of The Rings” pinball games, has designed and released the game.
Pinball connoisseurs will recognize the name of the man who designed the WPT pinball game, Steve Ritchie. He’s a former Williams pinball designer and the creator of Stern’s “Elvis,” among many other famous pinball machines.
Keith Johnson, software engineer for “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Simpsons Pinball Party,” created the software for this machine. Brian Rood, established comic book artist and illustrator, created his first complete pinball art package and Chris Granner, well-known sound engineer, produced his final sound work before retiring from the industry.
By manipulating the silver ball, players travel from city to city in hopes of making it to the WPT final table. A dot matrix display is located in the center of the playfield, showing players their holecards, as well as the flop, turn, and river cards.
The player gets the flop, turn, and river cards successively by making ramp shots located on the left and right sides of the playfield. WPT pinball also features five card stud, where the player needs to hit cards on sixteen drop targets to get all the poker hands, such as two of a kind, three of a kind, all the way up to a royal flush.
The WPT pinball game also offers a second level playfield and a “mousetrap” that holds and releases balls for multiball play. The playfield includes an innovative “Ace In the Hole” ball lock feature and 16 drop targets and is choreographed with many effects.
Card-themed pinball machines have been around nearly since pinball was invented. Pinball manufacture Gottlieb came out with “Gin Rummy” in 1939 and followed with “Easy Aces” in 1955, “Aces High” and “Royal Flush” in 1957, “Spot a Card” in 1960, “Sweet Hearts” in 1963, and “Jacks Open” in 1977, among others.
The licensing relationship between Stern Pinball and WPT was developed and negotiated by Brandgenuity LLC, WPT’s strategic product licensing and merchandising agency of record.
Hooters Casino Flashes Tomorrow Night
Speed Kills, Not Video Games
One of the two cars smashed into the taxicab with such force that it folded the vehicle around a utility poll. Adding to the poignancy of the case are the discrepancies in status between the teenaged defendants and the victim of the event. While the young men are the progeny of affluent families, the late cab driver had been working as a cabbie for the last six years in order to afford to bring his wife to Canada. He was due to be sworn in as a Canadian citizen on Friday, February the 3rd and had been expecting his wife to able to join him shortly after.
The young men have been charged with criminal negligence causing death, dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death, and failing to stop after an accident causing death. They are currently out on bail of $50,000 a piece and living under numerous restrictions including being prohibited from driving.
A case like this doesn't need any distractions from the details of the actual events. It has already been complicated enough by the sentiments aroused concerning the circumstances of the deceased. But media outlets have begun to muddy the waters further by focusing on the fact that a certain video game was found in the front seat of one of the two cars being raced.
"Did Need For Speed Kill" was the headline the following day in the Toronto tabloid The Toronto Sun and was also the theme of many a talk radio call in show. In other words did the fact that these two young men had obviously played this game at some point have any bearing on the death of the cab driver?
In the article linked above, Scott Colbourne of The Globe and Mail answers with a qualified yes. Mr. Colbourne writes a weekly column for the newspaper on matters relating to online and computer media and examines them within the context of our overall society and culture.
Here is my personal answer: Of course it did. Video games are now part of the wider culture, just like movies, books and car magazines, and our culture sends out some very contradictory messages about the use of vehicles as playthings ... The idea that driving fast means something -- that there's a real need for speed -- is deeply ingrained in society. We have speed limits, but a car's monetary worth is partly based on how much it can surpass those limits, on how many horses it has under the hood ... Scott Colbourne, The Globe and Mail Tuesday January 31/06.
We are a society hooked on the power of a motor vehicle and the sexiness that goes with it. We are obsessed with their speed and the implied coolness of owning a high-powered, high performance, vehicle. Look at movies like The Fast and the Furious or anyone of hundreds that feature car chases through city streets. Street racing has been a staple in movies for ages, whether it was the showdowns on the drag strip in old fifties movies or infamous chase scenes in French Connection and Bullit.
Then there are car commercials that rhapsodie about their ability to go from 0-60 in minimal times, can take corners at speed and appeal to our fantasies of being behind the wheel a lean, mean street fighting machine. What kind of image is a car manufacturer selling when they have their latest model speeding around a racetrack? Do they really think that by flashing on the screen "Professional driver on closed course" they are offering sufficient counterpoint to their message of speed and more speed?
One only has to look at the customizations young men use to modify their vehicles to see how pervasive the need for speed has become: scoops on the engines to increase air flow and efficiency, racing foils added to the rear of cars that increase speed, and special noise generators on the exhaust pipes that modify the car's sound to suggest more power.
What other purpose can any of these accoutrements serve aside from preparing these vehicles to race? No one is going to put foils on a car so they can sedately drive the speed limit to take the car grocery shopping or go to the Laundromat. Yet we still act shocked and dismayed when we hear about incidents like the accident last week.
It's become easier and easier to blame the entertainment industry for anything that happens. It used to be violence on television that was the cause of societies ills, then it was popular music with its salacious lyrics, and now the new kids on the block are the video games.
Sure some of them are violent, and some of them involve high speed car driving, but so does almost every movie or television show in the theatres or on the air. But, the argument goes, in video games people are active participants and are encouraged in that behaviour. Why should playing a video game encourage behaviour of any kind, they're obviously not real.
A game isn't going to make you do anything that you were not inclined to do in the first place. Toronto Police Service Detective Paul Lobsinger was quoted in the Toronto Sun article, buried near the bottom of the piece, as saying: "There is a small percentage who have difficulty separating reality and simulation, fantasy. It's a very, very small percentage... This was not the game's fault. There are millions who play this game and don't go out and do this."
If these games truly did influence behaviour wouldn't there be much more widespread behaviour of the kind depicted in them? In some ways games are probably the least likely to have the effect of pushing people into the streets to race their cars, as they do allow them to experience the thrill and the difficulty of driving a car at high speeds.
Any of the racing games I have had experience with have told me how hard it is to control a vehicle when driving at accelerated speeds. They have also made me realize I probably have no business being behind the wheel of any vehicle, but that's another story.
Of course there are going to be some people who can't differentiate between fantasy and reality, but they are not going to need video games to influence their decisions. Those are the types of people who cross over the line between what is socially acceptable and what isn't all on their own.
Blaming entertainment media for crime or behaviour is a cop-out. It's utilizing a scapegoat in order to ignore a serious societal problem. Blaming pornography for the objectification of women is attacking a symptom not the deep-rooted societal antipathy towards them that allows pornography to exist. If we did not already believe women to be less then men that form of objectification wouldn't happen.
The same applies to video games and whatever they are being blamed for this week. In the case of high-speed car races the culture of worshiping a motor vehicle has existed since they became a mass consumer item. They were marketed from the get go as being essential to defining ones masculinity. There's a reason for the jokes about male sexual prowess and cars: the car companies in their need to ensure sales created that atmosphere.
Passing the buck to movies or video games allows us to feel morally superior about an incident without having to accept any responsibility. The truth of the matter is that as a society we are all guilty in the death of that cab driver last week. If we did not continue to worship at the altar of the internal combustion engine, praying for heightened status through our devotion, street races like the one that took his life would never happen.
To paraphrase the National Rifle Association: video games don't kill people - people kill people.
Video Games Now Part Of P.E. At Local School
KMBC's Natalie Moultrie reported that Woodland is one of only four schools in the nation to have a PE-4-Life Academy, which takes a different approach to gym class.
"Our focus is mainly, instead of a lot of sports activities, to really work to let children know what they need to do for their personal wellness," instructor Elaine Alexander said.
The video games are used to motivate the students to get moving, such as racing on bikes. To go faster, the kids must peddle harder. But students also use new weight machines and they even swim during physical education.
"I usually don't do exercising. But now, I exercise a lot more and now I want to exercise," fifth-grader Abrahim Sy said.
Moultrie reported that Missouri requires schools to have physical education for 50 minutes a week. In the PE-4-Life program, students have gym every day for 45 minutes.
The idea teaches kids exercise is a lifelong activity.
Sponsors helped pay for the schools PE-4-Life Academy. The staff at Woodland Elementary also hope to help students start healthier eating habits along with their exercise.