[Gamasutra's "dormant pinball nerd" Kris Graft speaks with Tim Arnold of the non-profit Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas, and contemplates the attraction of pinball from a digital gamer's perspective.]
Just off of the Las Vegas strip and across the street from the Liberace Museum is an inconspicuous building that is home to around 150 pieces of machinery capable of stirring up nostalgia, even in visitors who missed the heyday of these bulky contraptions.
A plastic sign is tied at the corners near the top of the building: "Pinball Hall of Fame."
After spending the last couple days in a city that has such an array of glowing, pulsating signage, I expected something more ostentatious. Typically you'd think any physical location of a "hall of fame" would want to scream, "Look at me, I'm important!" This just looks plain… like part of a strip mall.
But it's inside where visitors' senses are barraged by the blinking lights, the beeps, the clangs and the "dings," bouncing off of the walls and 10,000 square feet of floorspace. The commotion is coming from an arsenal of pinball machines ranging from the late 1940s to the 1990s, neatly lined up in several rows, along with a select few classic video arcade machines like Defender.
After turning a $5 bill into quarters, the first pinball game I fired up was the somewhat infamous Pinball 2000-based machine, Revenge From Mars. Based on a clever concept that utilized a PC monitor and a mirror that reflected digital images onto the pinball playing field, it was an attempt to meld an arcade video game machine with a pinball machine -- an old-meets-new design attempt that was meant to make the aging pinball format more relevant to an audience hooked on the latest arcade fighting or racing game.
I had recently watched the rather depressing documentary Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball, in which Pinball 2000 was the focal point. That platform essentially marked the death knell of the pinball business after the failed release of a Star Wars: Episode I Pinball 2000 machine, so I wanted to play Revenge From Mars, the last commercially successful pinball machine that Williams released before canning its pinball division in 1999.
That's one of the major draws of pinball today -- you feel like you're playing a part of history; you're pushing the same buttons attached to the same hulking piece of hardware as someone did years ago when this type of entertainment technology excited people. Now we are jaded by high poly-counts, networked home console play and the pursuit of the next "Level Up" to be scrawled across a 1920x1200 PC monitor.
It might feel like simple nostalgia at first, but pinball is more than that. Pinball is hyper-personal. A pinball machine invites you to shove quarters into it so that you can challenge this physical piece of hardware in a game that's based on the best physics engine ever, physics itself.
The "Old Fart"
When I took an initial stroll around this Hall of Fame, I noticed a gray-haired guy with glasses who had a headlamp strapped to his forehead. He was elbow-deep in a pinball machine apparently in need of maintenance.
"Yes, I am the hunched over old fart wrenching on the games all the damn time!" Tim Arnold (pictured) told me in an email after my visit. He's the owner of all of these pinball games.
The Pinball Hall of Fame, which he opened in February 2006 in Vegas, is his personal collection, one that he moved from Michigan, where he ran multiple pinball arcades, to Las Vegas. While the Pinball Hall of Fame has about 150 machines, his collection stands at over 1,000, making him the biggest pinball collector around.
Arnold really must be at the Hall of Fame "all the damn time" working on machines, helping customers and collecting quarters. It was about 10 p.m. at night when I was there, and lo and behold, there he was, probably working the daily 12-hour shift. Actually, he said he often works 15 hours a day.
He told me he was initially drawn to pinball machines in 1969 "because they were, according to my parents and other adults, 'evil gambling machines that are run by the mafia!' -- which made me want to play them all the more.' ... I wanted to be the mafia, the slick guy in the fancy clothes and the big car that ran the machines."
To reach his goal of being the Godfather of pinball, he, his brother and a friend originally pooled their money together to buy a Gottlieb Mayfair machine, which originally released in 1966. He still owns that machine.
"The collection grew and grew. We put them in restaurants, frat houses, anywhere that would take one. While my high school buddies were freezing their asses off on a paper route or at a fast food job, I was pinball pimpin'! I just never stopped... so here I am."
Dormant Pinball Nerd?
I can't say that I'm some pinball fanatic, because I really hadn't had much exposure to it growing up during my posh NES (and TI-99/4A) childhood. Like a lot of people who play video games, I've crossed paths with a lot of pinball machines at arcades or other outlets (and I really like The Who's Pinball Wizard), but the machines never really stirred up emotions in me that said "Hey, this is amazing."
Maybe because I'm a bit older, I have more appreciation for these relics of coin-op. After visiting the Pinball Hall of Fame, I do have this feeling of wonderment, as corny as that may sound. Just seeing all of these beasts lined up, lit up and working exactly as they did when they released years or decades before I was born really affected me. I might be a dormant pinball nerd. Actually, everyone might be a dormant pinball nerd. It's just difficult these days to distract people from more modern pastimes.
"People are really attracted to pinball, but it is getting very hard to find [machines] out in public to play," said Arnold. "All the mom and pop stores that all used to take a game have been replaced by chain stores. No pinball in those. Corner bars are also a slowing shrinking market. That is why we are doing well with the concept. No competition."
It's All For Charity
Keeping a pinball arcade open all-year-round is feasible because of Las Vegas tourism. People come in from everywhere for hands-on time with Arnold's collection.
That's a good thing, because the Pinball Hall of Fame isn't really a "pinball business." It's a registered not-for-profit charity operation.
Arnold is not paid to run and maintain the museum, and neither are his few helpers. Instead, the Pinball Hall of Fame donates mainly to the Las Vegas Salvation Army, along with a smaller amount of funds given to non-denominational charities. The Hall of Fame's website lists donations made between May 2006 and July 2008. The listed donations add up to over $80,000.
The self-described "old fart" told me that he made enough and saved enough money during his days operating Pinball Pete's in Michigan that he doesn't really need to make an income.
For Arnold, the Pinball Hall of Fame is no longer about his love for flinging a steel ball around with a couple of flippers. The main thing is the charity. "I do not play any more," he said. "I work really hard running the museum, and we take the quality of our product with a lot of pride, so when I get out from 12 to 15 hours of it, the last thing I want to do is play pinball."