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In-Depth: Reflections On The Pinball Hall Of Fame
In-Depth: Reflections On The Pinball Hall Of Fame
March 31, 2010 | By Kris Graft

March 31, 2010 | By Kris Graft
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[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."

[For more information on the Pinball Hall of Fame or to make donations, visit http://www.pinballmuseum.org/. You can also visit Pinball Hall of Fame's blog, Twitter and Facebook.]


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Comments


Humphrey Bogart
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I think this is great, I grew up playing pinball and it is wonderful to learn of the pinball hall of fame. We have a place dedicated to pinball, housing many old great units, but its tiny and generally overlooked. Here in New York City where I work for a Real Estate company, pinball is still alive and well, with many fans, many of whom are young. My ideal is to have a pinball machine in my SoHo Apartment, that would be great, I'm still a little ways off from that. But I applaud the efforts of the pinball hall of fame and will definitely make a donation!

Jason Smith
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This place is my new destination for fantasy vacation...

Kale Menges
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These guys (the Pinball Hall of Fame group) are heroes. I've been a pinball fanatic (but by no means a wizard) since I was a child. Unfortunately, times changed on the pinball industry and most of the time I only have access to virtual machines (I design them in my spare time, too). If you ever get the chance, the Crave/Farsight Pinball Hall of Fame Collections (Gottlieb and Williams, thus far.... I would love to see a Data East, Bally, or a Stern collection, too) on the consoles are some of the best virtual pinball games available, both very actively promoting the real-world Pinball Hall of Fame in Vegas. Lucky for me, Randy Pitchford has a lovely collection of tables here at Gearbox that we all spend way too much time playing. Wish I had the space and resources for a collection of my own. Pinball represents some of the purest game designs of all time and as a medium and a genre holds a great deal of valuable design lessons for the video game industry as a whole.

Joshua Sterns
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I have been going to the Pinball Hall of Fame for years now. My local friends out there love it. It's an excellent escape from all the glitz of Vegas and five bucks will actually get you an hour + worth of entertainment. They have all my favorites from when I was a kid (Adams Family, Terminator 2, and some dinner game my aunt owns) as well as some new machines (Dark Knight, Spider Man, LOTOR).



The prices are also very reasonable. You won't be paying over a dollar for any of the new machines, and the oldies are dirt cheap--usually just .25 cents.

Sean Grant
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I've been to the Pinball Hall of Fame many times and I've always enjoyed it. Tim Arnold is the hardest working man in the pinball business and I think everyone in the pinball world appreciates his efforts.

Luke Arntson
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Last time I went, I was getting a soda from the vending machine which Tom was restocking. He was kinda gruff, handed me a cold one and gave me some change, then I asked him about the museum. He got pretty friendly, still a little shy but he was very nice and I told him how happy I was he did the whole thing for charity. So I handed him a $20, put another $20 in the pinball machines, and had probably some of the best 3 hours in Vegas I've ever had. I think I'm going to make this a tradition every time I go, put money in the machines, hand Tom a $20, and say my goodbyes.


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