Pinball is a relatively simple game: Keep the ball out of the drain and try to increase your score. But spend a few minutes in an arcade and you’ll soon discover that pinball machines are anything but simple.
Technology has always played an important role in pinball, with each technological innovation acting as a catalyst for new methods of customization and storytelling—such as with videos or color-changing LEDs. As a result, pinball is a powerful example of the ways technology can inform art and help designers turn a physical game into an instrument of performance.
Let’s take a closer look.
“A world under glass”
Pinball's unique physical experience sets it apart from other types of gaming. Zachary Sharpe, the #1 ranked pro pinball player in the world, describes the game as “a world under glass.”
“It’s a tactile experience that is never duplicated,” Sharpe adds, noting that while video games have a set pattern—press A and B will happen—pinball is a physical device and you can never tell how the ball is going to act in play. “If you hit the same spinner, depending on the physics of the ball and what you have, the ball is always wild, it’s constantly changing,” Sharpe says.
In other words, it’s a live ball, hitting live items, adhering to real physics. “The only thing you can know for sure,” says Sharpe, “is that, eventually, gravity always wins.”
But physics is only one part of what makes a pinball game a unique, satisfying performance. Behind the physics is a history of technological innovation helping to bring meaning and new methods of storytelling to the gaming experience.
History steeped in tech
In its more than 80-year history, pinball has always been linked with the technologies of the day. And with every innovation, game designers have found new ways to deepen the stories they are telling and vary the individual experience.
- 1930s to 1970s: The original electro-mechanical machines relied on basic electronics to rotate score reels or illuminate pre-set scoring units. Storytelling was generally limited to the static graphics on the machine.
- Late 1970s to 1980s: Solid-state machines featured the first electronic scoring displays, eliminating issues where the physical scoring reels could stop working, and offering game designers more flexibility with scoring rules.
- Late 1980s: Dot matrix displays featured increased memory and storage, allowing for more complicated rules, scoring, and basic animations.
- 2010s: The dawn of the LCD era and our current state, where machines feature full LCD displays capable of any art their designers choose.
How have these advances changed pinball as a game? According to Sharpe, “people now see that pinball is more than a game you walk up to, flip around, and walk away. It’s something you can perform.” Which is exactly what the designers at Red Paper Heart helped demonstrate at the 2016 Panorama festival.
In July 2016, New York City hosted the inaugural Panorama
festival, a one-of-a-kind, three-day celebration of music, art and technology. As the event’s exclusive technology sponsor, HP treated festivalgoers to The Lab
, an immersive 70-foot dome featuring seven installations by New York artists that combine technology, music, artistry, interactivity and, design.
One of the installations, Pinball Performance
, was curated by a Brooklyn-based studio Red Paper Hearts. The idea behind the piece is as simple as the game itself: modernize a pinball machine to tell a unique, multimodal story with every game.
At the experience's core is a 1970s electro-mechanical pinball machine with all of the inputs (bumpers, flippers, etc.) wired to an HP Omen
gaming workstation and six vibrant HP LED-backlit displays
set around the machine. Every time the ball strikes an input during play, a unique animation plays on one or more of the display screens.
As a result, every game—or performance—is unique. And unlike pinball machines before it, the external displays surround the player and their onlookers to demonstrate how modern technology can help even an older pinball machine perform in entirely new ways. “People love pinball, so they instantly have an emotional attachment to it, and we use that to create this amazing experience,” says Zander Brimijoin, the Creative Director at Red Paper Hearts.
What’s next for pinball?
Pinball continues to blend the worlds of art and technology—performing for players and onlookers alike in new and exciting ways. One of the most recent innovations allows game designers to upload new rules to their machines at any time. “There might've been a rule players could exploit in the past which would kind of break the game,” says Sharpe. “But with newer games, if there is an exploit or a bug, the programmers can post updates and patches on their website. Game owners can download those updates and install them on their machine. The game becomes fluid, and you aren’t shooting the same thing over and over. And some manufacturers are starting to use Wi-Fi to directly install game updates. This is a big goal.” Because at the end of the day, pinball machines are more than just games: They’re instruments of performance for the players and the fans.
 The Verge, An analog pinball cabinet is being transformed into a digital art machine, 2016