While waiting for my water to heat up for my oatmeal this morning, I scanned the weekly slick, American Profile, which comes with the local paper. Two curiosities: a Korean Christian comedian from Tennessee (“South Korean”—ha ha) who specializes in clean comedy and a pinball machine collector in Las Vegas. The latter, an article by Audrey T. Hingley, profiles one Tim Arnold, a former video arcade operator, who now runs the Las Vegas Pinball Collectors Club, a nonprofit social club for pinball aficionados. As someone who, from time to time, considers the present plight of the noble pinball machine, I read the article with more zest than I usually allow myself prior to breakfast. What stands out most strikingly to me is Arnold’s comment: “It’s man versus machine.” With that comment, the ball fell into the gobble hole.
Walk into any mall arcade or restaurant that still maintains an arcade game console or two, and what do you see? Probably a creepy diminutive man watching young boys. What do you not see? Pinball machines. Why?
Pinball machines are all Incarnation, no Gnosticism. From the moment you apply compressive stress to the plunger to that heady moment that you let go—with an explosion of fingers—of that rubber capped spring, everything about the pinball machine experience is concrete and physical. Absorb the vibrations of the machine as it dances in place, bumpers and slingshots calling the dance steps. Look around. Nobody is watching—nudge a bit. Press your body against the machine. A bit more. Full tilt! You just learned a poignant lesson in excess. Multiple balls? Keep them in the flow if you can. If not, abstract what romantic axiom you can from this loss. Finally, despite valiant efforts, the flipper proves one centimeter too short (ahem).
Video games, for the most part, currently seek to create a theatre immersion experience for the gamer. Absent is the battle of man versus machine. In its stead: a man (or what is left of him) merges with the machine. While the overall experience affects one as more immediate, the I-Thou separation—the conflict—seems less sharp and dramatic. As a result, the victories fail to be as triumphant, and the losses are more consoling.
Yes, consolation. Losses do not sting as violently. It is one thing to watch a pixilated character perish, another to watch and feel the metallic orb—once so alive—roll into a pit of oblivion. Is immunity against loss (in whatever form) the culprit in the disappearance of pinball machines? Must we be inured against loss in even our games? If we cannot lose in play, then what about in those areas where a risk might make all the difference? Moving to a new city? Moving to a new country? Learning a new language? Going back to school? Telling your boss to note the mistletoe tied to your derriere? Working up the courage to say: “Walk away from me if you will, block my calls, and de-friend me on Facebook, but evening is coming and—dammit—I love you”?