The city council in Oakland, Calif. recently passed a measure lifting a ban on one of the most evil and corrupt undertakings that community had ever seen: the playing of pinball. Now West Coast wizards can beat all the bumpers, play it clean and — most importantly — get the replay without breaking the law.
BL: Why did Oakland ban pinball in the first place?
BM: So the ban dates back to the 1930s where not just Oakland but actually across the country a lot of places banned pinball. Pinball was originally a game more of chance than of skill. Before the addition of flippers you basically just kind of dropped your ball in at a different spot and tried to rack up as many points as you can, and the machines would pay — or at least the machine operators would offer payouts — for hitting a certain score.
So it was a form of gambling actually, and as such the government viewed it as a nuisance, as a form of gambling, and they banned it.
BL: Were those bans on pinball ever enforced?
BM: They were. There’s actually a kind of urban legend — but possibly true story — of officials in New York going in and wrecking up a bunch of pinball machines and drowning them in the river.
BL: I have this image of Oaklanders and others at pinball speakeasies, nudging and tilting during pinball’s outlaw days, but maybe that’s a little exaggerated?
BM: Maybe a little bit. But maybe they had a little plunger that you have to pull to knock in to get into the speakeasy.
BL: According to your Wired article, Roger Sharpe, the co-founder of the International Flipper Pinball Association was instrumental in de-stigmatizing pinball back in the ’70s which has led eventually to the removal of the ban in Oakland. How did Mr. Sharpe do that?
BM: So Mr. Sharpe, he went before the New York City Council in 1976. He went in and he played pinball in front of the city council. He showed them, “I’m going to shoot a ball right here,” and he did it. “I’m going to hit the ball this way, and I’m going to do this skill shot and prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that pinball is a game of skill, not of chance.”
BL: Well, the Oakland City Council, having seen the light — or flashing lights, as it were — do we now see this spread across the country? Does pinball enjoy a great boom?
BM: So, the thing is that while it was the ’70s when the bans were originally starting to be lifted, primarily due to Mr. Sharp’s influence, the bans mostly have gone unenforced for a while now. Having said that, they’re still sitting on the books. They’re like these old, outdated laws like it’s illegal to have an ice cream cone in your back pocket …
BL: On Sunday!
BM: On Sunday — or to tie your camel up to a parking meter.
BL: There is an ongoing, month-long pinball tournament happening at one of Oakland’s RadioShack stores as I understand it. And the lucky winner gets to take home an Iron Man pinball game. What other future benefits will Oaklanders enjoy as a result of the decriminalization of pinball?
BM: Well, as I said, you know, the ban has gone mostly unenforced. However, with a law on the books like that, it does prevent a sort of pinball-centric establishment, so to speak. Across the country we’ve seen venues known as BarCrafts or Barcades, and so with the ban being officially lifted and totally legal, that opens the door to venues like that as well as the free running of tournaments by the I.F.P.A. and other pinball-enthusiast groups.
BL: Do you anticipate a boom in this sort of activity?
BM: I’d say we’re already seeing the boom. It’s a fun game, and it’s fun to play with people. And there are a lot of people, you know, that their only memory of it is playing in Pizza Joe’s waiting for their slice.