The Pinball Problem – Daniel Reynolds

On January 21, 1942, pinball machines and their operation were made illegal in New York City. Raids on pinball venues—arcades, bars, and shops—commenced immediately, and thousands of the machines were seized within the following weeks. The banning of pinball in the city represented the culmination of a long and passionate effort by the city’s popular mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia. A triumphant LaGuardia had many of the confiscated machines piled up for press conferences at which he smashed their glass tops and scoreboards with a sledgehammer while being filmed and photographed by the press.

LaGuardia’s moral indignation represented the intersection of many historical trajectories, from long-standing and widespread attitudes toward gameplay to local political posturing. Games have a history of not being taken seriously, especially as an adult activity; pinball games and arcade amusements, in particular, have often been portrayed as morally corrupting. As they do not involve strenuous physical activity, the games have been seen as less wholesome than sports; because they are mechanized, they have been thought of as degraded simulations rather than as legitimate activities; and they are often regarded as seedy and threatening, qualities associated with the arcades and boardwalks on which they can be found. Pinball has also been associated with gambling. In the 1930s and 1940s, the pinball industry had strong ties to organized crime; from an industrial standpoint (and, in many ways, from a law-enforcement standpoint), the pinball industry was very much a successor to the “slot machine racket.” Finally—and this was a powerful factor in the decisive turning of public opinion against the game in the months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—pinball playing was viewed as a wasteful activity in wartime, while the manufacture of the machines was considered to be a waste of materials that could be put to more productive use.

In addition to the perception of games as contributors to moral corruption, there were those who simply found the games distasteful and annoying. Confronted by a pinball machine in his courtroom, Justice Joseph L. Bodine raged: “Will you please take this thing away tonight. I can’t get away from these infernal things. They have them wherever I go.” (New York Times 9 Oct 1941) Although this essay focuses on the details of the moral case against pinball, the ubiquity of the game should not be understated as a contributing factor in the formation of the public’s reaction to the games. As of late 1941, trade sources put the number of pinball machines in the United States at between 200,000 and 250,000, with as many as ten percent of them in New York City alone. (Shalett 1941) In mid-1941, it was reported that federal mints were being expanded and that coin output in the first five months of the year had increased by 143 percent, in part to satisfy “record demand for coins created by [the] growing popularity of vending machines, pinball games, and juke boxes.” (NYT 19 July 1941) With the kind of visibility that this implies, it is not surprising that the public—moral concerns with the nature of the game itself notwithstanding—might want a break from pinball machines. In moments of extreme annoyance, suspect moral arguments often begin to seem a lot more sensible than they may really be.

Games in the popular regard

In the forms that play and games have taken over time, from games of “imagination” to formalized sports to more materially mediated forms of gameplay such as boardgames, pinball, and video games, there has been an historical fluctuation in cultural consideration and engagement. Bagatelle, the predecessor to pinball, enjoyed massive popularity among the French aristocracy and subsequently the general populace of that country in the late 18th century. Video games are currently ascendant as a medium for gameplay, and their cultural acceptability as an adult activity has steadily increased in recent decades. Sports were of immense philosophical importance to the ancient Greeks; they have never since enjoyed the same high-cultural esteem, though they have rarely been regarded as wholly trivial, and they enjoy a special cultural status among games in many modern societis. There have been some notable exceptions, however. In 1457, golf was banned in Scotland, ostensibly because it was interfering with the more useful pursuit of archery. In 1491, according to the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the ban was extended to encompass “fute-ball, golfe, or uther sik unprofitibill sportis.” Profitability, it seems, has always come into consideration in the assessment of games; their less visible benefits tend to be ignored when legislation is involved.

Historically, play has largely been regarded as the province of children, even when it has had adult themes. In a 1657 collection of lithographs and poems, Jacques Stella portrays children engaged in war games, using toy guns to storm a gate:

Surely these pygmies
Would force with their guns
The strongest citadels:
Other than the weapon, by what art
Is it better to open doors
Than the key; or the fart.
(Stella 1968; translation mine)

These lines reflect a number of attitudes as typical in the early 1940s—and at the turn of the 21st Century—as they were in 1657. Even thematically serious play, such as war games, and even play with “real” consequences, can be relegated to the realm of the childish. The real lessons and logics of games are often lumped conceptually (as in the last line of this poem) with the perceived inconsequentiality and vulgarity of gameplay.

Theories of gameplay tend to stress the developmental and societal importance of these activities. In his study of the function of play and games, Roger Caillois writes that

“Play is an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, energy, ingenuity, skill, and often of money…There is also no doubt that play must be defined as a free and voluntary activity, a source of joy and amusement…The spirit of play is essential to culture.”(1961, 5-6; 58) And Johan Huizinga, in an earlier take on the subject, writes, “Play is older than culture…even in its simplest forms…play…is a significant function—that is to say, there is some sense to it. All play means something.” (1950, 1)

Both of these 20th Century theorists describe play as an activity inherent to humans (and to other animals; Huizinga begins his essay with an emphasis on the idea that gameplay is an historical predecessor of culture, as “animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing”), and of games as a mediation of the play instinct, stress the simulation aspect of all games. Games have rules, but the rules only apply within the confines of the game; they are thus both real rules and simulated rules—in their structures, they are related to, but not identical to, the kinds of rules and structures, both explicit and implicit, that we encounter in our daily lives. This is to say, games are a medium, in the sense of “a channel or system of communication, information, or entertainment.” (Definitions of “medium” in this and the following paragraphs come from the tenth edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.)

In some games, this simulation aspect is more overt than in others. The boardgames Clue and Monopoly, for instance, both tell kinds of narrative stories, while more representationally abstract games like chess and go mediate power relationships in less narrativized ways. Games can thus be understood in terms of their social functions. “Often,” write James F. Smith and Vicki Abt, “the games we play mirror, if only obliquely, our real lives, and in the context of play the suspense, conflict, and uncertainty of life can become easier to manage.”(1984, 124)

A pinball machine’s lights and other forms of attraction often include representational or narrative elements, some of which can be activated through gameplay. An October 1941 article in the New York Times elaborates on the importance of narrative representation to the design and development of new pinball machines:

Here’s how a new pinball machine might see the light of day: The inventor reports to work in the morning and realizes that by the end of the week he has to submit a new design to the boss. He picks up the morning paper in search of a clue; most of the domestic news that morning seems to be about Selective Service training. That’s it—a new game called Draftee! He works feverishly, designing a board in which a manly looking youth in soldier’s uniform will go through the manual of arms and peel potatoes when electrical impulses are touched off by the contact of a steel ball and wire bumpers. (Shalett 1941)

Pinball machines, then, are also a medium in that they are a “material or technical means of artistic expression.” Contemporary cultural concerns, in the case of the possibly hypothetical game described above, are abstracted, articulated, and put into motion within the relatively safe but potentially emotionally charged context of the pinball machine. Pinball machines are also a medium in another important way, in that they are a “condition or environment in which something may function or flourish.” Perhaps even more so than broadcast media or storage media, pinball machines and other games are environments for potential expressive action on the part of those who engage with them.

Pinball gameplay itself can be seen to have representational qualities; a 1973 article in a sociological journal calls the game a “synecdoche of everyday experience” and finds that the game’s representational features “serve to socialize players into adult roles in a competitive society.” (Manning 1973, 333; 355) Not mentioned in this article but perhaps important to the roles of such games in society is the aspect of disavowal; a game, as one says, is “just a game.” Although this seems to be precisely what gives games their exploratory power, it is also part of what keeps them from being taken seriously, especially by those who are not playing. In the early 1940s, Fiorello LaGuardia was not playing.

Figure 1. Image from the story in New York Times, January 23, 1942, reporting on the pinball ban.

Moral corruption and gambling

The idea that pinball was a morally corrupting activity had much to do with people’s existing negative associations about adult—or even young-adult—gameplay. “The pinball,” announced Benjamin M. Day, the president of the Society for the Prevention of Crime in 1942, “is step-brother to the slot machine and has always been a heavy contributor to youthful delinquency. The schoolboy who uses his lunch money on a pinball machine frequently steals to make up the deficit.” (NYT 23 Jan 1942) Forty years earlier, a generation of adults had worried about the corrupting influence of arcade amusements on their own children; forty years later, a similar moral panic would play out with regard to video games. (Huhtamo 2005)

Perhaps more worrisome still was the game’s association with gambling. This association came, in part, from lingering worries about the legacy of slot machines, which had recently been banned in the New York City area. Although pinball machines did not directly pay out money for high scores, there were claims that some establishments would use them as gambling machines, and that some proprietors would give out cash in exchange for high scores or “free games” won on the machines. Lawyer Donald M. Wascombe, who represented Teaneck Township in its battle against pinball games, made a strange argument for the games’ status as gambling devices: “Men and boys are not going to stand around sticking nickels in a wall without getting money back…it may be that youth has so deteriorated that it has become a practice, but if so [they should] have their heads examined.” (NYT 9 Oct 1941) Wascombe’s flawed line of reasoning (which completely elides the content of the games themselves) is essentially: gambling is a scourge, but giving money away is crazy. Therefore, to say that pinball games are not gambling is to call the young men of New York crazy. Wascombe is not prepared to do that; are you? To ban the machines, however, seems to have required a legal claim that the use of the machines is, itself, an act of gambling. Nationwide, this claim took two significant forms: that pinball was a game of chance and not a game of skill, and that free games constituted a form of property.

The property status of free games was hotly debated, with courts in a number of states ruling, according to local property laws, on whether to win a free game was to acquire a possession. In Missouri, for instance, a trial court ruled that a pinball machine is a gambling device because of that state’s definition of a gambling device as any machine “adopted, devised and designed for the purpose of playing any game of chance for money or property,” but this decision was reversed an appeal, as the appeals court found that “a free game cannot be classified as property since the mere permission to use an amusement device does not amount to anything of value.”(Virginia Law Review 1950) One might ask, then, what it is that a free game amounts to. Is it a simulation of value, meaningful only within the context of the game’s play? If so, is it less valuable than a game for which one has paid? Donald Wascombe, one might venture to guess, might have agreed with the court’s phrasing, but not its decision; according to his logic, it is the very lack of value that the court cites that decisively categorizes pinball machines as gambling devices.

Such property-based debate was unnecessary in New York, however, as the city ruled against the game on the grounds that it was based on chance and not skill, and that it thus must be a form of gambling. “The combination of competition and chance, skill and luck,” write Smith and Abt, “is characteristic of the games played by most Americans.” There are “games of pure chance, such as a lottery, and games of skill, such as chess,” but most games fall somewhere on a continuum between the two. (1984, 125) The city of New York took it upon itself to determine where along this continuum pinball lay.

According to a pair of electrical engineers (both Police Department employees, it might be noted) called in as witnesses against the pinball industry, pinball in New York in 1942 was purely a game of chance. Engineer Norman Boyle testified that “the pin ball operator was able to manipulate pins and plugs on the machine so that the game no longer resolved itself as a game of skill,” and that the game “could be changed merely by pulling a wire.”(NYT 22 January 1942) This is another strange distinction to make; how does the mutability of the parts of a system of rules reflect upon the nature of the system as a whole? Whatever its logical validity, the testimony of Boyle and others seems to have been sufficient. The game was banned on January 21, and seizures of the machines seem to have begun that very day.

The skill/chance distinction was central to a number of pinball bans that were enacted around the country in the years following the New York ban. The “degree” of chance involved was under intense scrutiny; in New Jersey, a judge held the “predominant element of the game to be chance” and thus enacted a ban. “The pinball machines…are nothing but…mechanical gambling devices,” said Justice Joseph B. Perskie, “The fact that…some…of the 25,000 inhabitants of [Teaneck] township failed to see any illegal use made of the machines [is evidence only that] their gambling instinct blinded them to the obvious.” (NYT 25 February 1942) Like Wascombe’s argument, Perskie relies heavily on the “I know it when I see it” approach later invoked by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in regard to pornography. To Wascombe and Perskie, pinball just felt like gambling, possibly because they were personally insensitive to, uninterested in, or simply unexposed to its expressive aspects.

This is not to say, by any means, that pinball was never used for gambling. There is plentiful evidence that the machines were employed for betting, both in personal contests of skill and in more institutionalized ways. Players might compete against one another for high scores, betting money on their relative proficiencies. Owners of pinball venues, too, might set up betting systems. “Today’s pinball machines,” write Arthur J. Bilek and Alan S. Ganz,

are a major source of gambling revenue. They are capable of constant and surreptitious use as gambling devices when the owner or lessee of a pinball machine elects to reward the player with cash in place of the replays he has won. The owner or lessee then automatically erases the replays from the machine. (1965, 432)

This technique was apparently descended from earlier machines’ more overt connection to monetary exchange, according to an historian writing anonymously due to his or her connection to slot machine investigations:

In 1934…pinball machines were constructed to pay out cash for winning scores. [These models] were prohibited in most cities. The newer models were then designed to pay off in slugs (redeemable over the counter), and when this subterfuge did not work, machines were built which ejected tickets for winning scores…These gambling features were soon abandoned, and by 1937 or 1938 the “replay” or “free play” machine made its appearance…As first devised, the machine included a meter which permitted the location owner [to redeem the free plays for cash or merchandise]. (Anonymous 1950, 68)

The meters described by this author disappeared quickly, however, as pinball companies realized that they provided anti-pinball advocates with argumentative ammunition. Aside from this practical consideration, it was becoming increasingly clear that pinball machines were viable as pure amusement devices, and that their future, both as legal objects and as popular novelty devices, relied on this fact.

Mob ties

In 1941, the pinball industry operated on a four-tiered system. At the production tier, games were designed and assembled. There were around a dozen major production firms, most of them in Chicago. Then, between 300 and 400 wholesale firms at the distribution level would buy the games and sell them to the next level, the operators, who would place them around the area at the location level, in businesses that would keep around half of the money taken in by the machines. (Shalett 1941) There appears to have been an organized crime presence up and down this system, especially present at the more-accessible lower tiers of operation and location. Some schemes involved collusion between members of the pinball industry and local officials. In March of 1941, Yonkers Republican ward leader Patrick Fitzgerald, former deputy sheriff of Westchester County, was charged with seeking bribes from pinball operators; the accusation included intimations that Yonkers Mayor John J. Condon was involved in the scheme. Fitzgerald quickly confessed and then said that he had been working on Condon’s behalf, seeking $1500 payoffs from operators in exchange for the “passage of a Yonkers ordinance licensing pinball machines.”(NYT 21 March 1941) Condon testified at the trial and asserted his own innocence with the phrase “Patty, you must be crazy.”(NYT 25 March 1941) Fitzgerald was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison, but his sentence was immediately suspended. (NYT 28 March 1941) Condon, it seems, was never prosecuted.

Sometimes, the criminal element came from outside the pinball industry, drawn in by the promise of cashing in on the popularity of the games. In July of 1941, David Hendrickson of Valley Stream and John Peters of New York City were convicted of running “‘sham and dummy’ organizations that were formed as part of a scheme to force operators of pinball machines to pay fees of $1 a month for each machine.”(NYT 1 August 1941) Hendrickson had formed the “Nassau-Suffolk Recreational Association, Inc.,” and Peters worked on behalf of the union Local 1199 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. In exchange for a $1 monthly fee, to be split 85-15 between the association and the union, local pinball machine operators would receive a label saying that the machine was serviced by union labor. If they did not comply, the venues would be picketed by the union; however, the union was “not concerned with the upkeep of the machines and assigned a repair man to each machine merely as a ‘cover.’ No question was raised as to his qualifications as an electrician.” (NYT 19 April 1941) The two men involved did not get off as easily as did Fitzgerald; Hendrickson received a seven-and-a-half-year sentence in Sing Sing Prison; Peters was sentenced to five to ten years.

Material redemption

The visibility of these criminal cases and many others like them surely helped LaGuardia in his efforts to maintain public opinion against pinball. Arguments about the games being tied to corruption and being morally corrupting themselves were complemented by assertions that the machines, as objects, represented immoral expenditure of material resources. Claims about the games’ gambling uses represented a criticism of their functions; corruption claims extended this criticism to the games’ societal contexts. Accusations that the machines themselves were materially corrupt extended the criticism in the opposite direction, away from societal context and toward the ontological.

America, after its long lead-up to and eventual entry into World War II, was materially strapped. The war effort, from its beginning, was also an enormous reuse and recycling effort. Pinball machines were being produced in large numbers, and industrial production on such a scale was regarded as a massive waste of increasingly scarce and valuable materials. Mayor LaGuardia, in an installment of his regular radio talk, launched into a diatribe about how many police uniform buttons—seventy-seven—could be made from the brass inside a pinball machine. (NYT 18 May 1942) Playing the machines was seen as a monetary waste, with a judge laying into a man for spending money on pinball during wartime, when he could have been buying defense bonds: “I am fining you,” announced the judge, “because you have encouraged a crime by playing the machine. Instead of wasting your money this way, you should have entrusted it to the government.”(NYT 29 January 1942) The sudden incongruity between wartime needs and a game, already despised by LaGuardia, that seemed to put its materials to trivial use, surely contributed to the pinball ban’s finally being enacted less than two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Even before the ban, some redemptive quality was found in the fact that government revenue could be gained through the taxation of the machines; after the enactment of a tax on pinball and slot machines on October 1, 1941, the government announced resultant revenues of almost five million dollars for the last three months of that year. After the ban, pinball machine parts were used to support the war effort. The balls from the first wave of seized machines in New York went into the building of four 2000-pound aerial bombs. (NYT 22 February 1942) This repurposing was kept in the popular discourse by a tireless effort from LaGuardia. “We feel that it is infinitely preferable,” the mayor said, “that the metal in these evil contraptions be manufactured into arms and bullets which can be used to destroy our foreign enemies.”(NYT 29 January 1942) Components of the machines were also “converted for use in technical training and aptitude tests at the Army Air Force technical training command in Greensboro, North Carolina. (NYT 7 March 1943) “In each machine,” wrote the National Secretary of the American Association of Scientific Workers National in a letter to the New York Times, “there is a treasure of electrical equipment, many of these devices being of types which are used in the communications field. [Pieces of this equipment] are worth far more than one hundred dollars during peacetime and are priceless now.” (Grundfest 1942)

On the home front, some disassembled machines were used for educational purposes. “These machines,” explained psychologist Dr. Bernard Reiss of Hunter College, “contain invaluable pieces of materials needed in the laboratory. They have electric transformers, relays, motors, screws, fuses, contact wire, plywood, and other scarce objects.” (NYT 8 October 1942) One Times article in particular openly reflects LaGuardia’s sentiments about the machines and the necessity of their material redemption. “The garish pinball machine,” the article begins

that used to take $20,000,000 a year in nickels from gullible New Yorkers is now serving higher education as a source of vital electrical and mechanical equipment…Little did the idle player know…that inserting a nickel in a pinball machine slot opened up a wealth of electrical equipment and apparatus for conditioning experiments, tests on reactions to various stimuli and war research. (10 October 1942)

In perhaps the ultimate material redemption of pinball machines, board parts were reused in the manufacture of a safety device for the protection of blind seamstresses sewing for the war effort. “An electric light bulb, similar to an automobile headlight, and a magnet are two articles taken from the outlawed machine.” This sensitive equipment helped to keep the seamstresses from hurting themselves on the job; “the device brings the sewing machine to a complete and sudden stop the moment an operator’s hand or finger approaches dangerously near the needle.” The device was touted as having great potential for promoting employment opportunities for the blind. According to co-inventor J.O. Kleber of the American Foundation for the Blind, “By eliminating danger of injuries we hope that post-war as well as wartime employment will be increased for sightless workers.”(NYT 1 July 1943) The material redemption of pinball machines was thus extended beyond immediate resource gathering and wartime use. That, a full year and a half after the ban, an article about a new device for protecting the blind was framed in terms of the device’s use of pinball machine parts, rather than of the device’s own utility, is a telling testament to the prominence that the transubstantiation of these immoral machines enjoyed in the popular discourse.

The end of the ban

The pinball ban in New York City lasted for an astonishingly long time. It was not until 1976, after a number of waves of protest and lobbying by pinball interests, from an attempted “invasion” of the city by “big money interests from Chicago” in the 1940s (NYT 1 July 1943) to more legislative attempts in later decades, that a court found that the ban could be overturned on the grounds that pinball was indeed a game of skill, a position for which manufacturers and players had been arguing since before the ban was enacted. On a pair of pinball machines in a courtroom, a player named Roger Sharpe “proved the point by racking up enormous scores,”(NYT 23 January 1977) thus convincing much of the City Council that a ban based on pinball being a game of chance was unreasonable.

Even after the City Council approved the legalization of the machines by a 30 to 5 margin, old LaGuardian rhetorics resurfaced. “On the surface, it appears to be an innocent sort of device,” said Arthur J. Katzman, a Democratic Councilman from Queens. “But it will bring rampant vice and gambling back to the city. The machine is easily changeable into a gambling device.” Another negative voter, Miriam Friedlander of Manhattan, said she was torn on the bill because she had been a pinball addict earlier in life, a comment that provoked teasing from the presiding Councilman about her age. (NYT 14 May 1976)

Pinball never regained the notoriety it had in the early 1940s, and it certainly did not lead to Councilman Katzman’s hypothesized “rampant vice and gambling.” In some ways, the game machines never had a chance to corrupt the youth of the 1970s. Pinball’s resurgence in New York City came on the eve of a revolution in play; in 1976, video games were beginning their long ascendance to cultural prominence. Pinball, which seemed to become outdated just as it was getting its second chance, never fully recovered, and the popularity of video games today is unlike anything pinball ever enjoyed. Like many game media, video games face skepticism about their expressive capacities and their legitimacy as activities and as objects of study. As with pinball, the widespread fascination with video games and the vast array of responses to both their content and their societal roles warrants analysis and theorization, both of their expressive and enactive capabilities and of their places in the history of popular media.

We now find ourselves in another era of American war, and video games, like pinball machines in the 1940s, have been subject to a military repurposing. This time, however, it has not come in the use of their raw materials and component parts for weapons, but rather from their use as training and recruiting tools. The enormously popular game America’s Army, available for free on the Army’s website, is used to try to interest young game players in the current war effort. Recruiters have targeted video arcades as well, trying to find the next generation of servicemen for our country. A cynic might see this as a reflection of diminished national standards, in that the military is now recruiting the very degenerates it once lamented. A more redemptive reading of this development is that games—in the many forms they can take—are at last being recognized as powerfully expressive, persuasive, and rhetorical media. The hypothetical pinball game Draftee!, with its narrative thematization of the very real risk of selective service, has been replaced by America’s Army, which places the player in a more active role: more active in play mechanics as well as in engagement with narrative themes. Whatever one’s take on the morality of America’s Army (and of America’s Army itself), the increasing respect afforded to games makes their recent past seem increasingly distant. Will there ever be another youth craze, one wonders, that will lead one of America’s leading politicians to wield the destructive power of the sledgehammer as a rhetorical tool?


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Author Biography

Daniel Reynolds is a PhD candidate in the Department of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He holds an MFA in Film Studies from Boston University and a BA in Linguistics from the University of Oregon. He has recent and forthcoming publications in Applied Semiotics/Sémiotique appliquée, Fibreculture, and Screening the Past. His dissertation examines emergent relationships between cognition and rule-based virtual worlds.