Pinball enthusiasts hit the jackpot with revived interest in the 'kinetic, chaotic' game
Arcade owners introduce new fans to pinball machines, which were once maligned as gambling or even criminal
Games today can involve whole virtual worlds and a dizzying number of pixels, but some Canadians still opt for the tactile plunger of the pinball machine.
"Pinball is random, it's kinetic, it's chaotic, it's physical," said Seven Graylands, co-owner of the Seven's Pinballorama arcade in Cornwall, P.E.I.
"You can have two machines that are the same title side-by-side, and they're both going to play just a little bit different," he told The Current.
"The target that the ball hits is going to rebound a little bit different ... there's little imperfections in the play field — that's what people like about it."
By contrast, he said that while modern video games do take skill to play and complete, they often give players the same pre-programmed experience.
Graylands and his partner Sophia Kreuzkamp opened their arcade in 2022, and have loved welcoming people who have never played pinball before.
"It is really interesting to see people get pulled into that mechanical world … getting hooked on the different machines," said Kreuzkamp.
Pinball emerged around 1930, based on the French game of bagatelle, which involves manoeuvring a ball into holes on a wooden board, around pins placed as obstacles. Early pinball games didn't have flippers or electricity, but eventually became synonymous with bright lights, sound effects and colourful graphics.
The game has seen a resurgence in popularity in the last decade, including a spike in sales of pinball machines during the pandemic. One of the world's largest manufacturers, Stern Pinball in Chicago, reported a five-fold sales increase. Pinball machines on Stern's website are priced at $4,999.99 US, before shipping and taxes.
Graylands and Kreuzkamp bought their first second-hand pinball machine in 2014, a table called Hardbody that dates back to 1987. It cost $800, and Graylands said they "played the hell out of it."
They followed that up by purchasing Alien Poker a month later, and Riverboat Gambler the following spring. By the end of 2015, they had eight machines, and were getting compliments on their collection from friends and other pinball enthusiasts.
"That's when we decided, let's see if we can open an arcade," Graylands said.
But living in Mission, B.C., at the time, the couple ran into opposition from local officials, who passed a bylaw to prevent the opening of not just arcades, but also things like tattoo parlours, flea markets,and stores that sell marijuana and marijuana paraphernalia.
Laws against arcades were once commonplace — until 2017, Montreal prohibited "amusement machines" in places where alcohol is served. Across North American cities in the 1940s and 1950s, officials banned the machines in the belief they were gambling devices, that funnelled money to organized crime.
Deciding to move east, the couple packed up about 70 pinball machines and set about opening their arcade in P.E.I.
The arcade now boasts around 80 machines — some dating back as far as the 1930s — and is home to a monthly competitive pinball league.
Losing yourself in competitive pinball
Pinball competitions have increased five-fold over the last decade, according to the International Flipper Pinball Association, the games' governing body. More than 23,000 people have taken part in official competitions in 2022, the association told The Current.
In London, Ont., Julie Dorssers has been playing — and winning — competitively for about 10 years, both in local leagues and against international players at tournaments in the U.S.
She first started playing in college, where she didn't drink alcohol and was often the designated driver for her friends.
"By about 11 o'clock, everybody's saying the same thing and, you know, they're a little bit pickled and tipsy. So I would go play the pinball machine at the bar," she said.
"I would meet people … we'd play together. I really enjoyed that."
Dorssers is a massage therapist, but enjoys the fact the pinball community is focused on one thing.
"Nobody talks about their job, they talk about pinball. So it's a really good way to get away from the daily stresses of life," she said.
"You have to focus on the game … I can lose myself in pinball."
That focus is important for play, said pinball machine repairman Corey Cooke, despite the fact some people think it's a game of chance.
"The geometry is a lot like billiards, in that you're using the flippers to aim the ball where you want it to go," said Cooke, a friend of Dorssers in London, Ont.
Cooke was an audio-visual technician at King's University College, but started fixing pinball machines around 2008, for some extra cash.
"There's quite a collector community out there for these types of things," he said. "And so the phone started to ring and I started to go and do more and more house calls."
One of the rarest machines he's encountered is a Varkon, which he valued at about $10,000. Only 90 were made in the early 1980s by Williams Electronics.
He also once repaired an Addams Family pinball machine, which the owner's father had bought new around the time of the 1992 movie.
It's one of the most popular tables of all time, with over 20,000 units produced. But this machine was in excellent condition because it was always privately owned by one family, and never used by the public in an arcade. When Cooke told the owner how much collectors would love to get their hands on it, he said she was floored.
"I don't own anything collectible. I'm not a collector of things," she told him. "But my dad would be tickled pink to know that he made a good choice back then."
Spotting a gap in the market, he decided to turn a hobby he was passionate about into a full-time business.
"I found the idea of owning your own pinball machine fascinating, like that you could own something that was supposed to be in the arcade," he said.
He loves getting to repair these broken machines, "destined for the scrap heap," he said.
"To take something broken like that and make it work again ... it's a bit of a rush."
Audio produced by Alison Masemann.