Pinball. The great American (mechanical) pastime. It’s about as innocent as gaming gets, especially compared to the blood, drugs and sex you find in video games. Yet bizarrely, for decades, pinball was actually declared illegal in some of America’s biggest cities, including New York and Los Angeles.
This piece originally appeared 4/4/12.
It had nothing to do with the content of the games. Most tables were based on harmless fluff. No, it had to do with a combination of factors, such as early machines being used for gambling, the mafia and stuffy old politicians simply not liking the things.
Let’s start with the gambling. Early pinball machines didn’t have flippers, meaning the movement of the ball was (tilting the table aside) almost entirely random. Many machines were also designed to reward the player with free games or even cash tokens if they hit certain targets. Given the fact the movement of the ball was random, and that attaining such feats required little to no skill, it was determined in 1939 that pinball machines would be made illegal in the city of Los Angeles.
The fact they were also making a lot of money off kids, as well as allegedly attracting the attention of the mafia, led to bans in other cities in the 1940s, such as Chicago and New York. In NYC the move was a pet project of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who actually had raids conducted to seize machines still in use throughout the city.
It’s important to note not all machines were banned. Manufacturers quickly became savvy enough to realise that removing the ability to win free games meant you couldn’t gamble, and were able to continue selling and installing modified machines with this feature removed. What this meant was that, in areas like New York, while the sale and public use of pinball machines declined, it wasn’t removed entirely.
These bans weren’t short-lived affairs, either; they lasted until well into the 1970s. Chicago took pinball off its naughty list in 1973. In 1974, LA’s ban was overturned when the Supreme Court declared it illegal, while in New York the machines were returned to legal status when pinball wizard Roger Sharpe showed a court that thanks to flippers and modern technology they were now entirely games of skill, and not chance.
The backpedals in Los Angeles and New York soon meant that similar bans elsewhere were quickly overturned, and all across America (or at least those places it had been banned; most other cities and towns hadn’t bothered), pinball machines were free to legally resume their place in arcades. Just in time for video games to drive them right back out again.