Pinball has Been Gentrified

Gentrification:  the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents

I know I’m going to raise hackles and ruffle feathers a bit with this one, but what I thought was going to be a passing fad has become the new reality in a hobby that I love. Pinball, as a hobby, has become gentrified.

We’ve seen a lot of new blood come into the pinball hobby over the last few years. Through the late ’90s and early ’00s, it looked like pinball was going to continue to dwindle and recede from the public eye. It’s not to say that the hobby was dying, but the commercial viability of pinball was in doubt and there just weren’t a lot of new people coming into the hobby. Today, things are totally different. We have more and more new people buying pinball machines, we have several pinball manufacturers that are running healthy businesses, and pinball on location is on the rise. And this shouldn’t be a bad thing, right? Well, while it’s been good for business, it’s been downright distressing for many of the old timers in the hobby.

The New Blood Collector vs. The Longtime Hobbyist

If not for the money infusion brought into the hobby by the new blood pinball machine collector, NIB pinball could very well have died off. With operators decreasing in number, NIB sales weren’t exactly healthy just a few short years ago. Today, each new release has a willing and ready buying audience, and games are selling in numbers that are more in line with pinball’s better days, even with the prices of current games skyrocketing. I do appreciate being able to see a steady stream of new games.

But the lack of taste, tact, respect, and knowledge that many of these new bloods bring makes dealing with them hard. These new collectors value theme and collectible nature over gameplay and fun factor. When a new game is being announced, these new collectors tend to value the theme first and foremost, the art second, the sound third, the number of LE versions produced fourth, what others will think of their purchase fifth, what video clips show up on the LCD sixth, how many layers of clearcoat it has seventh, and a few other things before we get down to questioning whether or not it’s any fun at probably a distant 12th. 

The new blood collector has a pinball memory that extends back to Stern’s Lord of the Rings at the earliest, with some passing knowledge of the “A list” games from the late-era Bally/Williams catalog. Despite this fundamental lack of pinball knowledge, they’ll be the first to tell you all the reasons why LCD displays are a true “game changer for pinball” and playing any games with DMD, alphanumeric, or *gasp* mechanical reels, is a giant waste of one’s life.

The new blood collector is also an aggravating individual to deal with when buying or selling a machine. Everything they have for sale is listed above NIB pricing and they’re quick to point out that they’ve managed to shoved three aisles of Toys R Us products under the playfield, all the superbright purple LEDs they’ve put in the GI, their wicked cool topper, and that the game has less than 300 plays. Heck, less than 100 plays is common. But when you’re listing your well cared for machine, they want extreme close ups of the shooter lane, because if there’s an even tiny mark, it’s hard pass for them (or they want to knock like $1000 of asking price).

ugly pinball machine

This was shared with pride. Maybe if the owner spent as much time playing as adding ugly LEDs, they could take down that 3rd place high score by now.

The new blood collector actually “collection shames” other people online. They get into a little disagreement online and they’ll actually look up the other’s collection and pull the “no wonder you don’t like game A, you can only afford game B” or some crap like that. I wish I could say this was rare, but no, it’s all too common. If you disagree with them, they’ll accuse you of not being able to afford the games they have, and that’s why you don’t like their gimped out Batman ’66 SLE, not just that it actually might play like garbage and be overpriced by 300%.

To put it clearly, the new blood collector tends to be a know nothing know-it-all with a loud voice. Sure, they have money, but they’re miserable to be around. They put some shine into the hobby with their money infusion, but they trample over so much in that process.

The longtime hobbyist, however, has a much deeper appreciation for the different eras, styles, and types of pinball. They’re more easily pleased and willing to pick up a game with some mechanical or cosmetic blemishes and put the time into repairing and restoring them. The hobbyist will play the games that come through their homes or nearby locations extensively, and they value games for how enjoyable they are to play. Sure, the hobbyist enjoys a game with a fun theme and they appreciate great art and sound, but gameplay is king.

Also of great importance, the hobbyist cares about the pinball community. There’s a welcoming attitude in regards to league play, to discussion, and to differing opinions. If someone’s first game is a Gottlieb Genesis, rather than pointing out how it’s a “Frankenstein ripoff with a horrible translite,” they hobbyist will point out that it’s a highly underrated game and an excellent starter machine. The hobbyist as played Genesis and appreciates it, the new blood collector doesn’t see color changing LEDs or an LCD and scoffs.

The Ignorant and Militant Fanboy

The hardest thing to deal with in the hobby right now is the ignorant militant. You have people who are downright aggressive in trampling over anybody else’s opinions that it makes it hard to have a pros and cons conversation about anything. If you don’t happen to share the most glowing review of a game, rather than respecting your opinion, twenty owners of that game will make sure you are painted as an idiot and a poor pinball player. Heaven forbid that you just don’t like what they do (not that they would know, they just collect). The opposite is true too. If you like the wrong game, look out, you’ll have clearcoated pitchforks and HUO torches at your door.

The disagreement isn’t the problem though. It’s that well-reasoned opinions get so thoroughly and immediately dismissed in favor of a “tribe before truth” mentality. I took a beating for sharing that I didn’t like The Hobbit. I had emails, private messages, and even website hack attempts for having the audacity to state that The Hobbit would end up as a disappointment over time. I gave my reasons (overly simple layout, too much side to side real estate, overly complex ruleset for the physical design, etc.), but they’re totally ignored. All that mattered is that I didn’t agree, so I was a miserable enemy that needed to be attacked. 

So What are we Losing?

True gentrification pushes something out to make way for the new, shiny, and trendy.  And yes, that process is evident in pinball. Where it was once common to have lengthy discussion on all eras of pinball, it’s really tough to find much space for it now. Take a look at Pinside. Threads on EMs, classic solid state games, late ’80s games, and even some early DMD games are starting to disappear almost entirely. Everything is centered around the latest releases and the myriad mods available for them. Try to open up a discussion about Jacks Open strategy and you’ll get crickets; but if you want to talk about a lockdown bar sticker for Aerosmith, you’ll be overran by comments.

We’re rapidly losing our ability to discuss repair, restoration, play strategies, leagues, and tournaments. People are just simply more interested in dissecting the impact on a game’s value due to a blemish 1/8th of an inch long on a head decal than they are talking about that same game in regards to its gameplay. It’s pure insanity.

We can’t even rate games without childish manipulation and mind games. I’d rather not get into that, but it’s a whole other depth of drama that just doesn’t need to exist. 

Pinball is losing its soul. To appease the new blood (and also new money) collector, designers are putting out more and more generic designs to save money in order to chase themes. Because in the end, theme is the greatest reason people are buying these days. Pinball machines are the metaphorical books judged by their covers, and we’re losing so much variety and diversity in our games because it no longer pays off to try different approaches.

Today we also found out that Pinball Outreach Project (POP) will be closing their HQ location in Portland, Oregon due to a lack of financial support. While POP will still continue to operate and do great things, I feel like this hobby’s recent growth and cash infusion could have easily helped to support POP better. There is certainly enough money to support flashy mods that impair your vision, cabinet clearcoating, custom toppers that clash with the game’s art package, purple LEDs, and alternate translites that look like they were designed by horny 13-year old boys who just scored a pirated copy of Photoshop. POP won’t fail, but smaller hobbies have done better at supporting their charitable arms better than we do, and that’s a real disappointing thing to have to own as a community.

I know a lot of this comes across as the angry old man shouting at kids to stay off the lawn, but it truly has been disheartening to watch a rich and diverse hobby get pared down and homogenized. And while it’s not as serious as actual gentrification in actual neighborhoods and communities, it is tough to swallow.

Traditional Attitudes Aren’t Dead

While it’s tough to find attitudes and more open minds in pinball these days than it ever has been, all is not lost. The longtime hobbyists are still there, even if they have been highly marginalized. Within and between the discussion threads showing off custom powder coated legs, you do have fantastic members of the community trying their darndest to just be great people. Ask a tech help question on Pinside and see how quickly Lloyd Olson answers the bell. Jump into your local pinball Facebook group (they’re out there, go look), and ask if anybody wouldn’t mind having a visitor over to play pinball. Someone will speak up and invite you over. Go play in a tournament and see how quickly people praise your wins and console you through your losses.

When it comes to playing or maintaining pinball, there are still many of us that are passionate about those things first in the hobby. You might have to look a little harder to find the pinball player and separate them from the collector (not that having a collection is a bad thing, but collecting for the sake of having rather than for the sake of playing is), but the players will be the ones to cast your lot with in this hobby. While the vast majority of discussion has veered away from play and maintenance, it can still be found; it just takes some effort.

If you’re new to pinball, try to remember what brought you in. You’re here to play. Don’t ever let any other aspect of this hobby supersede that. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying other aspects of pinball, but we desperately need more people who love playing first and foremost.

Note: I’d like to throw out some specific thank yous. There some amazing people in this hobby that really keep me sane. I know I’m going to forget some people here, and I’m sorry, but these are at the top of my pinball mind right now: Pinball Molly, Tommy and Taylor of This Flippin’ Podcast, Joe Zenkus, Evan Bingham, Belles and Chimes, Jessica DeNardo, the NiftyLED team, Dan and Holly Nikolich, Don Walton, Nick Baldridge, the Buffalo Pinball guys, Jack Danger, Bowen Kerins, the Sharpe family, the team, Project Pinball Charity, Gene X. Hwang, Pinball Outreach Project, everybody in the Salt Lake Area Pinballers, Jim Hale, Dr. John Cosson, the Peck family,  Ryan Claytor, Jon Chad, Stern Pinball, Robert Hoggard, Jersey Jack Pinball, Terry Dezwarte, Spooky Pinball (KT and Charlie, you’re truly inspirational), Lloyd Olson, J.J. Babich, Joe Newhart, Dan Burfield, anybody who is willing to drag machines to pinball shows/expos, pinball show organizers, Steve Bowden, Tim and Kristin Mezel, and possibly Anthony Lawson…we’ll see.