Interaction with American Society: Post World War II

From 1947 to 1967, wages doubled [1]. With this increase in wages, many teenagers found themselves playing pinball to spend their time and money [2]. During the Great Depression, children were more likely to graduate high school, because of the lack of work available for them [3]. By the time World War II ended in 1945, the participation of children and teenagers in the work force was limited. The “lack of productivity” resulted in teenagers forming “their own distinct forms of popular culture” [4]. The increase in wages as well as the increase of leisure time contributed to the increased popularity of pinball and the arcade scene, especially among teenagers.

Penny Arcade, a group of African American fair goers enjoys the Penny Arcade at the Missouri State Fair.
Amusement Arcades were places that housed coin operated machinery and games, including Pinball. Alongside pinball, many of the first arcades housed the game of Skeeball, which was originally was played outside and required a lot more strength to play in comparison to the game we know today. The original arcades were often referred to as penny arcades, patrons would be able to attend a variety of stations and could play these collections for either a penny or a nickle. [5] The first successful coin-operated game was called Baffle Ball and was created by Daniel Gottlieb in 1931. Many coin-operated machines were considered gambling, especially pinball because it was marketed as a game of chance. During this time Pinball embraced the “three classic elements of the generic definition of gambling: consideration, chance, and prize”. [6] In 1947, the inclusion of flippers made the game to appear to be more of a game of skill which in turn made the game appear to be more family friendly. [7]  Soon after, businesses started installing these machines to bring more consumers through, often becoming popular among youths in bigger cities. Eventually, pinball and other older games began to be replaced with electronic video games in the early 1970’s. The first ever coin-operated electronic video game was Galaxy Game and it was installed at Stanford University in 1971. Later, in 1972 Atari released the first commercially successful coin-operated electronic arcade game, Pong. Over 35,000 units of this game was sold, jump-starting the birth of the video game and leading in the new era of electronic game arcades, making pinball a thing of the past. [8]
By the end of 1974, there were more than fifteen different companies actively producing video game cabinets. [9]
Arcade Games, Several arcade games at DisneyQuest in Florida.

While invented in America, the influence of the pinball has been far-reaching. In 1969, the Who, a British Rock band, released a single titled, “Pinball Wizard.” According to an interview given in 2004, Pete Townshend created the song because a music critic had not been as impressed with the Who’s current project, “Tommy” [9]. Townshend shared that when he sarcastically asked if a song about pinball would get a good review from the critic, the critic responded, “Of course I would. Anything with pinball in it is fantastic!” [10] “Pinball Wizard” ended up being the Who’s second most popular single in America, reaching no. 19 on Billboard’s Hot 100 [11]. The popularity of the song “Pinball Wizard” demonstrates that pinball was more than just a game to play at the arcade. Despite the joke around which the song had been written, the popularity of the song suggests that Americans had a fondness for the game and valued those that were skilled at playing.


Pinball has also found its way into literature. Many poems and short stories include characters playing pinball or make references to the game. One poem that stood out to us is titled, “God, Reagan, and the Cosmic Pinball Machine,” by Ann Struthers. Published in the Minnesota Review in 1988, the poem contains vivid imagery about playing pinball. The first ten lines are as follows:

I see a gang of boys at Maybee’s Drug Store surround
the pinball machine, watch one boy play,
intense, as if he believes
in its painted green surface;
he pats its rainbow-colored sides,
one of his knees braced against its long, straight leg.
Releases the plunger that beats the colored marble,
sends it careening around the knobs and breakers.
He knows how much he can lean on it
before TILT flashes [12]

Struthers’ first ten lines create a powerful mental image of playing pinball. The reader can almost sense the intense concentration of the boy as he plays. Alongside the powerful imagery that Struthers’ employs, her poem also offers some insight in to gender stereotypes about girls from that time period. Lines 17-19 demonstrate this.


The girls observe, giggle. They don’t waste their money
on pinball. They buy cherry cokes, lipstick, mascara,
movie magazines bulging with romance [13]

These three lines from Struthers’ poem demonstrate the gender stereotype that girls were not interested in pinball or arcade games. Instead, the girls merely liked to watch the boys play and giggle as they watched, spending their money on make-up and romance.

Pinball’s incorporation into literature demonstrates the lasting impact of pinball in American culture. It has its place in America’s past, a game to be looked back on with nostalgia.

Hollywood Franchises

For years, pinball machines have been decorated to represent various movies and television shows. This is especially true with the new pinball machines being created today. The use of Hollywood franchises to decorate the machines could have attracted players to the game as well provide advertising for the movies and television shows to increase sales and ratings. There is not much research available about the decorating of the pinball machines, but The Strong: National Museum of Play has several images of advertisements of pinball machines depicting various Hollywood Franchises.

Star Trek Pinball Flyer
Star Trek the Next Generation Pinball Flyer
X Men Pinball
Stern X-Men Pinball Flyer

Unfortunately in today’s society, pinball is no longer as popular as it once was. The pinball industry took a severe hit upon the introduction of affordable console systems, like Xbox, which could be played at home [14].  Today, pinball has become a part of the past, a game that is looked back on with nostalgia. pinball machines have now become a collector’s item, just a simple search on Google will reveal how much many machines are worth today. One such search, conducted on March 29, 2017, under the term “pinball machine” reveals that some machines are being sold for thousands of dollars.  Central Park Funland, a Family Fun Center located in Fredericksburg, Virginia, lists pinball amongst the classic games they offer [15]. Pinball has been regulated to the status of “classic” in this newer age of video games.

Pinball, however, has not entirely disappeared from the gaming world. Many games include mini-games within them where the players have to play a few rounds of pinball in order to move on to the next level. The Apple AppStore has 100+ pinball games to play on iPhones and iPads. Pinball, while not as popular as it once was, has adapted to the world of digital gaming.


1. Carly A. Kocurek, Coin Operated Americans: Rebooting Boyhood at the Video Game Arcade. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 27.

2. Ibid.

3. Karen Sternheimer, Pop Culture Panics: How Moral Crusaders Construct Meanings of Deviance and Delinquency. (New York: Routledge, 2015), 63.

4. Ibid.

5. Peter Rubin, “Check Out this Glorious Colorful History of Arcade Games,” Wired, May 13, 2014

6. King, Rufus. “The Rise and Decline of Coin-Machine Gambling.” The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 55, no. 2 (1964): 199-207. doi:10.2307/1140748.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Laura June, “For Amusement Only: The life and death of the American Arcade,” The Verge, January 16, 2013

10. Dave Lifton, “The Day the Who (Reluctantly) Recorded ‘Pinball Wizard,’” Ultimate Classic Rock, February 7, 2015, accessed April 3, 2017.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ann Struthers, “God, Ronald Reagan, and the Cosmic Pinball Machine,” Minnesota Review 30, no. 1 (1988): 52 Project Muse.

14. Ibid.

15. Peter Zackariasson and Timothy L. Wilson, “Paradigm Shifts in the Video Game Industry,” Competitiveness Review 20, no. 2 (2010): 139 – 151. ProQuest.

16. Central Park Funland, Arcade Game Pricing, accessed April 3, 2017,

Images & Video

Hanke, Fred. G. Penny Arcade, photograph. Pettis, Missouri. Department of Agriculture, Missouri State Fair Collection. Missouri State Archives.

Howzit, Sam.  Arcade Games, photograph.  June 10, 2013. from Flickr Creative Commons. Florida.

Williams, Star Trek the Next Generation Pinball Flyer, printed paper, National Museum of Play. Rochester, New York. Accessed April 3, 2017.

Stern Pinball, Stern X-Men Pinball Flyer, Printed Paper, National Museum of Play. Rochester, New York. Accessed April 3, 2017.

The Who, “Pinball Wizard,” YouTube video, 3:02, posted by Treestone Films, January 13, 2009. Accessed April 3, 2017.