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Thursday, September 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 58.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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Pinball is once again trending in Madison
It's more than a game, it's kinetic art
on
Hilton Jones with the vintage pinball machines at Pooley's.
Credit:Ankur Malhotra

If "wedge head," "popper," "drop target" or "kickout hole" are terms you understand and you live in Madison, you probably know Hilton Jones. Jones started MadRollinPinball about three years ago to help promote pinball in Madison, and he's on a roll.

This is year three of MadRollinPinball, an annual pinball competition. "We take over the gymnasium at Pooley's and play pinball all of Friday night and all day Saturday," says Jones. "This year we will have at least 22 pinball games coming in for the event. Last year there were 16 games."

The group will donate all proceeds from the event, to take place Sept. 12-14, to charity.

The event continues to grow on the strength of the local pinball collectors who bring in their personal games. Even Jones doesn't exactly know which machines will show up until right before the event. But chances are good there will be a pinball game you like here.

The partially mechanized game of pinball has roots in the 19th-century game Bagatelle-Table, wherein players tried to knock balls around obstructions like pins with cues on a billiards-like board. This was later joined with a "ball shooter," which capitalized on the recently invented steel spring. In 1931 Automatic Industries released the coin-operated Whiffle Board, which was improved upon with a game called Ballyhoo, leading to the founding of Bally Manufacturing, which went on to dominate the coin-operated game industry.

These games were conceived of as akin to slot machines. They were made for gambling, and the business goal was always to collect coins. Variations on these machines thrived well into the 1970s.

But pinball -- electronics welded to physical objects -- took a hard knock when gaming companies began entirely digitizing the gaming console beginning with 1978's Space Invaders (made by Bally), which had a video screen and no moving parts other than the buttons.

Videogames still dominate the world's interest in mechanized gaming. But pinball is once again trending in Madison, and nationally. "There has been a strong resurgence in pinball over the past two years, and there are now many subcultures, from collecting to restoring to competitive play," says Jones. His local group hosts competitions that are recognized by the International Pinball Flipper Association, which ranks players throughout the world.

In addition to the annual competition, Jones and his posse have organized placement and maintenance of four games permanently at Pooley's to support Madison Pinball, an offshoot of MadRollinPinball. The group meets on the second Wednesday of every month at 6 p.m. at Pooley's for some friendly competition on those four games: Fun House, Space Shuttle, The Addams Family and Star Trek.

There might be 20 or 30 people there flipping their paddles on any given night. These are all classic games, and many (including Jones) cite The Addams Family as the best of all time.

It's beloved for its Thing, a hand that comes out of its box and magnetically grips the ball; its magnetic randomization of the playing surface; the game-only sound bites from the films' stars, Raul Julia and Angelica Huston; and the way the lower flippers sometimes snap to the theme song like fingers.

Pinball is a passion for this crew. "I grew up with pinball and spent a good deal of my lunch money and allowance playing pinball in local arcades when I was a kid, and that continued through college and graduate school," says Jones. "About three years ago I bought my first pinball machine for my own house, and, as many 'pinheads' joke, they multiplied rapidly."

Pinheads like talking shop, fixing games, and hanging out with pinball friends as much as playing. It's a bit like a group of car guys, but they fill their houses with pinball games rather than their garages with cars.

Their ranks are growing. "I love seeing new people 'get' pinball for the first time," says Jones. "Every time you play is a unique experience due to the random nature of the game. I think of it as kinetic art."

The slam of the paddles into steel balls, the whir and jangle of tiny mechanical parts moving in unison, the subtle goose you give the machine with your left hip, the audio and tactile feedback when you shoot the metal ball home into its slot -- there is something visceral about the feel of a good pinball game. Like vinyl records, it may be a format that got beat down for a while, but has emerged as a viable and permanent subculture -- at least in enlightened cities like Madison.


MadRollinPinball
Sept. 12-14, Pooley's
Ticket and registration information at madisonpinball.com; click on "MRP 2014" and "MRP Details."

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