"How Do You Win Pinball?"

I recently had the pleasure of attending the excellent Southern Fried Gaming Expo in Atlanta, GA for the first time. It’s a wonderfully well put together event, with the centerpiece being a massive free play arcade filled with both retro and brand-new arcade games and pinball tables. The noise and flashing lights in the dim conference hall brought back many vivid memories of the old days in the arcade as a kid.

But one experience there sent me down a train of thought that I figured would be worth bringing up here in a post. Some members of my family also attended the convention, including my six-year-old nephew. He’s pretty typical of kids his age today, in that he enjoys video games and digital entertainment, especially Minecraft. We had hoped he would enjoy messing around with some of the retro games that I and his father grew up with, but I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that the opposite happened.

It was summed up for me in one question he asked after we had played pinball for a little while: “How do you win pinball?”

In the moment, of course, we told my nephew that pinball isn’t really a game that you “win” (unless you are playing against other people), it’s more that you’re just trying to get as high a score as you can before your game is over. Honestly, he seemed bored with that answer. Now, I do think it’s a little much to expect a six-year-old to take to pinball; it’s a type of game that was never designed for kids, and requires quick reflexes and planning to play well.

But I think his question is still extremely reflective of the difference between game design from my childhood and the games being put out today. Certainly, I’m going to be very biased towards older games, since that’s what I grew up playing and love. And it’s also tough to honestly analyze how I felt as a kid about games compared to how I would have felt as a kid playing modern ones.

In my mind, the crux of the changes I’ve seen in game design comes down to a question of reward and the gameplay loop. Older games, like the arcade classics and pinball tables I was playing last weekend, give a simple loop: you put in a quarter, you get a limited amount of enjoyable gameplay, and then the game ends leaving you wanting more (at least that’s what the designer hoped). As arcade games got more sophisticated, they started to actually have final levels, bosses, and endings, but they were rarely seen.

The real attraction there is the gameplay itself. The quick reflexive motions, ramping intensity, and quick planning of a game like Robotron 2084 is supremely satisfying in and of itself. The reward is playing the game, and nothing else. And like any great arcade game, you are destined to lose eventually.

It seems like so many modern games focus on just the opposite. Rewards come as level ups, increased stats, unlocking new items, and messages like “You Won!” Those things aren’t necessarily bad things, of course; some of my favorite games that I play regularly feature leveling systems and unlocks. But the gameplay loop is different.

Instead of playing the game for the joy of playing it, it too often feels like you’re just meant to endure the gameplay long enough to cash in a reward. A great example is a game I’ve spent far too many hours playing, World of Warcraft. Speaking from a non-pvp perspective, I don’t think there are many people outside of ardent fanboys who would say the raw gameplay of WoW is particularly fun. You move your character to a spot, right click on an enemy, and occasionally push a key. Yes, there’s some strategy involved, but for the most part you’re almost on autopilot. And if you reach an enemy or situation you can’t get past through your own skill, you can usually just wait until you are a higher level and then defeat it.

The reward in modern games like this comes from that drug-like hit of a XP boost. A little ding sound and a pop-up message. It absolutely scratches an itch deep inside our brains.

It’s the same itch that a slot machine reaches. And junk food, for that matter. At the risk of sounding too critical, it’s self-indulgent, and does nothing but train players to expect regular rewards no matter what they do. And that’s intentional on the part of game designers.

It used to be that a designer wanted to get your quarters, and to do so, they tried to put together the most attractive gameplay experience they could to keep you coming back. But now, game designers don’t want your quarters, they want your virtual currency, and they get it for the promise of simply speeding up meaningless leveling experiences and unlocking useless cosmetic pieces.

My thinking goes towards the game of golf. Yes, golf can be played competitively in matches and tournaments, just like pinball can. But also like pinball, the lasting attraction of golf is that it is a game where you simply compete with yourself. Each time you play, you are just trying to improve yourself. Get that higher score, or well, lower score in the case of golf.

Again, I’m guilty of enjoying these modern style games just as much as everyone else. But what’s really got me thinking is the type of game player they tend to foster. Namely, one what asks the question “How do you win pinball?” Where is my reward? When is that itch scratched? Is that healthy? Is that good? I honestly don’t know, but it feels like it isn’t.

So I suppose my grand conclusion is this: if you’re a parent or family member looking to get your little ones into gaming, start them with the old stuff, and the old stuff only. Teach them to test themselves and find that as its own reward. Maybe they’ll win some pinball tournaments.

And spend their winnings on some new hats in Fortnite.