How to Be a (Human or Machine) Pinball Wizard

And why there's no Deep Blue of the arcade game.
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Kill Screen Magazine has a wonderful GIF guide to the moves you need to master to become a pinball wizard. For example, as illustrated above, the drop catch:

"The drop catch is similar to a bunt in baseball, where the player deadens the momentum of the ball by pulling their bat back. In pinball, this means dropping the flipper as the ball arrives. If timed correctly, the ball will have no momentum as the flipper comes to rest, allowing the player to either trap the ball or shoot immediately with greater accuracy."

The tricks with the flippers are neat, but the moves that required you move or shake the machine are the most interesting to me. They require thinking about the pinball game at a different level of analysis. The game world is not the only thing that matters; The machine in which the game world is embedded is playable, too. Like, check out this quasi-legal move, called the death save.

I grew up playing video games, not pinball, and so the physicality of pinball play has never been intuitive to me. It seems like cheating, not playing, to move the machine in order to get the ball to do something. But you need to: The flippers are not enough.

One consequence of the physical nature of the game: humans continue to be quite good at pinball relative to computers. A German team even built a custom pinball machine that took the sensor data from a pinball machine and fed it to a computer that controlled the flippers. The experiment does not seem like a smashing success:

The paper shows that a classical Pinball Machine is a hybrid system that has an inherent control problem of great difficulty. Especially if the controller only accesses the event sequences measured by the on board sensors of the Pinball Machine, the reconstruction of the actual position of the ball is a non trivial problem.

Another team built a self-playing pinball machine. They estimate it's about as good as a 3-year old.

Without some very good and very fast vision to track the ball or a hip to bump it out of trouble, it's hard for a computer to become the Deep Blue of arcade.

pinballschematics.jpg

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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