How to Be a (Human or Machine) Pinball Wizard

By Alexis C. Madrigal

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.


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