360 Degree Digital Meditation
by John Justice
I awoke amidst a torrent of conflicting emotions. Circumstances days prior had extenuated and I found myself in the eye of a hurricane. As I got behind the wheel I focused my thoughts: “Today cannot bend to the will of disaster. Not today. Today is infinite and full of promise, because today… I am officially a game tester!”
Weeks before, I had noticed an ad in need of, “Serious Gamers Only! If you think you have what it takes to be a tester, fill out the quiz and we may get back to you.” The ad was placed by Pinballz, a classic arcade in Austin with the largest selection of pinball machines in Texas, (possibly the world.) After a few questions about “trackballs” and “coin mechs,” I actually received an invitation to test some games at Pinballz third and newest location, BEFORE they opened to the general public.
I would think the excitement would lead me to speed or drive recklessly, but on the contrary, I actually drove with extreme caution, just in case some over-achieving authority figure might pull me over, not realizing how important this day was to me.
I had only taken a few steps through the front door, early that Sunday morning, when my brain and body suddenly and subconsciously came to an agreement: Stand still for a second, and just observe. Something very important is happening and we need to figure this out.
I stood stoic and motionless for a moment, trying to pinpoint this premature perplexity.
To my surprise, I had not been taken aback by the vivid colors of the blacklight carpet, or the sheer number of pristine and functional machines, (many that surpass me in age!) What had actually halted my overjoyed progression was… the sounds! Woven into the audible chaos of a thousand speakers was this strangely coherent thread of magic.
Now, let me explain so we don’t “mistake the forest for the trees.” No matter how fun or attention-getting the theme song of any one game can be, something supernatural happens when you are surrounded by a choir of cabinets. There is something intangibly divine, (and even a bit transformative,) about standing in the middle of a couple hundred metal demigods, each of which singing its own bit-crushed siren-song.
In past articles I’ve discussed Pavlov and his results from specifically timed sounds, repeated regularly. While his K-9 salivation research IS involved in this concept, I believe the experience goes far deeper than that. What I’m talking about specifically is the subtle difference between “noise,” and “audible experience.”
While I have a much larger catalog of knowledge about classic arcade-games, I must admit that the visual and audible art displayed by pinball machines is exponentially superior.
Maybe it stems from the fact that pinball was actually illegal in the United States throughout most of the previous century.
When alcohol prohibition became law, the government also shut down anything that could possibly resemble gambling. Since some pinball games rewarded players with tokens/coins, they were immediately removed from public gathering-places. Believe it or not, in New York City, pinball remained illegal until 1976! I bet that pent-up creativity played a big part in the violent eruption of pinball machines that occurred in the 1980’s. Vibrant pinball machines, making an array of unimagined sounds, permeated American culture.
It was around this time that solid-state circuitry joined the party. Putting computers inside pinball machines brought about a unique movement in the history sound. It could best be described as a hostile audio invasion of the United States. Shopping malls and bars became a sort of “8-bit” fertile crescent as digital soundtracks began to reverberate throughout the country.
This is something we’re no stranger to in 2016. We live in an age where we can sit on our couch and experience every video game evercreated, accessed in seconds, wirelessly! We live in an era of ease in one sense. And yet… If we’re willing to venture the journey, there are still sacred spaces in this world that brim with light and especially sound.
I’m not saying that a room full of Xbox One’s wouldn’t be as “cool.” But I am willing to say there is a vast difference. I would be mistaken, during pinball’s 40th year of freedom, 40 years of visuals, and 40 years of the endless evolution of sound, if I didn’t encourage you to seek out a machine, even if it’s the only one in your area, and listen. There is a secret concert hall tucked away in corners next to vending machines, off to the side in bars, and in the middle of enormous arcades.