When pinball was king

It was outlawed in the 1940s and killed off by Space Invaders in the '80s. But for a few glorious decades pinball ruled.

Beginning in the 1930s as a humble game in which a ball bounced around a series of pins hammered into a wooden base, over the years pinballs acquired legs, back boards, flippers and an increasing array of bells and whistles.

In the early 1940s some US states deemed them gambling devices and they were confiscated and incinerated.

But before long a number of US companies were making and exporting the machines around the world. In the postwar period they became a global symbol of youth culture and American cool, raking in more money than Hollywood.

With their often misogynist and violent artwork and "bad boy" reputation, pinball machines drew young adults - mostly young males - out of their homes and to arcades where they played the addictive machines, smoked, socialised and honed skills that would be of absolutely no use to them in their adult lives.

Today, only one pinball manufacturer remains and the game exists as a niche interest for a small community of diehard fans including collectors and competitive players who travel the world attending meetings, conventions and tournaments.

Their world is explored in a new Australian documentary, Special When Lit, which takes a nostalgic look at the rise and fall of this lost pop icon. It premiered locally in Sydney on December 22.

It's the first full-length feature film by production outfit Steam and was nominated for best documentary at the Raindance Festival in London last October.

The producers started off with the idea of making a fictional film about a washed-up player. But they soon discovered that the characters who inhabit the pinball world were far better than anything they could have made up.

"It was strong enough without having to make it fiction," says producer Emily Rickard.

"Pinball is pretty much dying out but there's a hard core community of fans and players around the world that we tapped into. This is as much their story as it is of pinball."

They include avid collector Sam Harvey, who lives with his collection of 400 machines which he loving works on every day, and Josh Kaplan, aka "Pingeek", who spends his life videotaping games and showing them at conventions.

Then there is former World Champion Rick Stetta, who dances a strange sort of ballet around the machine as he plays, and Lyman Sheats Junior, "arguably the greatest player in the world".

The film also features academics, museum curators and former arcade owners, pinball manufacturers and designers.

All share one thing - an overriding passion for the silver balls.

Director Brett Sullivan - who now owns 10 machines - admits he "knew nothing" about pinball machines before making the film.

"We were researching characters for a drama feature and we went out on a shoot at a pinball competition ... and it developed a life of its own," he says.

"So we travelled around the US and Europe and discovered all of these subcultures of people that were into it."

While most pinball enthusiasts today are in their late 30s to mid-40s, Rickard says the games have a retro appeal to Gen Y who have grown up in a world viewed through a flat screen.

"It's a visual experience (with pinball) and there's nothing like touching the machine and pushing it with your hips," she says.

Sullivan says the attraction of pinball lies in its combination of chance and skill, as well as a unique interaction between man and machine that digital games can never match.

"It's a game that can't be beaten," he says.

"The main difference (between a pinball machine and a video game) is the physicality. The ball is wild - there's an element of luck involved which you just can't control. There is luck as well as skill."

But the days of pinball supremacy were always numbered.

A combination of electronic games and poker machines combined to bring about its eventual, inevitable demise.

"For a couple of years they were in parallel but by the time the 1980s rocked around it was the death knell for pinball," Sullivan says.

"Space Invaders and Pacman arrived and it never really recovered from that."

Sullivan admits Special When Lit is something of an epitaph.

"I think that unfortunately pinball is more or less dead, definitely it will never be what it once was.

"Now it's just a nostalgic footnote."

Special When Lit sometimes treads a fine line. It's easy to laugh at the characters as oddballs, social misfits and obsessive-compulsives.

Yet by embracing their eccentricities and the way they use pinball to construct meaning in their lives, the film never loses sight of their humanity.

"We didn't make (the film) for the pinball community," says Sullivan.

"It's actually probably for people like me who didn't know anything about it.

"And it's definitely a nostalgic trip for people who may use to have played pinball or who were around it.

"At the end of the film we just wanted people to think 'I need to play a game - where can I find one?"'

AAP