Are Pinball Machines Rigged?

Pinball is one of the classics of the arcade scene. You’ll find pinball machines in bars and homes all over the world. But anyone that’s tried their hand at pinball knows it can be a very unforgiving game, so many new players wonder if pinball machines are rigged.

Pinball machines are not rigged. While pinball machines were once banned as authorities thought it was a form of gambling, pinball is actually a game of skill. Pinball machines often have difficulty settings built into them, but this does not mean that pinball machines are rigged.

Below, we’ll talk a bit more about why pinball machines have had a difficult history, and why some people think they’re rigged. Then, we’ll go into more detail about why pinball machines are not rigged, and why they’re actually a game of skill.

When Pinball Was Illegal

Pinball hasn’t always been accepted by everyone. In fact, during the early 1940s, pinball was actually banned in several big cities across the USA. Cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York all banned the game. This was despite the fact that Chicago was the birthplace of the game, and still to this day is the epicenter of pinball machine production.

The reason pinball machines were banned comes down to the fact that authorities thought it was a form of gambling. They believed that pinball involved luck, not skill, and so was not an ethical game to play in arcades, bars and restaurants across the country.

A Very Different Game

In its early days, pinball didn’t have all the lights, bumpers and other components that most people associate with the modern game. For many years it didn’t even involve flippers, which are now the key component that gives the player control of the ball.

The flipper arrived in 1947, but the game was still banned at this time. Without flippers, the only way to influence the ball was by moving the table. This is still employed today in the form of nudging, but not nearly to the same extent as back in the early days of the game.

They Were Never Rigged

So, it’s almost fair to see why authorities thought pinball was a game of luck. With little control over the ball, you could only employ a small amount of skill with your nudging and moving of the table. However, this didn’t strictly mean the game was rigged.

While pinball machines accepted money, therefore earning their owners some cash from players, the authorities at the time might have said that the game was rigged to earn the owner money. This is much in the same fashion as people nowadays might insist casinos are rigged, given that the odds are usually always in favor of the house.

But this view was put to bed in 1976 in a court room in New York. Roger Sharpe, a pinball enthusiast, was called in to the room to play pinball and prove to a judge that the game involved skill rather than luck.

Proving Them Wrong

Sharpe did this by calling his shot into the middle lane of the playfield, thereby proving that it was his skill that allowed him to make the shot, rather than luck. The shot was enough to convince the city council of New York that pinball did indeed involve skill.

But that happened in the 1970s, and pinball machines have changed a lot since then. So, are modern pinball machines rigged?

Are Modern Pinball Machines Rigged

Pinball machines are not rigged. However, there are a few useful measures owners may have at their disposal to customize their game. Before we talk about them however, it’s worth considering how pinball machines work, and how a player loses in pinball.

Pinball machines rely on gravity to work. The ball is shot up into the field, and then the player is constantly battling gravity to keep the ball in play and rack up as many points as they can. There are of course bumpers, gates and other components at play, but this is the essence of how a pinball machine works.

How To Lose The Game

The way you lose a ball is through it falling through the drain. This drain comes in the form of a gap between the two flippers, control of which lies in the hands of the player. This is where most of the skill comes in, but some effective nudging here and there helps too.

There has to be a way for the game to end, and as gravity never yields to the player, the player eventually must stop, if the game doesn’t stop them first. This can happen in plenty of ways, all of which are technically the fault of the player.

It’s Always The Player’s Fault

While the player might hit the ball off the flipper straight into a bumper that then knocks the ball straight down the drain, this is simply a result of a poorly timed flipper movement. Any time the ball goes down the drain, you can trace it back to a move made by the player. Whether it’s a heavy nudge or a badly timed press, it’s always down to the player.

This categorically shows that pinball machines are not rigged. However, if you’re still not convinced, consider the fact that pinball machine owners don’t have much to gain out of rigging a pinball machine.

There will be some pinball machines that offer some sort of prize for the highest scores, and there are of course pinball tournaments all over the world. But your standard pinball machine, either at home or at the arcade, usually doesn’t offer anything other than the satisfaction of getting the new high score.

Nothing To Gain

So, while your frustration at not getting the high score might cause you to stick another coin in the machine, you’re not going to do this indefinitely. Plus, if the machine was clearly rigged to prevent players getting above a certain score, people would catch on and stop using that machine, and therefore only the owner would lose out as a result.

The only way an arcade owner can make money off a pinball machine is if people keep playing and keep improving on their past scores. For this reason, it makes no sense to rig a pinball machine, unlike claw machines which can actually physically prevent you from winning prizes until you deposit enough money in them.

Different Settings

With that said, there are ways owners can make their games harder, therefore making it seem like they’re rigged to struggling players. Many pinball machines come with two settings, called “liberal” and “conservative,” with the former being the easier setting and conservative being more difficult.

These settings can be used to change the width of lanes for example, making it easier or harder to get the ball into them. Some come with the option to make targets harder to hit. While these are ways of making the machine harder to use, they can’t be described as methods of rigging pinball machines.

Final Thoughts

Pinball machines are not rigged. While they were once illegal, they were never actually rigged. The level of skill involved in pinball makes it hard for beginners to rack up high scores, and this can lead many to believe the machines are rigged. However, the games still involve more skill than luck.