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Pinball and bowling alleys and flow

August 28, 2008 | Comment?

Recently, I played pinball and went bowling in the same week. The two games will always be linked together for me because that’s where I first really experienced interaction design: the bowling alley.

I enjoy saying that I grew up in a bowling alley. There’s tiny me camping under stinky shoes, scrounging stale nachos for dinner, and sniping smokes from the ‘dults. But in truth, from roughly the ages 7 to 13, my mom, aunt and uncle were all in bowling leagues, so I went once or twice a week to the Valley View Bowl down in Garden Grove, in the land 25 years later would be branded The OC.

During the recent bowl, I indulged a flashback of my very first job: keeping score on league nights. I’d sit in the center seat while the ten adults would all give math boy a dollar to keep score for a series, three games. The math came naturally, I just had to dodge the beer and cigarettes. Never thought about until just now, but I earned my first dollars doing math. That’s a comforting notion. Eventually my job got buggywhipped and crappy machines now do the job where a grease pencil and basic math is enough. Seriously, have we became so lazy that adding 68 and 17 requires automated machinery? Hell, entering your initials into the game recorders is more difficult than adding 68 and 17.

Like in every other bowling alley, there was an arcade. They weren’t called video arcades yet because video games hadn’t arrived. Just the arcades descended from carnivals and midways. The main attraction here was pinball. Fireball. Captain Fantastic. Wizard. Eight Ball. Gorgar. Six Million Dollar Man. Evel Knievel. The sounds intoxicated. The blinkings lured. The quarters fed. This was one of the golden eras of pinball, when machines began to be digitized. The fresh microelectronics of the early 1970s that miniaturized calculators and other gadgetry found a home in pinball. Games now had memory. Sequences of interactions could create a story. Targets were not just targets. They were stepping stones to further levels of challenges. Pinball transitioned from shooting gallery to game.

(With timely fashion, Popular Mechanics just published its list of Top 8 Most Innovative Pinball Machines of All Time.)

To this day, pinball still provides me a rush that I can’t get from video games. Part of it is the live physics. I don’t care how elegantly or intricately designed a video game is, it still can’t touch the flow of keeping a steel ball in play, defying gravity, and aiming with precision, sequence and finesse. But the other angle of pinball is how you interact with the rule set of the game. Video games are typically linear. You are placed in a situation, you deal with it, and you are presented with a new situation, typically a little more challenging. The set of the things you can do in each situation is necessarily limited. It’s a bounded subset of the overall possibilities of the game.

In pinball, the entire possibility of interaction is available to you, freshly with every single ball. You start from scratch every damn time, and what you make of it is up to you. All of the rules are laid out on the table every single time. Knowledge of the table helps, of course: You need to hit the magic trunk three times to start the next illusion. But you never know what will happen next. A ball could last ten minutes and hit several multiballs or it could drain in five seconds through a fluke carom. Unlike video games, there is zero ability to memorize what happens next. You just have to be ready.

I sometimes use pinball to gauge how relaxed and calm I am. It’s all about the flow. Like other great bar games such as pool, thinking too much will kill the game. Overthinking is outrunning the moment. Tension dampens instinct. But letting it just happen, letting instinct take over, finding your flow unlocks the world of surprise. Like this post for example. I had no frickin idea I would end up in this place, but I’m saying some really weird shit that makes a bizarre sense. And now I’m overthinking it and have killed the flow. Just like the third game of shooting pool. That’s life.

To brag, in my recent pinball adventure with my primary pinball partner Jon, I had my best game ever on my favorite game ever, Theatre of Magic. Real names be proof:

Theatre of Magic

So how the hell does this relate to interaction design? You want the people using your product to find their flow. Doing with success without thinking leads to flow which leads to enjoyment and satisfaction. Accomplishment. That’s the reward.

Make the interaction rule set clear. Make the reward attainable. Allow for graceful failure.

Is the math really that simple?

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