Pinball is a terrible thing to do if you’re looking for life lessons. You can play hundreds of games of it and still walk away essentially the same person, albeit one with improved hand-eye coordination and a better sense of how a metal ball rolls up and down an inclined plane.
What pinball’s good for is mindlessness in the most noble sense of the word, the state of absolute ego-demolishment that seems like a psychic necessity to some people, particularly those who have a tendency towards overthinking. During a game, conscious thought is most often a liability, an impediment between your eyes and your fingertips that’s likely to screw up your shot if you let it take up too much of your attention. Watch a skilled player in action: They grow blank-faced and slack-jawed, their world reducing to the table in front of them while the primitive, reaction-based parts of their brains take the load off their frontal lobes. They only show emotion (frustration or triumph) when their ball finally rolls down the drain, stopping play.
The game’s capacity to cause mindlessness probably has a lot to do with the bad rep pinball’s carried around for nearly the entirety of its existence, at least as much as the fact that it was a pachinko-like game of chance before flippers became standard features around the middle of the last century. To American eyes, there’s something suspicious and unwholesome about spending time on something that doesn’t serve any tangible purpose. Two other classic American activities that are closely associated with drinking establishments—billiards and poker—have earned a surprising amount of respectability over the years, but that’s because of their compatibility with this country’s inherent capitalist ambition. Who bets on pinball? I’ve played countless games in every kind of establishment you can find a pinball machine in, in every part of the country, against every type of person you can imagine, and I can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve seen someone wager so much as the next round of drinks on a game. For some reason, doing so just doesn’t make sense. [...]