“It’s Only Pinball!” (short story) by Philippe Curval
English Publication History: Travelling Towards Epsilon (New English Library, 1977)
Original: French (C’est du billard!), 1959
Translated by Maxim Jakubowski, 1976
Synopsis: Himself a ball-bearing in French dystopian society, Yorge is one of many on a quest to become Gottlieb IV, the master of all pinball machines. Yorge considers himself nearly ready for the multidimensional and multi-temporal machine, which, is he wins, he becomes crowned the emperor over the whole pathetic dystopia. Paul, his friend, is a likely candidate for pinball wizard, but his recent failures highlight Yorge’s own strengths. With his senses clear after a tame game of pinball, the threat of Gottlieb looms near. 13 pages
Pre-analysis: Gottlieb was the pinball industry king through much of the twentieth century. They were always innovating and improving the game experience; they developed interactive flippers in the 40s, digital scoreboards in the 50s, and solid state machines in the 70s before being overcome by the same technology in the form of “1978’s Space Invaders, 1979’s Asteroids, 1980’s Pac-Man, and 1981’s Galaga” (Wiki). Though originally written in 1959, the English translation was first published in 1976 in this collection… right before the death of pinball. This story of a “pinball wizard” even predates The Who’s “Pinball Wizard” song (1969).
Analysis: Pinball swept the distracted minds of millions and the companies producing the machines kept finding ways to add more bells and whistles in order to attract the yet-to-be-occupied minds of the youth. The fervor of gameplay was probably unintelligible to many non-players because, after all, the game was just hitting and batting around a small ball-bearing. To play well and achieve status through this mindless activity would, to outsiders of the gameplay, seem trivial, pointless, indulgent, and wasteful. But when the machines become more complex, the stakes are also raised and soon society is governed by the whims of the most complex machine and its master. Surely, many scream, “It’s just a game!”