The Machine is Trying to Make You Lose

Liam Baranauskas

“Do you hear those crickets?” asks Lindsey Rhoades.

We’re surrounded by pinball machines. They’re clanging and chiming and spouting catchphrases from twenty-five-year-old action movies. A pop like a jar unsealing cuts through the din whenever someone scores highly enough to earn a replay. Players slap at flippers with concentrated violence and curse unfortunate drains. A jukebox starts of its own accord, but the ambient pinball noise is omnipresent and permeating and engulfs the music before it can find open air. No, I say. I do not hear any crickets.

“They’re from Frontier,” Rhoades says, waving in the direction of a machine with a boilerplate Old West theme. “Sometimes those crickets are all I can hear.”

Tinny four-bar loops of music merge atonally from all directions. “Our love is stronger than death,” announces the nearby Bram Stoker’s Dracula machine. I’m at The 24 Hour Final Battle, an annual tournament on the Professional & Amateur Pinball Association circuit, which takes place in a repurposed Meriden, Connecticut factory building, at a pinball co-op named The Sanctum. PAPA holds eight majors per year, but The 24 Hour Final Battle is notable because it lasts for, yes, twenty-four hours, meaning that from 9 a.m. Saturday until 8 a.m. on Sunday (daylight-savings time ends in between), one hundred increasingly sleepless adults will play a total of 4,500 games of pinball, drain 13,500 balls to outlanes and tilts, and attempt to focus on their own split-second decisions amid endless flashing lights and infinite sound. “Remember, this is supposed to be fun,” announces Sanctum cofounder Jim Swain at the beginning of the tournament, right before he outlines the disqualification procedure for the players who, inevitably, won’t be able to control their rage. The back of one man’s shirt reads, “Every ball ends in failure,” and I think how this acknowledgement of shared futility might read more like nihilism as the night stretches on.

And while I’m here in part to gawk at the inevitable tears, arguments, and abused machines, I’m also hoping to learn about something more ephemeral, which I can only begin to describe by talking about myself for a moment. I used to work as a bartender in a place that had two pinball machines tucked into the corner of the room, on which I ended up wasting probably a month or two’s rent over the years, fifty cents at a time. Sometimes similarly compulsive co-workers and I would stay to play pinball for hours after we pulled the gates. Like trivia or karaoke or any other bar activity, the appeal was partly social and alcohol-fueled, but it was more than that, too. What we were chasing were uncanny, sublime stretches of time, lasting from a few seconds to endless minutes, when you pulled the plunger and entered a sympathetic state with the machine, when the line from fingers to flippers was so direct that the game might have been a part of you. We barely kept track of scores, because what mattered more were those times when our knowledge of the path of the ball was as intuitive as our knowledge of gravity, and it felt like everything else slowed or dropped away, filling us with the gratifying, disjointed feeling of being able to control the future. If we were asleep we’d think we were in a lucid dream. But we weren’t. We were awake. We were there.

When I describe this feeling to players at The Final Battle, everyone knows, more or less, what I’m talking about. Many describe it analytically: a player named Sharon Hebenstreit tells me it’s a matter of “being in tune with the physics of the game.” Others call it “flow” or a “flow game,” a term from positive psychology commonly used by athletes or musicians to describe the immersiveness brought on by focusing on an involved task, which is a bit closer to what I’m thinking. But when athletes or musicians talk about flow, they’re talking about something that happens in material, tangible space—on a stage, say, or a basketball court. Pinball takes place in a more liminal environment: those may be your physical fingers hitting flipper buttons and your real voice cussing out Bride of Pin-Bot, but your vision, your concentration—everything about you that’s more consciousness than body—moves outside of yourself and behind a thin layer of glass.

Is there an essential difference between a technologically induced dream state and one that’s arrived at through your organic perception of the world? In 1960, Canadian artist Brion Gysin invented what he claimed was the world’s only piece of art meant to be viewed with closed eyes. His Dreamachine consists of an opaque cylinder with a light bulb dangled inside and a repeating pattern cut from it, mounted to a turntable. The viewer sits close to the spinning cylinder while the device projects light through the cutouts onto his or her eyelids at a rate meant to mimic and stimulate alpha waves—the electrical oscillations present in the brain while dreaming or when unconsciously searching for patterns. Gysin noted that because highway engineers knew about the hypnagogic power of light, they spaced trees at irregular intervals so the dawn sun wouldn’t cause sleep-deprived drivers to hallucinate.

The patterns of Gysin’s invention aren’t random, but designed to enter one’s brain through a subliminal back door. If it’s a form of mind control, it’s a benign one, using technology (a cardstock cylinder glued to a thrift store turntable), to allow its user to connect to something larger than themselves, whenever they wished. The thing is, lots of newer technologies—from social media to algorithmically generated, “people like you bought these items!” shopping lists—purport a similar goal of connection, but exploit the dreams they induce, tethering us to engineered patterns for something other than psychedelic kicks. We want to tell stories, and then to recognize ourselves in those stories, to find patterns in the seemingly random, and our phones and computers fulfill these urges, giving us the intoxicating rush of our desires appearing before we even realize we desire them. But that begs the question: whose dreams are the dreams we’re in—our own, or those of the machine’s makers?

I still can’t hear any crickets.

As far as I can tell, there are two diverging strategies for dealing with the tournament’s length. Some players opt for what might be called “healthy lifestyle decisions”—lots of water, high-protein snacks. They tell me they got plenty of sleep the night before. Rhoades, a freelance writer, says she brought her yoga mat last year. Other players go in the opposite direction, ingesting the diet of a sixteen-year-old: endless coffee, energy drinks, chain pizza, cigarettes outside between every round, bong rips in the parking lot. “Cannabis sativa, that’s the key,” one player tells me. Marc Fillipelli, who gives his age as “somewhere between twenty-three and seventy-five,” has brought a case of Budweiser, stating that he plans on drinking one beer for every hour of the tournament. (When I get home, I’ll find him in the background of several of my photographs, flipping me off.)

At ten in the morning, I see the day’s first emotional breakdown (“I can tell, there’s no point in me being here,” a man spits at his friend before stomping away to withdraw from the tournament), but by four in the afternoon—seven hours into the event—everyone else’s individual coping mechanisms seem like they’re working pretty well. The occasional cussing at a lost ball might be growing just a bit louder, but few players show signs of disorientation, mystic or otherwise, and I wonder if the quantification of scores might act as a counterpoint to any prospective waking dream states. This is, after all, a competition.

The Final Battle is unique not just for its endurance aspect but for its structure: in every round each group of four players plays each other on three separate machines, with the winner of each match receiving three points, second place receiving two, and so on, so a perfect round earns a player nine points. The groups are then reorganized so that the higher-scoring players are matched up next. This means that, especially in these early rounds, amateur pinball enthusiasts (most of whom are still excellent players) are competing against ranked professionals, including Zach Sharpe, who’s currently ranked first by the International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA). Sharpe is something like pinball royalty—his father, Roger Sharpe, was famously once called as a witness in a New York courtroom, successfully hitting a shot to demonstrate that pinball was a game of skill, not of chance—and in this room it’s like Steph Curry stopped by the park to run a little three-on-three. Between turns most players watch the rest of their group, cheering dexterous saves and sympathizing with tough drains, but Sharpe, who projects the heavy-lidded sense of superiority of a video store clerk, plays without removing his earbuds and his groups tend towards quiet deference. I peek at his phone to see what kind of spiritual soundtrack helps a pinball champion maintain a flow state between turns, half-expecting to see the Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack or something. He’s listening to a Bill Simmons sports podcast.

But no matter the skill required, pinball is a capricious game, and after a slow start Sharpe has had to mount a comeback just to make it to the second group, where he’ll be matched up with a couple of other ranked players, as well as a young woman named Emily May who just started competing in the last couple of years. “Emily’s a local player,” says Mark Carvey, Jim Swain’s partner at The Sanctum, who’s in a spare moment between recording scores, tuning fickle machines, and mediating disputes. “I mean, she’s good, but still…”

“Yeah, I’m not doing bad, actually!” May says when I find her before her next round, sounding pleased, though maybe not as surprised as Carvey. She went into the previous round in fourth place and scored five points—more than respectable against top-tier competition, but not enough to keep her from dropping to a tie for sixth. She tells me that she’s “a competitive person,” (which seems an overly simplified if not entirely disingenuous explanation for her early run of success), and grins, and I find myself rooting for her, hoping that I’ve sniffed out the underdog story of the tournament.

The first machine May and Sharpe’s group plays is Elvis, a solid-state Stern game from the early 2000s. Pinball machines are roughly categorizable by era and manufacturer; at The Final Battle, the three games played in each round vary by both, so a round might consist of Baseball, a 1950s “Bally flipper” game; Algar, a 1970s solid-state machine; and a newer machine like Elvis. Many recent games reward keeping the ball alive rather than concerted shotmaking as a way to appeal to dabblers in bars, but even so, no one keeps their first turn on Elvis going for very long, bunching the scores together. While pressure may be building a bit, as in most of Sharpe’s groups, no one’s showing much outward emotion, even as on the next machine over someone’s yelling, “No, no, no, no!” and rage-tilting, or shaking the machine so violently that it enforces the tilt penalty, forfeiting a bonus at the end of the round.

Pinball scores are tallied exponentially; some shots build—that is, they don’t reward many points immediately, but will yield millions when collected in tandem with special modes and multiballs. On his second turn, Sharpe starts the machine’s Jailhouse Rock mode (which banks points for hitting any target), followed by a multiball, meaning that he has the opportunity for a veritable orgy of points if he can juggle all three balls for any decent length of time. He does so, calmly cradling and flipper-passing through a cacophony of pinging bumpers, an oceanic “Screaming Fans” sound effect, and the E-flat-to-E chords that ring right before "Went to a party at the county jail…". Lights flash (simulating camera flashbulbs, in keeping with the theme) and Sharpe tallies ten million, twenty-five million, fifty million points. The machine pops, awarding a free replay, materially irrelevant but a Pavlovian reward nonetheless, and Sharpe nods in acknowledgement to his groupmates when he finally drains. The turn lasted only a few minutes, but he’s built a fairly insurmountable lead and wins the match easily, gaining three points in the standings. May finishes third, then fourth after the group moves to Bow and Arrow, the next machine in the round, and when it’s over, Sharpe has tallied seven points while May has just earned one. When the next groups are revealed, she’s fallen to twenty-fifth place.

As strange as it may sound, most pinball machines have a narrative. Their stories are framed by the backsplash art, which tends to a style more associated with the covers of Choose Your Own Adventure books and airbrushed Econolines—distorted perspectives, psychedelic backgrounds, cartoonishly proportioned female humanoids (buxom cyborgs, buxom furies, buxom cyborg-furies): the ingredients of an acid trip as imagined by a preteen boy. By hitting ramps and targets in a specific order, players advance the plot the art describes. It’s not Chekhov, but it’s not wholly dissimilar to any other form of storytelling—the arrangement and contextualization of common elements is the compelling part, not the novelty of the elements themselves.

And like any narrative form, pinball machines have a distinct point of view. Many inherently make use of the gameplay’s liminality—the player behind the machine is the protagonist while the ball beneath the glass is their weapon; in Robocop, for example, a player shoots ramps to capture suspects, as if the player is the eponymous cyborg and the flippers are their guns. Elvis (not a particularly well-imagined game) projects the player as the King of Rock and Roll, with the ball vaguely representing his career, quantifying celebrity as well as hit songs. But another, more immersive narrative structure imagines the player as the ball itself, traversing the machine’s caverns and highways—Simpsons Pinball Party, a common bar game (and one I’ve pumped a lot of quarters into), works like this, using modes that identify the ball with Bart or Homer Simpson on a trip through Springfield, visiting areas of the board designated as the Kwik-E-Mart or Moe’s Tavern. The result is the same as the astral-projecting effect of any fiction: your consciousness leaves your body, moving to the rhythm of an alien voice.

And all this doesn’t quite account for the effect of all that light and sound, which gives these stories a hypnotic, dreamlike momentum. Unlike the Dreamachine, a pinball machine’s stimuli are dependent on the actions of the player, so they don’t seem to fit a pattern at first. But the paths of a ricocheting pinball aren’t random, they’re accounted for by a player’s tendencies and by the magnets beneath the field that guide the steel ball onto a large but finite number of invisible, predetermined paths. Anticipating these patterns turns the difference between a ramp and outlane into an almost astrological use of distant light to tell the future.

So as the evening turns into night in this windowless room players seem to merge with the machines they’re playing, but paradoxically, their individuated postures grow exaggerated as they do—this one bows her legs, that one leans way over the glass. Sharon Hebenstreit tells me that they call one player “First Kiss” for the way he kicks one leg up behind himself while he plays. Some players jab the flipper buttons more insistently, their hands forming pronounced arches around the machine’s corners. They lean and move in the directions they want their shots to shade, as if their bodies possess polarities capable of influencing the magnets below the board. In this temporary state of symbiosis, a drained ball is a shock that’s unpleasant not just for the failure it represents, but for how unceremoniously the player is tossed from the machine’s story. Nine hours in, some players begin to curse in earnest when they drain, slapping the glass with genuine malice. Rage-tilts grow common. “Fuck no!” screams a heavyset, bearded man, throwing his hat on the floor.

One of the most demonstrative players is Bowen Kerins, who won last year’s Final Battle, and who’s been in first place since recording a perfect, nine-point opening round. Even so, every single time he drains, he explodes into a five-second whirlwind of rage, stomping from the machine, yelling at the floor, “Fuck! Fuck! Goddamnit! It was right there! Can’t you hit anything?” before, as if realizing that there are other people around, he snaps his fingers and modulates his self-flagellations, smiling to himself as he says, almost under his breath, “Shucks,” and “Doggone it!”

He’s also known (at least in this room) for recording tutorial videos in which he explains optimal strategies for approaching different games, a magnanimous habit which seems at odds with the maniacally competitive persona he expresses here. I ask him if he sees any contradiction and he says, “I mean, it’s a thousand-dollar prize, so I want to win. But if I lose hopefully it’s because someone outplayed me and not because I messed up.”

It’s a common enough sentiment expressed in, say, post-game interviews, but here it speaks to the idea that the players aren’t just competing against each other. Though the tournament’s rankings make for official scoring, they’re more a measure of one’s own self-maintenance than marks of victory or defeat. Like marathoners, everyone to whom I speak has a goal as to what place they want to finish in, even as they insist they’re not trying to beat anyone else. The sleep-deprivation aspect of the tournament acts as a test, a way to give a point value to the unquantifiable parts of oneself, which means that the machines and the stories they tell are mediums as much as games. Pinball scores your ability to inhabit the dreams the games create, which means the real challenge comes as the game tries to end itself, waking you up.

So the essential narrative choice each game makes—is the player the flippers or the ball?—then becomes an almost ontological question: is it an antagonistic or a cooperative relationship you have with the machine?

I ask Kerins this and he looks at me like I’m an idiot. “The machine is trying to make you lose,” he says.

At around one in the morning, Kerins has a huge first ball on Pinball Magic, building scores with ramps and orbits and then collecting them with a series of deft multiballs. The game looks like it’s short-circuiting as it shimmers and flashes with each jackpot. He actually beats the machine record before anyone else in his top-ranked group has a chance to play, keeping the ball alive for well over ten minutes. The gathered crowd applauds when he finally drains (laughing for once), and he ends up with a score for the round fifteen times higher than the second-place finisher.

Then the clocks fall back and it’s 1 a.m. again. ”We’ve gone back in time,” Jim Swain announces over the PA. Players blink faster and harder now, screwing tight faces shut each time their eyelids droop; those who’ve brought collapsible chairs fall into them in the relative quiet of the hallway outside, others sleep on the couches in the center of the room, surrounded by empty pizza boxes, oblivious to the pops and pings around them. The machines start to break down, as if they’re sleep-deprived, too—Mark Carvey has to repair Paragon, then Medusa, then The Shadow. A mounting bar spontaneously falls off the top of Title Fight. I see Zach Sharpe, who’s moved up to fifth place by now, in a rare show of emotion, slamming the handguards on the corner of a machine in frustration. Kerins sits down next to me, on a sudden cold streak after his epic Pinball Magic game; he’s still in first place, though his lead has shrunk to a single point. He opens his laptop and sighs, “I’m playing so far away from where I should be right now.” I ask him what he needs to do to improve and he snaps, “Get better?” Emily May tells me she’s starting to crash. She’s dropped out of the top twenty-five.

Outside the building, the conversation among players who’ve gone for air or a smoke has grown so abstruse I’m not sure I’m hearing everything correctly. “Spam the flippers,” someone says (I think). “You have to really just feel it back,” answers someone else. Tim Sexton, a young software engineer who looks like that kid in your high school who could grow an incongruously luxurious beard, is saying, “It’s like EMP. Set your magnets. Subsequent multiballs, you have to lock it to the side.” You hear this sort of unfathomable jargon in any subculture, in part because it serves as a filter: if you can’t understand it, you shouldn’t be listening. But on this loading dock in the middle of the night, it seems particularly isolating. If you buy the argument that culture is linguistically determined, I’m not sure a vocabulary this specialized can describe the most nebulous and important concepts a language can—and needs to—enable. Like, does love exist here? Does the soul? Maybe those long nights I spent playing pinball in the bar were really just excuses to get drunk.

Brion Gysin seems to have recognized the paradox of using technology to address its own restrictiveness when he designed the Dreamachine. The plans called for cheap or easily found parts so anyone could make their own—and if enough people did, the idea was, the invention would transcend itself. He wrote (in perhaps excessively sanguine terms) that once you viewed the Dreamachine, you’d have “acquired greater self-knowledge, extended the limits of your vision, brightened your perception of a treasure you may not have known you owned.” His idealism was based in the thought that technology is capable of looking to the past as well as the future, and so can hold open a window to a kind of heterogeneous collective memory. Machines might help us access the collective unconscious, and in so doing, let us dream all our dreams together. Imagine the utopia that might have resulted.

Of course, not many people built their own Dreamachine, and supposing that the worth of a dream is the dream itself made it a commercial nonstarter. Gysin claimed that the electronics manufacturer Philips almost bought his patent, but lost interest when they learned that, unlike television, his invention made people more awake.

When I catch up with Tim Sexton and ask him how he’s feeling, he shakes his head. “I’m normally good at seeing the games and how they’re set up, why the engineers made the decisions they did,” he says, clearly trying to order his thoughts into language I’m capable of understanding. “When it gets this late, it’s totally different. You’ll think you’re in multiball but you’re not. I can’t see what’s happening next.”

Gysin’s invention notwithstanding, a model to sell hypnagogic dreams has existed for a long time. You can follow the trail, one coin at a time, through boardwalk nickelodeons and pachinko machines to pinball and video arcades and then through another seemingly unlikely source: the block-stacking game Tetris. Invented in 1984 by a Soviet engineer, Tetris’ eventual ubiquity would have seemed unlikely at first—compared to the character-driven, side-scrolling adventure games that were de rigueur at the time of its American release, the game was primitive, no matter how its licensees tried to gussy it up with onion-domed background graphics or dinky, MIDI versions of Russian folk songs. But it was also addictive, so much so that a strange thing happened to people who delved too deeply into its world of falling bricks: like Gysin’s art that you could see with your eyes closed, they began to play the game without the platform. Tetris players described hallucinating game pieces in the real world and mentally fitting them into material gaps, or visualizing and playing entire games in their heads while on the precipice between wakefulness and sleep.

The irony is that the Tetris effect is rooted in dreaming’s objective usefulness. In 1999, Harvard neuroscientists found that players who visualized Tetris pieces in the first, liminal hour of sleep improved at the game, indicating that the hypnagogic images helped them integrate recently learned information. The study’s architects concluded that they’d found a cognitive purpose to dreams: they break down the wall between information and knowledge.

The problem is that the Tetris effect functions like an addiction, enveloping a player’s unconscious mind and taking mental resources meant to integrate the fullness of the world and devoting them to rotating a stream of computer-generated bricks, and this addictive tendency would, of course, come to be exploited by the internet economy, gamifying friendships, tastes, and politics. Former Facebook president Sean Parker spoke to this when he summed up the platform’s business model in 2017 as “a social validation feedback loop,” meant to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible.” Where Gysin’s Dreamachine was a tool for bringing the infinities of the collective unconscious back to the surface, brand-centric storytelling on social media creates a self-perpetuating simulacrum of dreams, engineered to sell you something by keeping you just awake enough to keep playing.

But here’s the thing: there’s a very real sense of community here at the Sanctum that contradicts the mesmeric dystopia I’ve just described. Professionals try to help less experienced players. Everyone’s sympathy for tough drains and mutual enthusiasm for good balls seems genuine, even when it’s directed at ostensible opponents. We’re all sharing Taco Bell of uncertain origin; several unasked-for beers are placed in my hand over the course of the night.

And though he’d probably think this is stupid, it seems to me that Tim Sexton has begun to use this sense of cooperation in an almost yogic, meditative way to inhabit a machine-made dream state, as if the function of these games, regardless of their creators’ intent, was to engage with the other people who played them. Sexton goes on a tear through his next couple rounds, attracting a crowd as he gains seven points in one, eight in the next, all against stiff competition. It seems I was wrong about his conversation on the loading dock; it’s as if by describing to others how to play the games in linguistically inscrutable, technical detail, he’s internalized his decisions before he makes them, suspending himself, as if floating, inside the machine, not letting himself be pushed out of it, not letting himself be woken up. Two hours after our first conversation, he tells me, grinning, “The things I can think about are gone.”

The last round of the Final Battle begins at 8:15 a.m. Tim Sexton’s jumped into fourth place and the first group, ahead of Zach Sharpe on tiebreakers. Bowen Kerins has fallen even further, and is now behind Sharpe. Rounding out the first group are Trent Augustine, who’s ranked third by the IFPA, and John Delzoppo, a local player who Kerins tells me would be highly ranked if he traveled more.

“This is it, man, last one,” Mark Fillipelli tells me, putting his twenty-fourth can of Budweiser into a foam koozie before his round.

These players have spent a full day simultaneously straddling three separate realities: they’ve been immersed in the machines even as those same machines tried to kick them out, they’ve stayed awake while sleep tries to pull them in, and they’ve found community in a subculture based on estrangement, not only from a dominant culture but from one’s conscious self. They’ve been in a dream within a dream within a dream, and now, one by one, their matches end and the machines go quiet, and they drag themselves outside and into a Connecticut parking lot. The fluorescent light coming from beneath the door to the hallway looks like a fake dawn and turns my stomach. “You know what I’m not looking forward to?” Mark Carvey asks, then answers his own question. “Seeing the sun.”

Frontier is located in the corner of The Sanctum, between Dirty Harry and Bow and Arrow. Close by, I hear the electronic crickets Lindsey Rhoades mentioned yesterday. In fact, they’re so clear I don’t know how I hadn’t heard them before.

Over the course of their round, Sharpe and Kerins each win just enough points to cannibalize the other’s chance at a miracle comeback. Emily May settles for thirty-ninth place. Fillipelli ends the tournament in sixty-fourth, which, if you think about it, is its own minor triumph.

It’s well after nine in the morning when the top-ranked group makes it to their last machine. After two matches, the scores shake out so that only Trent Augustine or John Delzoppo can possibly win the tournament—Augustine needs to beat Delzoppo by two places on an electromagnetic game called Blackjack to overtake him. The twenty-four-hour pinball tournament has lasted nearly twenty-six hours. A small half-moon of players has stuck around to watch this last match.

After the first two balls on Blackjack, Augustine is in last place with just 25,000 points, well behind Sexton (playing only to keep his grip on third place), with 175,000. Delzoppo has 101,000. But on his final ball, Augustine proceeds to go on an epic run, juggling between trap passes and pulling off several impossible saves. And on the one machine still chiming and flashing in this room, it’s otherwise quiet enough that you can hear the friction of the ball itself as it traverses the playing field. All of us watching have become tense, applauding dexterous moves as if it’s any sport, gasping at near misses as if it’s any story. We’ve internalized Augustine’s adrenaline as our own. As if it’s us hunched over the glass.

Somehow, we’ve become mobilized against the technology that’s brought us together. It’s still a game, still a competition, but it’s not like we’re rooting for either Augustine or Delzoppo. We simply don’t want to drain; we hope this final turn can go on forever. We don’t want the machine to win. We’re the flippers and the fingertips on them and we’re the ball too, and we’re all dreaming the same dream: that just once, this will not end in failure.