TIME legal

California Town that Banned Pinball 80 Years Ago Will Finally Legalize It

Three year old Xandro from Eindhoven, Th
AFP / Getty Images

The ban hadn't been enforced in decades, but it's still on the books.

And here you thought games like Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto had it rough: 80 years ago, pinball — yes, pinball — was a seedy, controversial business. So controversial that thousands of U.S. cities passed laws making pinball machines illegal, including Oakland, California, where you might be surprised to find the game remains a criminal matter on the books to this day.

That’s about to change, says the San Francisco Chronicle, which writes that Oakland is set to formally un-ban pinball at last, though it’ll be seen as a symbolic move: pinball machines are alive and well across the city, notes the Chronicle, and the ban hasn’t been enforced for decades.

Pinball machines (sans flippers — a later invention) were manufactured in the 1930s, installed in bars and called “pay-outs,” because that’s what they did, delivering cash to lucky players a bit like someone hitting the jackpot after pulling the handle on a slot machine. That’s all you did at the time: pull the plunger and cross your fingers. If you won, you’d collect your winnings from whomever ran the establishment. And that slot machine-like angle was enough to worry politicians and get pinball banned across the country.

“Yes, there was a certain amount of skill involved, but basically the law looked at it as a gambling device,” Eddie Adlum, publisher of RePlay Magazine, told Steven Kent in Kent’s The Ultimate History of Video Games. “Pay-outs started out legally in many states and eventually ended up being operated mostly illegally in places where the police would look the other way, such as New Orleans. They were nickel games, by the way. They paid off in nickels. So it was a little gamble, but nevertheless it was gambling.”

Oakland’s city council will meet this week to reverse the law as part of an overall reexamination of gambling in the city, though that reversal will include a new ban on slot-machine-like Internet sweepstakes cafes, which — like those early versions of pinball — are essentially games of chance.

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