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What the Popularity of 'Fortnite' Has in Common With the 20th Century Pinball Craze

Long before parents freaked over the ubiquitous video game, they flipped out over another newfangled fad.
Jack Delano/Library of Congress

The addictiveness of video games is now squarely in the public spotlight. For years, critics worried the games would breed a generation of hyperviolent kids, a fear that never panned out. But now the panic has shifted to how the games are designed to get kids hooked—particularly given that game-laden smartphones are with kids all day long. In mid-2018, the World Health Organization began officially recognizing “gaming disorder,” characterized by “impaired control over gaming.”

As with violence, these fears are probably overblown, as psychologists like Powell-Lunder note. The great majority of kids learn to self-regulate, and appreciate when parents help set limits, she says. Plus, Fortnite has many benefits, she notes: “It’s enormously social—it’s a really good connector,” attracting many girls and other kids who normally don’t play games.

So Fortnite won’t turn kids into zombies. But it’s interesting that so many fear it will. There’s something about newfangled games, it seems, that deeply unsettles us—as we can spy by looking back 100 years, when a new form of play rocked the nation, inspired inflamed headlines, and then was actually banned in many cities for decades. That dread game? Pinball.

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Pinball originally emerged from bagatelle, a 19th-century pastime that was like billiards, except players propelled the ball through a series of pegs toward a target. The boozy, decadent courtesans of the French king loved it. “They’d play these games, and they’d go off and have sex,” as Michael Schiess, founder and creative director of the Pacific Pinball Museum, describes the general air of courtly excess. “Then they’d drink more and they’d play this game.”

Not long after, the game arrived in American bars, and local inventors began tweaking it. In 1871, the British immigrant Montague Redgrave patented Improvements in Bagatelles: He increased the tilt of the board, and the player shot the ball upward with a plunger, trying to land it in scoring areas while bouncing through the thicket of pins—hence, “pinball.” Redgrave turned the game into a tango of physics, “combining gravity with muscular power to act as antagonistical forces,” he boasted. Soon, coin-operated versions spread all over the country.