Imagine that you’re playing a pinball machine for the first time. The controls themselves aren’t hard to figure out: a plunger that launches a ball, and a pair of buttons connected to flippers that keep the ball from falling through the hole at the bottom of the table. When you first start playing, keeping the ball in play is the whole game; the flashing lights and ringing bells and flashing score are of little concern to you, because while you’re first getting to know the game, you’re playing from a defensive posture, simply trying to stay alive as long as possible and not allowing all the bells and whistles to distract you from that task.

As you get hang of the basic controls, you get better at keeping the ball alive, and can allow your focus to expand a bit. You begin to take notice of the bumpers, ramps, drop targets, etc., and how they affect the motion of the ball up and down the table. You start to notice that hitting bumpers might cause them to light up, or that certain spots on the table also light up when you roll over them. Perhaps knocking the ball up onto a certain ramp causes the machine to light up in a particular way, or shout some wacky voice recordings at you. At this point, you’ve begun to play from an opportunistic posture, chasing short-term tactical objectives to increase your score and make the game more exciting.

Eventually, you find yourself gaining confidence in your abilities: you can hit all of the drop targets in a set, you can light up all the bumpers at once, you may even have the hang of trapping and nudging. At this point, you are no longer just trying to keep the ball in play or achieve simple objectives, but are fully in control of the table, and can start to play from a strategic posture. Being able to “read” the table and plan a few steps ahead is what enables you to trigger Multiball and Jackpot modes and really drive up your score.

I’ll admit that I’m a little fuzzy on what goes through a player’s head when he or she is playing pinball strategically, because I’ve never really gotten good enough at any machines to experience it myself. In a way, though, that gets to my point: Players in different postures may be playing on the same machine, but they have very different mental models of what it is that they’re playing, and different criteria by which they determine whether or not they’ve done well. When we look at freakishly advanced players of pinball (or Halo, or WoW, or basketball) and say things like “they’re playing a totally different game,” we’re not really exaggerating.

Pinball is a different game for all three types of players, but more importantly, it’s a good game for all of them. Getting a high score is fun, but so is simply hitting a series of bumpers in order, or just keeping the ball in play a little longer than you did on your last try. There’s no heavy pressure on a defensive player to start playing opportunistically or strategically if they’re not interested, but there’s plenty of opportunity for him or her to do so when the urge strikes.

These three postures also map more or less directly onto the levels of understanding that I was writing about earlier. Going back to the two principles I mentioned in that post, here are two questions to ask yourself when you’re designing a game:

  1. Can you have a good time while playing defensively, opportunistically, and strategically?
  2. Are you providing a path of learning that helps players to progress from one posture to another?

Mostly, though, all this talk about pinball makes me want to track down a real machine. Anyone know of any arcades left in the Twin Cities?