Art of the Pinball Playfield

I often find myself being surprised by art which I run into in unexpected places, or in contexts where I don’t think about art as art because of its utilitarian application.

I stumbled into a good example this weekend when I took my 11 year old daughter to our local video and pinball arcade, Pinballz in Austin. There aren’t as many arcades and games around as there once were, but places like Pinballz which specialize manage to keep gaming traditions going in a pretty impressive way. Pinballz has scores of video games and further scores of pinball machines. Their collection includes two floors of games, with classics going back into the 1950s and the latest and flashiest machines as well.

One wall in the arcade caught my eye because it displayed the playfields out of several machines stripped of the hardware and mounted on the wall as works of art. And that’s really what they are. Take away the distraction of lights and bumpers and bells and what you are left with underneath is some very interesting artwork adapted to a very peculiar and limiting format.
The playfields of a lot of the older games are fascinating works of geometric decoration and more recent games feature pictorial art which reflects the sensibilities of the period in which the game was made. The psychedelic art of the 70s games with Frazetta-like fantasy images really stands out, a contrast to the cyberpunk style art of the enormously popular classic game Xenon.
It’s easy to be distracted by the flashy art on the scoreboard, but with backlighting and painted on glass the quality of the art is often not as good as what’s underneath the balls on the playfield, especially on older machines. There’s also a special appeal to the integration of pictorial art and geometric designs adapted to fit unusual space requirements around bumpers and ramps which makes the playfields into a truly unique artform in their own right. Sometimes the art is garrish or kitschy or horribly dated, but it has a very special appeal.

Not surprisingly a kind of cult consciousness of playfield design has arisen. There are artists who specialize in restoring them like fine art and others who do playfield redesigns, replacing the original art with custom variant designs reminiscent of the original but giving a reconditioned game a one-of-a-kind look. There are also people who collect just the playfields, hanging them on the wall like fine art with all of the hardware removed and they are also highly sought after by people who rebuild classic games. Some are particularly valued, like the Genie, Sorcerer, Sea Witch and Xenon playfields, both for their artwork and for their iconic status as memorable games. Playfields with great art from important machines in good condition can sell for a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, with a good restoration of the art generally increasing the value.

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