In the early 1980s, nothing short of a teenage revolution was afoot in the form of a transition from huge pinball machines to video games, which represented everything sleek and high-tech in teen entertainment. In 1981, Sidney Kaplan and Shirley Kaplan attempted to make sense of the transition through the unlikely lens of sex—a jumping-off point they used to draw conclusions about the very nature of teenage play.
Kaplan and Kaplan asked why the marketing on actual video game consoles was so different than that of pinball machines, which were famously covered in scantily-clad women and not-so-subtle innuendos. Could sexual differences in game marketing point to deeper truths about sexuality?
To find out, Kaplan and Kaplan spent 20 hours at mall arcades, interviewed arcade owners and attendants, interviewed players, read literature on pinball machines and analyzed 430 questionnaires filled out by college freshmen. They decided to hone in on the bodily gestures used by players of both pinball machines and video games—gestures that, as it turns out, vary wildly. While pinball players use their entire body, thrusting, undulating, and responding to physical signals with their hands and pelvises, video game players use joysticks, guns, and buttons. “In no way was it possible to ascribe any kind of sexual meaning to the bodily gestures observed,” write Kaplan and Kaplan.
Then there was imagery and symbolism. “When one looks to pinball machines and the paraphernalia and gear in the games, sex identifications, analogies, and symbols are profuse. The steel shaft which projects the balls, the holes, the channels, and above all, the flippers—all may be seen as exuding obvious sexual meaning.” But things were less obvious on video game consoles, which involved aliens, warfare, and shooting that Kaplan and Kaplan interpreted as “more related to the ventilation of destructive tendencies and the alleviation of anxiety than they are to sex.”
Only 14 percent of respondents reported sexual arousal by video games, but Kaplan and Kaplan note that perhaps personal interviews and questionnaires were not a place to get a good view of individual sexual feelings with any sense of comfort or truth. Ultimately, the study raises questions about the role of sex in early video games—a genre that undoubtedly became more sexualized over the next 35 years. But it also serves as a lens on the strange allure of the pinball machine, a form of unhindered physical play that hasn’t found its equal since.