GN Unplugged: Special When Lit

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posted 9/27/2012 by Jeremy Duff
other articles by Jeremy Duff
Platforms: Multiple
GN Unplugged is an article series here at Gaming Nexus which takes a look at the world of gaming outside of consoles and PC’s; this is meant to highlight those offerings within the gaming culture that don’t require a joystick or mouse / keyboard. We will look at various toys, movies, and comics tied to the video game industry as well as various table top and card games. If you have any recommendations for products that we should look into please send an e-mail to news@gamingnexus.com or leave a comment below.

A lot of people don’t have any knowledge or recollection of the prominence that actual pinball machines once held in our beloved industry. With the genre making a resurgence, thanks to the efforts of companies like Zen Studios and FarSight Studios on the video-pinball front, perhaps it is time that people be reminded of just what pinball has meant to video gaming. There is a lot more to the game of pinball than the fancy digital versions that we have been treated to in the past couple of years. I recently discovered a good crash course on this very topic in the form of an interesting documentary chronicling the rise, fall, and lasting impact of pinball.

Special When Lit, written and directed by Australian filmmaker Brett Sullivan, takes a look at the journey of the pinball machine and those people who made it the pop culture icon that it became. A lot of people don’t realize that pinball was, at one time, as profound in our world’s culture as videogames are today. It had legions of fans and many states even went as far as banning it for a number of years. There is a clear rise and fall of the industry, as well as lessons learned that can be seen everywhere in modern gaming.


You always hear about all of the threats of government rules and sanctions being placed on the gaming industry but nobody ever stops to realize that pinball experienced the same thing. Pinball was once considered a game of chance, not skill, and believed to be a contributing factor to the decline in the moral fabric of America along with other types of gambling. This label was applied because some of the early machines did, in fact, offer cash prizes to players. Seeing as how gambling was tied heavily to organized crime and the rise of the mafia in the early 20th century, it is easy to see why such a label would be damning to the industry. That classification, along with its widespread popularity, led to the government launching a proverbial war against pinball. Pinball machines as a whole soon became outlawed for a good portion of the mid-1900's.

It wasn’t until the late 1940’s that the pinball industry made the push to be classified as a game of skill, and thanks to the dedication of companies and pioneers like Bally and Gottlieb, the government began recognizing pinball as such. It wasn’t until the mid-1970’s that the machines became legal across a majority of the United States. Once that ban was lifted, however, the pinball industry boomed.

Pinball parlors rose in popularity and led to what became known as the modern arcade. The industry was hot and raking in more money than even the motion picture industry at the time. The draw of the genre could be seen across all forms of media. Crossovers with movies, music bands, or celebrities in pinball were as common as the silver balls that power the games; there were as many brand named machines are their were original titles. Cross-branding was a common occurrence as it helped raise pinball to an iconic status atop pop culture. If there was a hit movie or show, you would have no problem finding an official pinball machine based on the property. It was a natural fit and one that fueled the industry for years and helped draw in new fans.


The most refreshing aspect of Special When Lit is that it treats its subject matter with such reverence. To call some of the personalities featured in the film “colorful” would be an understatement; yet Sullivan handles them all with honor and respect for their lasting contributions. Other directors might take the opportunity to mock or ridicule some of these folks, but that never happens here.

This isn’t just a repetitive series of “why we love pinball”-style interviews with huge fans that have dedicated their lives to playing every single machine ever made. Instead, Special When Lit chronicles the path of the pinball industry and touches base with some of the more notable figures in the industry’s rise. We’re talking about pioneers in the creation of the modern pinball machine such as Raphael Lankar, Roger Sharpe, and modern day designers such as Lyman Sheats Jr.

I found Special When Lit to be an interesting look at the world that once was with respect to pinball and, apparently, I am not the only one. The film garnered quite a few accolades including the Los Angeles United Film Festival’s best feature documentary in 2009. It was nominated for that same category at both the Tallahassee and Raindance Film Festivals the same year. The industry has certainly been through its share of vicissitudes and it is important for those who consider themselves to be a part of the modern industry to be aware of that journey.

You might be surprised at some of the facts you learn throughout the experience and will definitely be entertained by some of the personalities that have dedicated their lives to the industry for no specific reason other than a love for the game. You will find that they are are a lot like you and me and at the end of the day it that very love that drives them through life. Special When Lit is available on both Blu-ray and DVD as well as Netflix instant streaming. Anyone who cares about the  gaming industry as a whole should definitely check it out.




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