Pinball: Designing a Game

The game of pinball is a relatively recent invention. Some say it was developed from a billiard-like game called bagatelle. Some of the earliest versions resembled Pachinko machines, which were upright boards with many pins through which a ball was dropped to earn points. This may be the origin of the word "pinball." Today's arcade and video pinball games are much more complex than the ones of yesteryear, however they are similar in that a ball is rolled onto a board with bumpers (pins) and traps (holes), scoring points depending on what the ball hits and where it lands on the game surface. 

Nineteen thirty-one saw the introduction of coin-operated machines, such as Ballyhoo. This inexpensive form of entertainment gained great popularity during the depression of the early twentieth century. BaffleBall was the first commercially successful pinball game. Instead of dropping a ball onto the game board, it used a plunger to launch the ball.

In 1947, flippers were first introduced into the game. Flippers are "bats" that players can manipulate to keep the ball in play. Until flippers were introduced, players had little means except the plunger for controlling the movement of the ball.

Pinball games are still popular with children and adults. In this project, your children will be building their own simple pinball games complete with flippers and plungers, bumpers and traps. Of course, there exist more elaborate electronic arrangements with flashing lights, sound effects, and various ways of manipulating the ball, but simpler versions can be improvised with only a few materials, and children readily take to the challenge of making up their own designs. Pegboards make excellent bases when creating pinball machines, and the children will learn that with a pegboard and some drinking straws, they can create their own games.

This project has an additional benefit for children. It allows them to practice their math skills. Numerical values can be assigned to the traps they have set up, and when they play the game, they will need to add up the values. These numbers can be simple or more complicated depending on the age of the children. Large numbers, such as 10,000 or 1,000,000 per trap provide opportunities to work with place value.

Some intuitive physics is also involved in pinball games when launching the ball. In the first few activities, it is suggested that children build a ramp to launch the ball. Children can discover the relationship between the height of the launching ramp and how far the ball travels. In later activities, they can design plungers made from rubber bands or springs, introducing them to different kinds of forces–a fundamental concept in physics.