Pinball and Large Numbers

I had another little occasion to reflect on the ways of representing numbers, as well as the chance to feel a bit foolish, this past weekend so I’m naturally driven to share it. This came about on visiting the Silverball Museum, a pinball museum, or arcade, in Asbury Park, New Jersey. (I’m not sure the exact difference between a museum in which games are playable by visitors and an arcade, except for the signs affixed to nearly all the games.) Naturally I failed to bring my camera, so I can’t easily show what I had in mind; too bad.

Pinballs, at least once they got around to having electricity installed, need to show the scores. Since about the mid-1990s these have been shown by dot matrix displays, which are pretty easy to read — the current player’s score can be shown extremely large, for example — and make it easy for the game to go into different modes, where the scoring and objectives of play vary for a time. From about the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s eight-segment light-emitting diodes were preferred, for that “small alarm clock” look. And going before that were rotating number wheels, which are probably the iconic look to pinball score boards, to the extent anyone thinks of a classic pinball machine in that detail.

But there’s another score display, which I must admit offends my sense of order. In this, which I noticed mostly in the machines from the 1950s, with a few outliers in the early 60s (often used in conjunction with the rotating wheels), the parts of the number are broken apart, and the score is read by adding up the parts which are lit up. The machine I was looking at had one column of digits for the millions, another for hundreds of thousands, and then another with two-digit numbers.

I should mention pinball wanders between eras when the point scores are viciously inflated — several excellent late 1990s games had billion-point payoffs for some games, even having separate high score tables for those who’d got and those who hadn’t got the billion — and deflated to the point of being disheartening. The Silverball Museum has several machines where a three-digit score is going pretty well, at least for me, and which have sometimes humiliated me with a one-point ball. The modern standard is to make ten points the smallest possible scoring increment, although most shots give something more than that.

The backglass actually says that one column of potentially lighted numbers is millions, and the next the hundred thousands and the next the tens of thousands. But I couldn’t help seeing the lights behind ‘1’ and ‘200’ and ’40’ as being strung together to anything but ‘1,200,040’. The museum carries the high scores (for all players, as well as for senior and child groups, as well as for male-versus-female), and those agreed that this was supposed to be a game where all the scores were whole multiples of ten thousand: ‘1,240,000’ and nothing below. You see my point about inflation, there, too, but it does make a three-digit score look more exciting to take so much space to write. Nevertheless, I don’t like being shown that I don’t add together three very simple numbers in the same way the artist who painted the backglass thinks I should have. In jotting down my score I did bow to the implied peer group, even if it gave me an extra 39,060 points.

It’s a sort of hybrid between positional notation and the Roman numerals sort of method, where V and L and D represent the same number of different-sized units. The 5 in the millions column, the 500 in the hundred-thousands, and the 50 in the ten-thousands columns have the same sort of relationship. But since each of the numbers carries its magnitude around, there isn’t the need for a strict position-based system. The numbers can be spread across the pinball’s entire backglass display, or even the playing field if the game designer so chooses. All that’s lost is the ease of glancing somewhere particular to see the score.

What I hold against it, mainly, is that if a light bulb has burned out one loses the digit. That’s a small loss in the ten-thousands column, but given how long it takes to get through a million points a bad bulb can throw off the entire score.