THE DRESBACH PINBALL THESIS
By Russ Jensen
This is the second time I have attempted to write a review of a University Masters' Degree thesis on the subject of pinball - and I am only aware of three theses on that subject. My previous review was of a thesis written by my good friend and fellow pinball historian Rob Hawkins back in 1976. This time I will review the thesis titled "Art and Design of Pinball Machines; Proposal for More Aesthetically Designed Machines" which was submitted by Chad Dresbach in May 1996 to Kent State University in Ohio for partial fulfillment of a Master of Arts degree.
Before I begin my review I would like to say a little about it's author Chad Dresbach and how I became acquainted with him.
I met Chad at a Pinball Expo in Chicago (in 1994, I believe). He introduced himself to me and told me that he was in the process of preparing a Master's Thesis on the subject of pinball art and design. I thought that was interesting and told him of a similar thesis on pinball art which a French student had recently completed. During that show Chad interviewed many people to gain information for his project.
Chad also expressed an interest at the time in helping me get the French thesis translated into English I later loaned him a copy of that document, but he was never able to find anyone to translate it. About a year later we passed the copy on to someone else who had volunteered to get it translated, but after another year that attempt also ended in frustration! Then at Pinball Expo '96 I loaned the copy to another person who said a friend could do it. But, at the time I'm writing this (almost a year later) I still have not obtained a translation!
Now back to Chad and his thesis. By the time of Pinball Expo '96 I had lost track of Chad - only knowing he had moved from Kent State University in Ohio to a small college in South Carolina. But in July 1997 I not only found Chad's Internet email address, but also discovered that his thesis had been finished! I then set out to get a copy.
After an exchange of email with Chad he was able to send me the entire thesis, including all the illustrations (6 even in color!) via the Internet - "cyberspace" sure is great! I then printed the document on my printer and thus had it to review.
I will now attempt to describe the basic information presented in the thesis, similar to what I did for Rob Hawkins' thesis awhile back. The thesis, of course began with an "Introduction".
Chad began by stating that pinball is "a largely American industry" - with the origins of the game "founded in American popular culture". He then quoted Canadian Wayne Morgan as referring to pingames as "sculptures you can play" - but said that this "was not a widely held view", then mentioning several "negative images" that pinball has had over the years.
The purpose of his thesis, Chad then said, was to "propose a series of designs for pinball graphic and playfield layouts which illustrated 'design principles'". He then went on to say that the graphical presentations of these designs will "display appropriate subject matter which relates to the component layout in a contributory and constructive manner, while still maintaining the popular appeal of an interesting game to play".
After then remaking that the component layout (function) and surface graphics (form) of pingames have only been "marginally related" up to now, Chad commented that the presence of pingames in the culture has "traditionally been seen as arbitrary". Finally, he said that the solutions he will present include playfield and backglass layouts which will be presented in flat color posters which was "the prerequisite stage to three- dimensional component mock-ups".
THE "PROBLEM RATIONALE"
In the next section, labeled "Problem Rationale", Chad began by saying he had been "intrigued with pinball graphics" and attending industry trade shows allowed him the opportunity to interview people involved with the industry - past and present. He then said he also interviewed others including authors, artists, lawyers, professors, etc.
The next research phase, Chad went on, was "reviewing the documented presence of pinball within the culture". The sources reviewed he said included: histories of pinball artwork, movies, recordings, advertising, literature, and works of art. He then commented that research resulted in the realization that there is "a substantial body of pinball related material". This included he said: a number of highly collectable books; a large body of dedicated advertising; and reference in contemporary literature, popular music, and stage presentations.
After commenting "more than innocuous artifacts of the culture which are discarded and forgotten, pinballs are regarded as utilized by individuals within the culture", Chad remarked that the machines "represent a rich area of manufacturing interest, collectability, and publications, involving significant numbers of individuals influential to the culture". He then told of the hypothesis on which he had founded the final decision for emphasis for his thesis.
After stating his hypothesis in detail, Chad simplified it as follows: "Since there is evidence that people within the culture retain those images, would it be possible to design machines which are more reflective of the aesthetic and functional sensibilities of the culture?". He then ended that thought by saying "could machines be designed which may cease to be 'generic' and non-constructive, and instead be designed to reinforce an idea or concept, or even communicate some message?".
The next section, titled "Background", began with the comment that a brief background history of pinball was contained in Appendix A to the thesis. Chad then said that an examination of the surface graphics of pinball machines would be helpful in understanding the problem he had set out to solve. He then began a sub-section titled "Layout".
That section began with Chad stating that Bally's 1981 pingame EIGHT BALL DELUXE had the game of pool as it's theme. Both pinball and pool, he went on, "necessitate intentional shots" which has caused pool to be a recurring theme of pingames.
After describing the extreme popularity of that game when it was first originated and continuing many years thereafter, Chad described the game's playfield features in detail. At that point he remarked that even though the playfield graphics depicted the game of pool, if those graphics were striped away "the game could serve this theme (pool) as well as many others." He then continued describing more of the game's play features in detail.
Chad next began contrasting EIGHT BALL DELUXE with an earlier Gottlieb game with a pool theme, BANK-A-BALL from 1950. This game - an electro- mechanical pin from a different era - he said had a playfield designed as a rectangle which was "more in line with the proportions of a pool table". He further described the playfield as having stationary targets representing pool balls along the sides and top, as well as six "gobble holes" (holes which when a ball drops into them, the player looses the ball after achieving certain scoring) which were placed on the field in positions analogous to the holes on a standard pool table.
This playfield layout, Chad went on, is "much more sensitive to issues of form and function than EIGHT BALL DELUXE". He then remarked that in BANK- A-BALL the ball was even launched onto the field from a special ball shooter at the bottom center of the field (as opposed to the normal right-hand plunger of most pingames - including EIGHT BALL DELUXE) which he said was "analogous to the 'break shot' in pool". After next remarking that "the uncluttered playfield appropriately translated strategies found in pool to the pingame", Chad went on to describe in detail the play/scoring characteristics of the game.
The sub-section ended with Chad commenting that the contrast between these two pool theme games "provides an identifiable, though grossly over- simplified, view of the relationship of form and function of these machines". He then remarked "this establishes a framework for analyzing the component makeup and playfield strategy for any pingame" when responding to the question "what does the particular machine have to do with this particular theme?"
The next sub-section, titled "Surface Design", began with Chad drawing a rough parallel between commercial advertising and pinball graphics. He started by quoting an author who once wrote that when historians and archaeologists of the future discover our advertisements those will be "the richest and most faithful daily reflections that any society ever made", remarking that the same idea would apply to pinball graphics as well.
After quoting a pinball book author as stating pinball backglasses are "the single most important aspect of the game", Chad commented that even though pinball surface graphics may not affect the component layout or play of the game, they "serve to register the initial impression of a machine on a player", which he said was "similar to the effect of an advertising billboard."
Chad next remarked that the surface design "must serve to differentiate the game from other games ... and to get the attention of the prospective player", again comparing that with a billboard. After then commenting that the graphics of pingames have "reflected styles and trends within the popular culture", he said that the typical audience for pinball has traditionally been young working-class males and typical locations for games have been saloons, arcades, corner pharmacies, etc..
For those reasons, Chad went on, pinball graphics "didn't reflect works of 'fine art'" since the machines weren't found in museums and galleries, but reflected things associated with the city streets, the themes also being related "to their audience using principles borrowed from advertising and reflecting contemporary interests and motifs".
Turning to the subject of pinball art styles, Chad began by remarking that, as in the case of 'fine art', it is "possible to identify the work of specific pinball artists as stylistic conventions emerge". He then referenced a figure in his thesis containing some examples of the work of pinball artist Jerry K. Kelley produced during the period from 1966 to 1971. Chad then commented that Kelley's style distinguished him from his contemporaries, and was later emulated by other pinball artists.
Questions arise, he went on, as to the "appropriateness of the artwork with regard to the theme of the game". He then commented that stylistically Kelley "approached these themes similarly, seemingly disregarding an individual approach necessitated by a particular theme", remarking that "a machine based on a western theme is handled in much the same manner as one with a crime theme".
After commenting that Kelley's art seemed to emulate a form of cubism (which is at least a reference to "high art"), Chad commented that the purpose of pinball artwork "is to increase player appeal" which he did not think Kelley's work did well. However, he went on, Kelley's work was used on many machines, distinguished the games, and was "an attempt at borrowing from 'fine art'" - but he added "it wasn't popular".
As a final comment on Kelley's artwork, Chad compared the "cubistic artwork" illustrated with an earlier Kelley backglass from 1964. In that example he remarked "he is capable of handing the human figures in a manner other than 'abstract angularity'", adding "there is at least some attempt (by Kelley) being made to approach the game's theme with the sensitively to the subject matter".
Chad next began commenting on the examples of pinball which were illustrated in four more figures. In Bally's OLD CHICAGO (1976) he said that the game's theme of "gangland Chicago of the 1920's" was approached using Art Deco styles typical of that period and "includes colors and motifs appropriate to this style". In Williams' SPANISH EYES (1972) Chad said that "no images suggest themselves", so this "was likely a game in which the playfield layout was designed and theme and graphics later assigned to it", the style of the backglass appearing to be a "stained glass panel".
In Bally's LADY LUCK (1984), Chad then remarked, "the style of the surface graphics clearly references the style of poster designer Patrick Nagel", which he added was "interesting as Nagel's style carries heavy Art Deco influences". The final example given was Bally's BOOMERANG (1974) about which Chad commented "the illustration style is exceptional due to it's attentive and realistic depiction of the scene presented", adding that it shows an actual location in Australia, and that the aborigine shown "challenges the assumption that all pinball-type graphics are arbitrary, insensitive, and sexist caricatures".
The sub-section ended with a conclusion of the analysis presented, Chad saying that "in a grossly general sense, the graphics depicted on pinball machines have tended to work apart from, or despite, playfield layout", then commenting briefly on the range of artistic styles used - ranging from "comic book" and "pulp" to "some approaching fine(r) art". "Consistent approaches to varied game themes", Chad went on, "work to diminish rather than distinguish the presence of pingames".
Finally, Chad began by remarking that pinball graphics "are not presented in a manner due to a mandate, with notable exceptions". After commenting that games exhibiting exceptional graphics are the most collectable, Chad said that it is possible to vary the surface graphics approach of a game and "create graphics which distinguish the game itself, more suitably presenting it's theme, maintaining aesthetic sensibilities, and enhancing playfield layout (and game play)".
The next section of the thesis, titled RETROFITS, began with Chad explaining how during and shortly after World War II production of new pingames was halted by the Government due to a shortage of war-essential materials. Many of the pinball companies, he went on, "reordered their workload to contribute to the war effort". Chad then told how pinball continued to be a popular form of amusement during the war - there was still a market for the games, he commented, yet no new machines could be produced!
Chad next told of the industry's response to the situation being to 'retrofit' existing games with "new graphics reflecting contemporary themes" - in many cases using parts from unusable games when the whole machine could not be used. For these retrofits, he commented, "new sets of playfield decals, backglasses, etc. would be produced" for location owners to use to update their existing games. He then remarked that those "brand new games" utilized "the playfield layout, components, and mechanism of an old game", but having new graphics (and theme) and "hopefully renewed customer interest".
After referencing a figure in the thesis illustrating backglass changes used on a retrofit game, Chad told of various themes used in wartime conversions (such as HIT THE JAPS), saying that when viewed from a "contemporary perspective" at the time those themes were "acceptable, morale- building propaganda for a country engaged in war". Chad then remarked that even after the war some retrofitting of pingames occurred sporadically, "most commonly used in export markets". He then commented on the fact that data on the number of retrofit models produced is generally not available today "due to the nature of the process".
After commenting that "retrofitting was a manufacturing response to a cultural trend", Chad remarked that "recycled playfield layouts were occasionally run into with pingames". He then referred to two illustrations of this shown in the thesis.
First Chad compared the playfield layout of Gottlieb's 1962 game TROPIC ISLE with that of Bally's MOON SHOT (the first new Bally flipper game when they returned to that format in 1963). Chad commented that "it (MOON SHOT) borrowed very heavily from TROPIC ISLE".
He next compared the playfield of Bally's CHAMP of 1974 with that of their SKY DIVERS from a decade earlier. After remarking that both machine's playfield layout "show little regard to either theme", he commented that only the surface graphics of the games suggested the theme. Chad then pointed out that the series of lights down the center of the playfield of both games somewhat reflected the themes of the games - "a jackpot total increasing (on CHAMP) or a skydiver descending (on SKY DIVERS)".
Finally Chad commented that "with regard to playfield layouts, in some cases a layout could just as effectively work for any given theme". "In fairness", he went on, "a particular layout may be so challenging and engrossing to players that the game would be a success despite it's theme or associated graphics". He ended by remarking that "successfully relating a new theme to an existing playfield depends on the creativity, thoughtfulness, and deliberation of the designers".
That ended the "introductory sections of the thesis. Chad next went into the "meat" of his project - proposed designs of two new games, and a new retrofit.
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