Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Men versus Machines

When I was a kid, hanging around pool halls or taverns was taboo. I had a friend named Jon, who, like me, had for a time, a paper delivery route. Except that Jon's, unlike mine (which was in a strictly residential neighborhood), included the seedier parts of the little California town in which we lived, where there was one of probably only two or three places where pool tables and pinball machines were. In very short order, my friend got to spending time playing snooker when he was supposed to be delivering papers.

I never got interested in pool, partly because it was never available to me during my formative years. At an age when guys were likely to take it up--between, say, the ages of 16 and 25--I was into philosophy and poetry and classical music. I didn't take up smoking or drinking either, so that world was largely closed to me. Gambling, getting loaded, or high, or simply into some small-time mischief, just never was in the cards for me. Which made it slightly difficult for me to understand why another friend I had, many years later, got such a kick out of spending weekends in Reno or Las Vegas, dropping $500-2000 on the blackjack, poker, roulette or craps tables, eating cheap food and generally wasting a lot of free time. He and his wife were such practical, level-headed types 98% of the time, it made me wonder what they saw in it.

When I was attending the Iowa Writers' Workshop in the early 1970's, the head of the department was George Starbuck. George was a sort of erudite polymath who could talk intelligently about almost any subject under the sun. He had an explosive wit, and could be charming and persuasive when he needed to be. But George could, on almost any given afternoon, be found hunched over a pin-ball machine in a local town tavern, transfixed by the progress of the little silver ball on its route down the lively obstacle course of the electrified turrets and flippers and buttons. He wasn't drunk, he wasn't depressed (at least not obviously so), he just loved to play that pin-ball machine. (We, his students, used to speculate that the pin-ball machine was a metaphorical representation of how his lively mind worked, ricocheting puns and rhymes and cross-rhythms as cute as any in his playful light verse poems.)

The thing about pin-ball machines is that there's only so much "body language" you can use to exert "influence" over the progress of the ball, before the machine--armed with sensitizers set to sense changes in the balance of the carriage--goes into "tilt" mode, terminating the game. Serious pin-ball enthusiasts have a dialogue with the "tilt" sensors, giving the box a gentle little nudge, now and then, to coax the ball a little bit to the left, a little bit to the right, to get just that merest edge to keep the ball bouncing off the sides and stations, lighting them up and making them chime and buzz and bong and buzz and ring.

My point in talking about pin-balls is that it always seemed to me that playing a game in which the putative "opponent" is a machine, rather than another human being (or an animal, such as a horse), always seemed like an artificial contest, one in which the "skill" or ability in winning was waged against another automated, concocted, engineered human construct. Competing with machines may be the ultimate human irony.

In the pre-computer age, trying to beat machines such as pin-balls, or slot machines (or "one-armed bandits"), had a silly futility about it, as if the simple act of playing were nothing but an admission that the time spent doing so was as meaningless as the life of the player. The probability of actually "winning" on a pin-ball, or on a slot-machine--feeding coins in one by one and yanking on the crank-arm, over and over and over--seemed very much beside the point, because whatever the pay-off, in pleasure, or the relatively tiny "purse" might be, nothing could be more demeaning than submitting to the seduction of such puny diversions. Toys for adults.

I must admit to having something like the same feeling of pointless futility when confronted by the personal computer. What, after all, is a computer, but a sort of arcade game screen, a very sophisticated bar-machine with more bells and whistles than we could ever have imagined as children growing up in the 1950's, '60's '70's or '80's?

People who spend time in bars, drinking, or looking for action, have to have some kind of diversion. How much idle talk is there, after all, to fill up an afternoon or an evening in a state of semi- or total inebriation? There are a lot of weird games people think up to entertain the slaves of the bottle, or the lonely and aimless, or the bored and restless. Is there something I missed over the years, unable to see the joy and fun in playing these mechanical toys?

Pin ball and slot machines are very much American things. Both were invented here, and have evolved and been perfected over the decades. Since the emergence of the silicon chip, they have become quite sophisticated, though the unpredictability and challenge are inherently limited to the aptitude of the user (or player). The pin-ball player of 1940 would be astonished at how sophisticated places arcades are today, though the underlying relationship between player and game has not appreciably changed.

Playing such mechanical games is in fact a form of gambling, of course, though their lower risk level may be a reflection less of the sensible control of jeopardy, than of a reduced estimation of the potentials of a given life. Anything built by man can be overcome by man. But the point of novelty or "entertainment" machines seems more a kind of artificial pastime, than of any ultimate test of ability or knack. People seem to feel the need to indulge in some kind of permitted play, perhaps wanting to revisit the innocent delight of childhood, or the sense of mischief experienced in adolescence.

These machines are so sophisticated today, that probabilities can be "set" to payoff with a mathematical regularity which insures their profit-making return. With pin-ball machines, the difficulty is only rewarded with free games. Any pin-ball which is too easy, or too hard, quickly bores its user. Most people who play slots--like those who play card games or the like--really expect to lose. Gambling addiction is a well-identified psychiatric disorder, as powerful as the addiction to drugs or sex. But gambling is not restricted to casinos or tavern machines.

The Stock Market is the ultimate casino, where the only real reliable winners are those who run the joint--the brokers and fund managers, and the insiders who cheat the system.


J said...
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