Ron Brooks, Oklahoma State University
(Published December 15, 2011)
Coin-Drop: Thank You
(CC Flikr user Bruce Turner)
In the title piece to his 1951 book, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, Marshall McLuhan argues that “anybody who takes the time to study the pictorial reportage in the popular press and magazines will easily find a dominant pattern composed of sex and technology. Hovering around this pair will usually be found images of hectic speed, mayhem, violence, and sudden death” (98). At the outset of this essay, as I pull back the plunger to kick this ball into play, I aim to expand McLuhan’s reading of this theme beyond a reading of news and advertising. As a case study, what happens when one reads a text that allows a subject to literally hover around the juxtaposition of sex and technology, not with images alone but with actual hectic speed, mayhem, violence, and sudden death in its various manifestations? With this question in mind, I aim to show that Phython Anghelo and John Youssi's 1991 pinball game The Machine: The Bride of Pinbot proves to be a material manifestation of McLuhan's thinking—both in form and in content. With this expanded reading, I aim to show how a reading of the game helps to illuminate a different way of reading McLuhan's early work.
For the purposes of this essay, I will focus on a moment in McLuhan scholarship when noted communication theorist Donald Theall identified a break in McLuhan’s career between The Mechanical Bride and the books which came after it. The mythology of this break had been fostered by McLuhan himself, who once announced that all the major points of his first book “had been made irrelevant by television” (Winter and Goldman 98). Critics approaching McLuhan from a media ecology angle would eventually caution us not to take McLuhan so directly at his word about his conversion. Nevertheless, by thinking about the early McLuhan we see in The Mechanical Bride as a defender of humanism and the later McLuhan as a media ecologist, we can use for a productive purpose the way that McLuhan situated himself in relationship to those opposing terms at different times in his career. After all, McLuhan’s primary method of composition was to build an argument through the use of oppositions, “a technique by which he continually compares and contrasts opposites—a quasi-philosophical polarization of reality” (Theall 5). By using the critical tools of both the early McLuhan, who stood outside corporate and educational institutions as a critic, and the later McLuhan, who had become a consultant for both, we might be able to read The Machine: Bride of Pinbot in a way that more thoroughly represents “the rag and bone shop” of McLuhan’s entire career.
Shuttle Launch 1: Here Comes the Bride
Coming forty years after McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride, Anghelo’s and Youssi’s The Machine: Bride of Pinbot represents for pinball a pinnacle of digital and analog juxtaposition. It features many traditional analog effects—pop bumpers, rails, shuttles, magnets—but intensifies those with both heightened analog and digital effects. It uses a segmented score display, the pop bumpers are unusually loud, and the game has an early '90s techno-pop soundtrack. Unique to this game is the bride’s rotating mechanical head, a plastic “heart shuttle” that triggers recorded beats, as well as the recorded voice of singer/actress Stephanie Rogers and the digitized voice of pinbot (IPDB). Through sound, light, game play, and eroticism, the game seeks to heighten player experience, and many members of the pinball subculture (as represented at websites like Silverball and Future Pinball) agree that it is one of the best pinball games ever made.
The premise of the game is simple. Astronauts in outer space are given the task of building a bride for Pinbot, an AI-infused robot many players got to know when Pinbot was released the previous year. Like the player of Pinbot, the player of Bride of Pinbot must awaken the artificial intelligence of the robot by sending “shuttles” across the robot’s body. In this case, though, the player literally plays the woman’s body with the goal of awakening her. As the segmented display of the game puts it: Make me sing. Make me live. Make me feel like a woman.
The original sales flyer for the game describes its plot, and its potentially fetishistic undertones, rather succinctly:
She comes to life before players’ eyes! The first shot up the shuttle ramp to her mouth spins her head and activates her vocal circuits. Two balls to her eyes give her another turn for the better and enables her to see, starting 2-ball multi-ball. During multi-ball play, two balls to her neck turns her head for an amazing transformation that gives her life. (IPDB)
And, frankly, “amazing transformation” might actually understate the case. At the precipice of the bride’s transformation to womanhood, the player hears her exclaim, “I feel strange.” One then hears her pulse increase. When the player fully awakens the bride, he or she encounters “dead space” in the game. For the first time in the experience, there are no balls in play. The player has nothing to do but watch. Up to this point, the playing field has been abnormally loud and bright, but here the game goes completely quiet and dark. This darkness is then filled with sudden illumination coupled with a crescendo of erotic tones from the bride. As the player is thrown back into game-play, the balls which had previously filled the bride’s orifices are released on to the field of play, i.e. her body. At this point, the player confronts—for varying lengths of time—the impossibility of keeping her transformed. One of the balls in play inevitably drains and she exclaims, plaintively, “I’m changing back.” Her head then turns, and she becomes an incomplete mechanical bride again.
From a rhetorical perspective, it is not difficult to see why this game was popular, though it is interesting that the original sales flyer attempted to sell the game on its technical as well as its erotic elements. The sales flyer for the game goes on to promise
even more profit power for the best return on investment in the business. There’s the multiple values of the small wheel where players can earn from 50,000 points, to ‘extra ball’ or ‘light the jackpot’ worth up to 8 million points. In addition, THE MACHINE features a challenging ‘shuttle skill shot’ as well as an ‘end of ball bonus’ for rewards that will have players saying “I do” again and again. (IPDB)
At the simplest level, the game is designed to improve coin-drop. A remarkably difficult and unforgiving game, the eroticism may play a role in enticing the player to move beyond its difficulties, to find both the “high point values” and the “intense experience” the game eventually puts out.
Shuttle Launch Two: Here Comes McLuhan’s Bride
For McLuhan, what undoubtedly would have been fascinating is the literalization of the metaphor that he created in his 1951 book The Mechanical Bride. “In the era of thinking machines,” he wrote, “it would be surprising, indeed, if the love-machine were not thought of as well” (99). Could he have imagined a love-machine being created to serve as a bride for another thinking machine? Could he have given us a reason why astronauts needed to build said machine in outer space? These matters might be beyond our speculation. Nevertheless, the theme of McLuhan’s book and the theme of Bride of Pinbot run parallel. “To the mind of the modern girl, legs, like busts, are power points which she has been taught to tailor, but as parts of the success kit rather than erotically or sensuously” (98). One only has to look at the image of the bride to know that the creators of the game wanted to make a being that was all legs and busts, but what’s fascinating from a rhetorical perspective is how the makers of the game sound like McLuhan at his most sardonic: “She’s a woman of the ‘90s. Clever, imaginative, playful—really put together. Turn the machine on and you’ll marvel at all her fabulous features!” (IPDB). They had, in effect, created a Barbie in outer space, but they also attempted to imbue her with the qualities of a liberated woman. As McLuhan, not the makers of the game, puts it:
She swings her legs from the hip with masculine drive and confidence. She knows that “a long-legged gal can go places.” As such, her legs are not intimately associated with her taste or with her unique self but are merely display objects like the grill work on a car. They are date-baited power levels for the management of the male audience. (98)
McLuhan understood that our advertisements brought to the forefront “one of the most peculiar features of our world—the interfusing of sex and technology” (94)—a feature “born of a hungry curiosity to explore and enlarge the domain of sex by mechanical technique, and, on the other, to possess machines in a sexually gratifying way” (94). Forty years later, The Machine: Bride of Pinbot would take the buried warrant that McLuhan makes clear through analysis and use it as a starting point for a game. Make her sing. Make her live. Make her feel like a woman. In the game, the player attempts to stimulate the orifices, gaps, and rails on the bride’s body—thus enlarging the domain of sex by mechanical technique, thus possessing the machine in a gratifying way. This allows a player to directly encounter the mechanization of the female form—one of the best pinball machines ever made.
Multi-ball: My God. She’s Alive
Besides being an interesting representation of a prescient idea, the historical context of Bride of Pinbot's creation moves us beyond a thematic reading of the game. By 1991, conversations about cyborgs were predominant. As Haraway had pointed out in her 1985 Socialist Review article (coincidentally republished in 1991), cyborgs had become reality in science, factories, war, medicine, popular culture, and—significantly—in our sexual acts (149). It is no surprise, then, that in the early '90s designers would incorporate cyborg imagery into their games.1 One could also say that the ease of appropriation of cyborg imagery into masculine fantasy gave critics like Haraway good reason to reclaim that imagery for other purposes. But for the McLuhan writing in 1951, the phenomenon of the mechanical bride, i.e. that which establishes “the pattern of sex as an instrument of power,” creates a cultural difficulty that, despite some of its anachronisms, still has resonance today.
When sex becomes a personal actuality, the established feminine pattern of sex as an instrument of power, in an industrial and consumer contest, is a liability. The switch-over from competitive display to personal affection is not easy for the girl. Her mannequin past is in the way. On the male, this display of power to which he is expected to respond with cars and dates has various effects. The display of current feminine sex power seems to many males to demand an impossible virility of assertion. (99)
In our case, when confronting the mechanization of the female form, the player of the game (whether male or female) eventually has to confront the impossibility of keeping all the balls in play. Inevitably, all of one’s balls will drain and, under this particular structure of power, the bride always changes back. The game always ends, and the player always has to choose whether to insert another quarter or to walk away. In this regard, the idea that “sex has been exaggerated by getting hooked to the mechanisms of the market and the impersonal techniques of industrial production” (99) is a literal one.
But this issue becomes more complicated when one looks at the bride and her players through differing lenses, the kind of lenses that McLuhan might have used later in his career. From the traditionally humanist angle, the bride is imprisoned on a pedestal, forever to be played upon by desiring subjects. From another, though, she is the desiring subject, obtaining pleasure herself by being played. Similarly, one could argue that the player is being played by the makers of the game, held into position by his or her desires, desires which can never be fulfilled and can only be maintained by giving more money to the game. From another, though, as the player learns to master the game, i.e. unlock the game’s secret jackpots, shuttles, roulette wheels, and—the ultimate payoff—the transformation of the bride, the player betters his or her skill and takes pleasure from that as well. In this light, we see possibilities of finding both early and late McLuhan, i.e. traditional humanist and media ecologist threads, in our ways of reading the game.
Shuttle Launch Three, where McLuhan steps through a wormhole to play the game…
So what would McLuhan have made of these possible ways of reading the game? If we allow for a moment the possibility that there could be two McLuhans, we could say that an early McLuhan would ask us to learn to separate ourselves (using new critical forms of detachment and introspection) from the kind of alienating power inherent in a game like The Machine: Bride of Pinbot. One can find evidence that the McLuhan who wrote The Mechanical Bride in 1951, had he been able to experience the game, would have read the game through this kind of lens. After all, McLuhan’s 1951 project was critical of mediums whose primary purposes were to “keep everybody in the helpless state engendered by prolonged mental rutting” (v) and this game, which uses eroticism to persuade its users to play, would most likely meet McLuhan’s criteria for this kind of medium. It is also true that the early McLuhan felt that through “rational detachment as a spectator” (v) there was a possibility of escape from the maelstrom.
The later McLuhan would have viewed this possibility through a different lens, one where a humanistic rational detachment would become impossible. For the later McLuhan, the spectator becomes both the player and that which is plunged into the field of play, thrown from one set of contradictions to another within a world where human connections are made impossible because of the orchestration of news, of advertising, of educational programs, the very machinery that drives human subjects to action. As Jeff Rice explains, “Cool media operate by a choral logic: Users of a given term’s various meanings must actively engage with those meanings in rhetorical ways, discovering unfamiliar and unexpected juxtapositions of these meanings as they compose. Readers, too, respond to chora in a participatory manner unlike typical definitions of meaning or analytical understanding” (35). In this regard, through the lens of the later McLuhan, we can see The Machine: Bride of Pinbot attempting to embody cool media’s choral logic for a reader. Where the traditional humanist would ground logical oppositions in conflict, the later McLuhan would ground them in play. In some way, though, this later McLuhan already exists in The Mechanical Bride. In the preface to the book, McLuhan contextualizes the possibility of escape, i.e. the possibility of becoming fully human, as “an amusement” (v), and the kind of play we see in The Mechanical Bride can be read as the kind of play we see in The Bride of Pinbot.
The later McLuhan would want to know how the image of the mechanical bride works when we relate it specifically to the medium of pinball and the specific culture that brought The Machine: Bride of Pinbot to life. Created at a time when pinball arcades had collapsed into a niche market, Bride of Pinbot may very well have pushed digital and analog juxtaposition to its logical extreme. After all, there are limits on what pinball can do. As Stephanie Rogers, the voice of Bride of Pinbot, wrote in an email to a fan,
recording Bride of Pinbot was very low-fi (as were all pinball recordings at the time)… it was me and my boyfriend in my parents' living room with a portable DAT machine... The character had to be sexy and we did work on that a little bit. Rich Karstens (my boyfriend at the time) gave me some direction and I added some of my own ideas. I remember I had to speak loudly, for recording purposes, which was a little bit of a challenge (sexy *and* loud?). (Silverball)
Just as pinball machines were on the cusp of being overtaken by video games, one could say that this mechanical bride was on the cusp of being overtaken by entirely digital brides, already represented by Samus Aran and later by Lara Croft, Jill Valentine, and numerous other “long legged gals” of the video game world. This was not just game designers employing digital prosthetics to heighten the effects of a game. This was game designers confronting the impossibility of even approximating digital experience in analog space, driving them to increase the volume, velocity, and intensity of the game beyond any that had come before it.
Looking at the game in this light, McLuhan might have been reminded of a literary bride, Frankenstein’s monster, as the excess in the game reminds us of what happens to any medium that attempts to push beyond its limits. For in the entirely analog sense, what is pinball? Is it not that which brings to life the often unseen heart of industrial production, the ball bearing—that small object that by its nature must be perfect? When this object is thrown into a field of play, the player is given a sense of control over its direction. The player watches it vigilantly, as it moves from ramp to spinner to bumper to lane to target, in order to know when it needs to be flipped back into the field, away from the terror of the drain. There are extrinsic rewards, of course, represented in various ways by the score on the backbox, but the intrinsic reward comes by keeping the silver ball in play, by guiding its course of action, by keeping it there, even if, as Gertrude Stein once said, there is no there there. At its heart, the speed and suspense one finds by directing a silver ball with flippers across pins, ramps, and bumpers are possible in a purely mechanized version of the game. In a sense, then, one could say that the love machine that McLuhan imagined would eventually supplant the mechanism that brought its form into being.2 In another sense, though, one could say that the female form that the player manipulates, i.e. the love machine that McLuhan imagined, brought about one of the most technically difficult pinball games ever made.
Looking back at The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, we could make two similar, contradictory claims. Written at a time when humanists were on the cusp of realizing that their project had been overtaken by the corporate, educational, and military-industrial machinery surrounding it, one could argue that the book was simply a document of that moment of realization. In that regard, the book does represent a moment of departure for McLuhan, for never again in his career would he be as optimistic about the potential for human analysis to bring about some kind of escape. Another reading of McLuhan’s book, though, suggests that the book’s thematic prescience pushed both the thematic and technical limits of the book as a medium. There is little doubt that McLuhan understood, even in this early project, that mechanized culture was about to irrevocably change the age of the book. In that regard, the impulse to juxtapose with criticism the visual texts that were starting to bombard us was in effect an attempt not only to enter but also to simulate the maelstrom, to engage it competitively with a text that followed a visual-verbal logic of its own.3
In The Mechanical Bride, McLuhan noted that, in our mechanized culture, we have reached a point of connection with our ancestors who worshiped totems. For our ancestors, “an unconscious identification took place, and this was finally rendered conscious in the half-human, half-animal, figures of the totem-ancestors” (33). “Through acts of literal imitation,” he would go on to explain, “an effective annihilation of the human ego was accomplished and society achieved a cohesive organization” (33). In our industrial age, McLuhan claimed, we see the same annihilation, “only, whereas men in those ages of terror got into animal straight jackets, we are unconsciously doing the same vis a vis the machine” (33). In this light, The Machine: Bride of Pinbot represents a material manifestation of this industrialized totem. In order to understand a new way of reading the early McLuhan, then, one only has to travel back to a time when folks still gathered in arcades. There, you might find us enjoying—and being enjoyed by—one of the most idiosyncratic games ever made.
One could argue that some game designers could be looked at today in the same way that McLuhan looked at reporters in the early 1950s. Comparing the imagery that the news reporter created to the shell of an animal, McLuhan argued, “the reporter doesn’t even know there’s a beautiful shell above him. He grows the shell, unwittingly, subhumanly, biologically” (4). In this regard, Ian Bogost’s project to make us think more specifically about the way that video games persuade could be tied directly to McLuhan’s method in The Mechanical Bride.
One is reminded here of what Derrida said about supplements: they always supplant what they were meant to supplement.
For more context about the project of learning to read visual-verbal texts, see Kevin Brooks’ “More ‘Seriously Visable’ Reading: McCloud, McLuhan, and the Visual Language of The Medium is the Massage.”
Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010.
Brooks, Kevin. “More ‘Seriously Visable’ Reading: McCloud, McLuhan, and the Visual Language of The Medium is the Massage.” College Composition and Communication 61.1 (2009): W217-W237.
Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy.” Dissemination. Barbara Johnson (trans). Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983.
Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simeons, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. NY: Routledge, 1991. 149-181.
Internet Pinball Database (IPBD). “The Machine: Bride of Pinbot.” Accessed 6/14/11.
McLuhan, Marshall. The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. New York: Vanguard Press, 1951.
Rice, Jeff. The Rhetoric of Cool: Composition Studies and New Media. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2007.
Silverball Magic 2.0. “Absolutely Flawless.” Accessed 9/01/11.
Theall, Donald F. The Medium is the Rear View Mirror: Understanding Marshall McLuhan. Quebec: McGill Queens UP, 1971.
Winter, James P and Irving Goldman. “Comparing the Early and Late McLuhan to Innis’s Political Discourse.” Canadian Journal of Communication 14.4 (1989): 92-100.