Tackling South Carolina’s Pinball Ban

Tackling South Carolina’s Pinball Ban
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Tackling South Carolina’s Pinball Ban
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Tackling South Carolina’s Pinball Ban
Published on
January 30, 2023
Updated on
January 30, 2023
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This January a bill was introduced into South Carolina’s legislature seeking to overturn a ban on minors playing pinball. 

It sounds strange that anyone would even conceive of such a ban as pinball nowadays is some of the most wholesome, clean fun a kid can have. However, pinball wasn’t always viewed that way, as the law dates back to a time when pinball was more associated by the general public with gambling and organized crime than fun and amusement.

Surprisingly, this is not the first attempt by South Carolina lawmakers to remove this law from the books. There have been two prior attempts (in 2022 and 2016, both unsuccessful) to repeal this ban, making this the third try in recent years.

South Carolina is the only state in the country with a current law prohibiting pinball play in some form, but it wasn’t always that way.

Is Pinball Illegal in South Carolina?

Playing pinball and pinball machines is not generally illegal for adults 18 and over in South Carolina.

However, section 63-19-2430 in the South Carolina Children's Code does state that it is "unlawful for a minor under the age of eighteen to play a pinball machine."

That said, South Carolina's law is generally not enforced and there are many children playing pinball across the state.

Pinball Machine Prohibition

a sad period in history, when pinball was illegal in nyc

As bizarre as it may sound, this is far from the first time pinball has been banned. In the 1940s, as pinball was gaining in popularity, the game found itself banned in several major cities including Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City, where the game was banned for over 30 years.

The reason for the ban was due to an association with gambling and therefore, organized crime. Machines of the time generally did not have flippers and thus were viewed more as games of chance than skill. Proprietors often gave out small prizes to “winning” players, a tradition that lives on in the form of modern arcade tickets and credits.

The bans were first kickstarted by New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia. He claimed that the pinball industry was run by the mafia and that if left unchecked it would “corrupt” the youth, turning them into chronic gambling addicts. Although organized crime did have some involvement with arcades of the day - the connection between pinball and the mob was flimsy at best. If it existed at all.

When the Pearl Harbor attack occurred in 1941, it gave further justification to La Guardia’s crusade. Proponents of the ban complained that the production of gaming machines would use up valuable resources needed for the war effort. La Guardia made an over-the-top show of enforcing his new policy by having policemen raid bars, shops and arcades throughout the city, seizing about 2,000 machines. The mayor and some police chiefs even staged a gratuitous photo shoot where they smashed up a few machines with sledgehammers. Other major cities followed suit and for a while pinball was outlawed in much of the United States.

Eventual Vindication for Pinball

A big change happened in 1976 when the legendary Roger Sharpe testified in front of Manhattan’s City Council. He was tasked to hold a demonstration with a pinball machine right in front of the Council.

His goal was to show the council how the addition of flippers transformed pinball into a game of skill instead of a game of chance, by pulling off a live, precision shot in one attempt. He succeeded, of course, and the ban was swiftly overturned, which helped usher in a boom for the hobby as it became more socially accepted. But the prize-earning element largely disappeared, and some people never fully dissociated the game with gambling devices like video poker and slot machines.

Overturning South Carolina’s Pinball Law

Despite being discredited, this old-timey association between arcade games and gambling still lingers in some areas.

Pushed by South Carolina arcade operator and pinball advocate Frederick Richardson and others, South Carolina State Representative Todd Rutherford (D) is currently spearheading an effort to repeal the law, making the game completely legal in South Carolina for anyone who wants to play pinball, young or old.

Richardson, Rutherford and other supporters argue that police aren’t actively enforcing the law or otherwise preventing children from playing pinball, making the law effectively useless. But that doesn’t change the fact that it should be taken off the books in order to remove a source of potential legal ambiguity which may discourage people from opening arcade businesses in the state. This law being so pointless that no one respects it is just further justification for its removal. 

At Kineticist - we're firmly on the "remove the law from the books" side of the argument. We say, let’s do away with the legal anachronisms, and let the kids have fun with the game of pinball, without fear of legal liability (however unlikely it may actually be).