In this computer-driven, video-mad age, when one version of Sega, PlayStation or Nintendo is updated and out on the market faster than you can say "download," a group congregates in a Columbia industrial park every Wednesday and keeps alive the spirit of a forgotten game: pinball.
"It's a throwback to the old days, when you just kind of hung out, and that's what you did," says Sergio Johnson, president and one of four founders of a recreational pinball league in Columbia.
The game's appeal also is in entertainment value that has held up for years despite the influx of new and improved technology.
"With video games, you find the pattern, and you do it over and over," Johnson says. "It gets boring. With pinball, it's always different."
Under the name Free State Pinball Association, about 20 people participate in the Volleyball House Singles League. Games are played at, naturally, Columbia's Volleyball House, but don't let the word "volleyball" throw you. The arena has seven pinball machines, and competitors take on the likes of Johnny Mnemonic, the women of "Baywatch," and athletic studs in "World Cup Soccer."
This league has the same components as leagues for other games considered more traditional. It has a Web site (www.fspazone.org), scouting reports (via the Internet, where devotees tap out tricks for earning higher scores on certain machines), playoffs (with trophies and pinball-related prizes) and other divisions (FSPA includes leagues in Cockeysville and Northern Virginia).
Game night goes this way: Players are loosely divided according to skill into A and B levels; a C level is formed if enough novice players show up. Groups, made of three or four players, will then play four games, each on a different machine.
In a three-player group, six points can be earned per game. The winner, by virtue of the highest score on a machine, gets three points, second place gets two, and third place gets one.
But if the winner scores what is called an "overwhelming victory" - doubling the score of the second-place player - he or she gets an extra point at the expense of the last-place player.
In a four-player group, there are eight potential points, distributed similarly.
There's more to pinball than flashing lights and ringing bells as a player tries to pile up points by denying - or delaying - gravity, which works to pull out of play each ball a player shoots. It's not rocket science, but it might be close.
"Building a pinball machine is just like building a fighter aircraft," said Dave Stewart, another of the league's founders and a man who taught a pinball-machine construction class at the University of Maryland.
Partially paid for by the Lockheed Martin Corp., the class was a joint project between the computer-engineering department and the mechanical-engineering department.
The similarity, Stewart said, "is the process of design, testing and building. A computer built into a pinball machine is the same, in that there is a computer interaction with mechanical parts."
And it's about physics.
"When you're playing a computer-controlled game, if the computer decides you're done, you're done," says Stewart, runner-up in the 1994 Professional and Amateur Pinball Association world championships held in New York. "With pinball, you get beaten by the physical, but sometimes you can control the physics."
And there's an art to it.
Johnson said the artwork and design of machines from the 1950s and 1960s are appealing, calling the machines "classic pieces." Many members of the league, which is always looking for donations of used pinball machines that people generally discard, are collectors as well.
"It's a lot like cats," says Johnson, who owns something approaching 20 pinball machines. "If you have over two, people look at you funny."
And there's the spirit of competition, be it the thrill of victory or the agony of the tilt.
"Achieving a goal you've never done before - be it high score, replay, beating the competition - is always satisfying," Johnson says.
"Even for beginners, there are basic things you get satisfaction out of. As you improve your skill level, you still get satisfaction."