State v. One “Jack and Jill” Pinball Machine
Springfield Court of Appeals, Missouri, Nov. 21, 1949
224 SW 2nd 854

The prosecuting attorney of Greene Country, Missouri sought to destroy a pinball machine in play in his jurisdiction, arguing that it was a gambling device, prohibited by law. The defense responded that the machines only rewarded success with free games, and the Missouri statute merely proscribed payouts in “money or property,” neither of which included extended play.

The eloquent Presiding Judge Vandeventer penned his opinion regarding this contraption “designated by [an] alliterative and euphonious cognomen.” In doing so, he reviewed the corresponding laws in a variety of states, a number of which drew the line more generally against winning “things of value.” Some of them counted extra-games valueless within the purview of the statute, and he agreed. His discourse is worth reading:

Does the player get property for his nickel? We think not. It is argued that he gets amusement. The vacuous mind that may momentarily be brightened by finding entertainment and amusement in watching a metal ball meander aimlessly over the surface of an inclined table and finally score by dropping from sight into an aperture therein, would be equally entertained by watching a certain species of scarabaeoid beetle aimlessly roll his putrid ball across the ground and into a hole where eventually it becomes sustenance for itself and  young. Would not the entertainment and amusement in each instance be the same though five cents is paid to pull the plunger in the one and in the latter, the propulsion is by the beetle and its accomplishments are not emblazoned upon an electrically lighted scoreboard. The privilege of watching either would certainly not be property . . . and we shall not dignify either by holding it to be “a ‘thing’ of value.”

If a free game is property or a thing of value, what kind of value has it? Certainly it has no educational or intellectual value. How could watching a rolling ball bounce from peg to pin and then disappear, enrich the mind or broaden one’s intellect? After its propulsion by the plunger, gravity moves the balls but that law of physics was discovered by Sir Isaac Newton and became common knowledge more than two centuries ago. Such information is not acquired by inserting a nickel in a pinball machine. From the beetle, one might learn some new fact relating to entomology but nothing from “Jack and Jill.” If there is educational value in either, it preponderates in favor of the beetle. A free play certainly has not the educational value of a picture show, which in addition to entertainment and amusement, brings before the eyes and ears of millions, scenes and descriptions of faraway places, fine acting, historical facts and scientific maters that could be, by them, viewed or heard in no other way. Few modern developments have more education value than the cinema.

A free game has no physical value such as a game of golf, which by its pleasurable exercise, coupled with fresh air and sunshine develops the muscles, invigorates the body and creates a feeling of physical well being, thereby improving health and prolonging life. No such benefits appears here. To be allowed to do a useless thing free does not make that privilege property or “a ‘thing’ of value” because one has previously paid for doing another such useless thing. There is a vast difference between cost and value. Permission to use a useless device is not property or “a ’thing’ of value,” though the device used cost money to construct.

Does the player receive anything of financial or economic value? Rather isn’t this so-called recreation and amusement the antithesis of value? If one’s time is worth anything, it is a loss instead of gain, a waste instead of reward. Hope of reward or gain, above the amount risked, is the lodestone of gambling. The fact that one has paid five cents for it does not conclusively fix that, or any other sum, as its value or any value at all.

In this connection, philosophers engage in what’s called value theory, a discipline that ranges across ethics and aesthetics. In the latter, the focus falls upon markers of quality and desirability in the arts and features of winsomeness in the natural world, whether people or landscapes. The former concerns the highest goods and aims for humans. Aristotle was a “church father” in this regard, speaking of the Summum Bonum, the highest good, which, in his estimation, was happiness. It echoes in the opening words of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which says government is designed to achieve and secure, for its citizens, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Of course, there is some danger of circularity in the definition since “to be happy” may mean essentially to get what one wants, so, of course, happiness is what we want. Be that as it may, this leaves open the huge question of what those secondary goods that lead toward happiness might be. And here, philosophers, have a heyday.

In her 1998 presidential address to the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association, Mary Mothersill spoke on “Old Age,” and asked, “Is longevity, other things being equal, a positive good? More generally, is sheer longlastingness ever a feature to be admired?” People seem averse to dying, but do they really want to live forever or even an inordinately long time? The Tom Hanks character in The Green Mile was not particularly happy with his long, slow aging process, whereby he outlived all his friends. And that doesn’t even touch the special concern of Buddhists and Hindus to break the cycle of rebirth, gaining release into Nirvana.

Children have been known to play the Why Game, driving their parents crazy with deeper and deeper probes into the mysteries of everyday life:

 

“How much further is it to grandma’s house?”

“About an hour.”

“Why?”

“Because we’re about 60 miles away?”

“Why?”

“Because we left at 3:00.”

“Why?”

“Because your soccer game wasn’t over till 2:00.”

“Why?”

Etc.

 

At a certain point, you just have to say something like, “Because that’s the way it is.” The same is true of value assessments. You enroll in college because you want a degree, because you need it to qualify for graduate school, because you want to be a teacher, because you want to live a life of study and discourse in philosophy, because you think it’s your calling, because you . . .” After a while, you may simply come to something like the purported utterance of Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, when his sister urged him to go to the mission field directly instead of training for the Olympics: “Ah, Jenny, the Lord made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

Protestant Reformers, speaking through the Westminster Catechism, said that the “chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Contemporary pastor/theologian John Piper has tweaked it to say that we “glorify God by enjoying him forever.” And so we might ask if this is both compelling and operative in our own lives. And what this might say about the value of an extra pinball game or two along the way.

Discussions of value are far ranging, and the study is complicated by the fact that the word ‘good’ is the most general term of approbation, applying to a good dog, a good man, a good milkshake, a good time, and a good statute as well as a good statue. Furthermore, there is a host of distinctions to be drawn in the discussion, e.g., the difference between intrinsic goods and instrumental goods (whereby Kant construed “rational nature” a good-in-itself, as opposed to a hammer’s good-as-a-means-only); between commensurable and incommensurable goods. But Judge Vandeventer should give a good (there’s that word again) starting point.