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Portrait by Kane FeaverSimon Hax­ton was once an oper­at­or. If you played a pin­ball machine in Wel­ling­ton any time up until about 2008, there’s a good chance it was one of his. You prob­ably didn’t, though: pin­ball, post its 1970s hey­day, was until recently in eclipse. Now it’s hav­ing a renais­sance, and Hax­ton — for whom pin­ball is once more a hobby, a “pro­ject”, not a busi­ness — is lov­ing it.

So why the pin­ball comeback? “Maybe it’s a reac­tion to all the online games we have now,” Hax­ton says, look­ing over at one of his machines in the back of the gig ven­ue Moon, where we are meet­ing. “Pin­ball is some­thing very tact­ile… it’s a very phys­ic­al sport, if you want to call it a sport.” Do you? “That’s a good ques­tion. It hasn’t been recog­nised as a sport. At a tour­na­ment last year in Christ­ch­urch, Sev­en Sharp did a story on us and called us all ‘pin­ball ath­letes’. But it was a bit of a dig.”

Speak­ing of tour­na­ments, Hax­ton has just won the Pukekohe IFPA Pin­ball Clas­sic, New Zealand’s premi­er pin­ball event, hos­ted by a man who has “prob­ably New Zeal­and’s largest col­lec­tion” of machines — around 100 of the beau­ties. Hax­ton has a more mod­est col­lec­tion of 20, though the num­ber of those he can keep at home is lim­ited by the size of his work­shop. “I wish I could have kept everything that I have bought, but unfor­tu­nately I can’t.” But then life is full of wishes. “I also wish I could have a games room and a work­shop. At the moment, I have a work­shop which is a games room.”

So what got him hooked on pin­ball? An imme­di­ate answer: “Black Knight”. Now a pin­ball clas­sic, it turned up in his loc­al arcade in the early 1980s, when Hax­ton was a teen­ager. “It really excited me to play it. I’d just go back and play that game again and again and again. I remem­ber scor­ing 3 mil­lion one day, and I nev­er for­got that score.”

One curi­ous thing about pin­ball machines, which you learn when someone is repair­ing them — as one of Haxton’s friends does, this day at Moon — is that the insides are almost empty. The wooden board of the play­ing field lifts off, but apart from a tangle of wires on its under­belly, all that’s inside are a few coins.

Pin­ball is no empty pas­sion, though. Each machine tells its own story, often reflect­ing the pop cul­ture of its era: space explor­a­tion in the 1960s, disco in the 1970s, and so on. The less excit­ing ones, to an out­sider at least, are the tie-ins, like the forth­com­ing Hob­bit game. Far more inter­est­ing are the idio­syn­crat­ic ones like Bride of Pin•bot, in which the play­er has to human­ise a female robot, send­ing the ball around ramps and pivots to unlock her eyes, heart and voice. It’s a self-con­tained story that exists only in the pin­ball game, a world cre­ated in lights and flippers.

That’s what draws in people like Hax­ton — that, and the basic sat­is­fac­tion of get­ting things right, “hit­ting the shots that make you feel good”. And so the involve­ment grows. Hax­ton plays the machines, col­lects them, sells and buys them, puts them in ven­ues, even restores them when they get “com­pletely shagged”.

The com­merce of pin­ball has its own fas­cin­a­tions. A new pin­ball game can cost $13,000. There are legendary games, like The Addams Fam­ily, made in 1991 and still the best-selling game of all time — although one called Medi­ev­al Mad­ness “is prob­ably the most sought after” for collectors.

But Hax­ton also likes pin­ball because it’s social, col­lab­or­at­ive. On Thursday, 5 March, he and two oth­ers are put­ting on a big inter­na­tion­al pin­ball tour­na­ment at Moon. “We’re going to bring in as many games as we can fit in that front room,” he says, ges­tur­ing. Play­ers will come from around the world, and tour­na­ment points will count towards the offi­cial rank­ings of the Inter­na­tion­al Flip­per Pin­ball Asso­ci­ation. And what sets the top play­ers apart? “It’s kind of about under­stand­ing the machine,” Hax­ton says, “because every machine is different.”