The city of Oakland, CA is poised to decriminalize pinball this week after an eight-decade ban on the arcade staple that labeled them as gambling machines. (via San Francisco Chronicle)

In case you didn’t know about this odd footnote in gaming history, thousands of cities across the United States banned pinball machines in the 1930s. Flippers had not yet been added, so patrons would insert a nickel, pull back the plunger, and just hope for the best. Winners received cash payouts from the machines’ proprietors. Without flippers it was just a game of chance, and so police officers confiscated thousands of machines as part of a general crackdown on urban vice.

Flippers were invented in the ’40s, and by the ’50s and ’60s the machines were more popular than ever, so most cities simply let the laws drift into unenforced obscurity like so many blue laws. A handful of cities still maintain the ban, however, like Beacon, NY, where a pinball museum and arcade was shut down in 2010. San Francisco allows the machines, but only with a permit.

Oakland hasn’t enforced the ban since World War II, with machines regularly played at bars and arcades across the city, so lifting the ban is largely a symbolic gesture. The move is part of a broader effort from the city to reexamine its policies on gambling. In particular, the pinball bill is linked to a ban on Internet sweepstakes cafes where customers play online games of chance for cash payouts. The cafes have apparently acted as magnets for drugs, prostitution, and general hooliganism. The state of California is currently working to ban the cafes, but Oakland wants to get ahead of the curve.

The measure will go before the Oakland Public Safety Commission tomorrow, and if successful will pass on to the full city council in July.