Women take a place at the pinball table
What happens when female players slam tilt their way into the bright, loud world of pinball?
Jen St. Hilaire playing Attack on Mars. Photo:Gene Hwang
"Are you going to play?" asks Echa Schneider, as I mill around the floor of an espresso bar where a women's pinball tournament is about to begin. She's the founder of Belles and Chimes, the women's only pinball league in Oakland that's sponsoring the event. She knows that I'm a writer here to cover it, but she doesn't think that should stop me.
"You could still play, if you want," she says. I hesitate. At first, I tell myself that it would be better to just observe—you know, for professional reasons—but a half-second later I get honest about the real reason I'm afraid to step forward.
I am bad at pinball.
I look around at the crowd that has gathered to play. The competitors range from young women in their early 20s with killer tattoos to older gray-haired ladies in long, flowing shirts. What the hell, I say. Sign me up.
The tournament is titled "Welcome to Xenon," after the 1980 pinball game Xenon—one of the few machines designed around a female character, albeit a robot one. It's women's history month, and Schneider printed up a series of posters about women who participated in pinball through its history: as mechanical and software engineers, artists, voice actors and composers, even assembly line workers.
Admittedly, there aren't many. It's a disparity reflective of the pinball community as a whole. In her opening remarks, Schneider notes that there are twice as many men named John as there are women in total listed in the international pinball player database. But over the last several years things have been changing, and women in pinball are becoming harder and harder to ignore.
"I am totally blown away at how different the pinball landscape is for women now than when I first started playing competitively a few years ago, or even when I started Belles and Chimes in the fall of 2013," says Schneider. "Here in the Bay Area, participation by women in leagues and tournaments has exploded. She notes that on 2013, pinball tournaments in Northern California had 14 percent female players, on average. A year later—after the creation of Belles and Chimes—it was 24 percent. Since May, Schneider has run three co-ed tournaments where a majority of players were women. "It's something I honestly couldn't even have imagined two years ago," she says.
Like women in so many other cultures and subcultures, female pinball players are also becoming much more vocal about the exclusion they encounter. And with the help of leaders like Schneider, they're pushing back by creating more and more spaces that explicitly welcome women, even—and especially—if they've never played before.
During a break in the tournament, I talk to a young woman named Lianna Lopez. She's hard to miss, in cutoff camouflage shorts and knee-high socks covered in bright pink and blue pot leaves. She's a Belles and Chimes regular, though she plays in competitive co-ed settings as well. The difference between the two, says Lopez, is palpable. "It's all about the points with a lot of the guys. It's a lot more competitive, and sometimes if I win they're not really cool with it. Women can get competitive too, but overall the vibe is really different."
While trading tips with other players is a part of pinball culture, she says that the way men offer advice to women often feels condescending, rather than encouraging.
"There's this sense that they're talking over you, or saying, 'no, you're not supposed to do that!' Or they're in your ear saying, 'shoot for this, do this.' Like, shut the hell up—I'm playing. But at Belles and Chimes, everyone is like, 'you can do it!""
Like a lot of the other female players I talk to, she says she's not much of a video game fan. Although there was an Xbox in her house growing up, Lopez recalls she never really had the chance to get into it. "My brothers would never let me play," she says.
Every woman I meet at the event seems to have a different story about how they found their way to pinball: a partner who liked to play, a machine that just happened to be at their favorite pizza joint, or they heard the word of mouth about Belles and Chimes and wanted to try it out. All the origin stories involve a combination of both opportunity and encouragement—whether or not they stumbled across a place where they had the chance to play, and whether or not they felt welcomed or rewarded enough to continue.
Although most of the people at the event are Belles and Chimes members, I meet one woman who saw the signs and just walked in off the street. Her name is Amy. "When I first came in, I didn't think I was going to sign up," she tells me. "I'm shy. And you know, you don't want to waste people's time. But then I saw the people and they seemed cool."
I try to imagine how Amy would have reacted if she encountered a more aggressive or dismissive crowd around the sign-up sheet—or how I would have reacted. I conclude that most likely, neither one of us would be playing pinball right now. She wins one round, and I win the other two. I'm not sure, but I think I'm starting to get better. When we finish, Amy tells me she's going to come back to Belles and Chimes again.
"I like playing," she says.
Pinball machines are loud, bright, and hard to miss. Although they're a lot harder to find now than their heyday in the late '70s, if there's one in the room, you'll know it. They're the miniature Vegas strips that line the walls of dark arcades and dingy dive bars, pulsing and flashing with light and color, and singing their MIDI siren songs with the larger-than-life braggadocio of a carnival announcer. Even the scoring feels hyperbolic, awarding you millions of points for even the simplest maneuvers.
There's a certain physical violence to game as well; when the small silver ball lands on your flipper you can feel the weight of it, and hear the crack as you slam it towards the back of the machine. When an experienced player gets into a groove, it's kind of like watching a baseball star in front of a pitching machine. At the precise moment when the ball rolls to the right spot on the flipper, they smash it with calculated fury, hard enough to send it flying up ramps that circle around in rollercoaster loops before dropping back onto the playfield. They repeat these moves again and again for maximum points, hitting their mark every time: BANG, around the loop, BANG, around the loop, BANG, around the loop.
For Zoe Vrabel, a Portland, Oregon pinball player, falling in love with pinball was a very physical experience, even though her first introduction to the game came courtesy of an surprisingly digital source: 3D Pinball for Windows, which was originally bundled on Windows 95 machines along with Solitaire and Minesweeper. As an adolescent, pinball was simply a computer game she liked, and eventually grew out of as her teenage years progressed. But everything changed later in life, when she finally had a hands-on experience with the real deal.
"When I moved to Portland and started going out to bars that had these bright, shiny pinball machines, I was like, oh, these are kind of like that game I used to play!" says Vrabel. "For me, it's very tacile. You move the machine—you're physically touching it and making things happen."
Like a lot of people who have played pinball casually, I don't think I've ever really understood it before, or at least what gets people truly hooked on it. I've put the quarters in the slots, and I've mashed the buttons, but a lot of times it felt more like dropping coins in a slot machine with flippers—more like gambling than skill. It's a question that's often been raised about pinball, not just by callow amateurs like myself, but also the numerous American cities that banned pinball as a gambling game for decades. The ban in New York City was finally overturned in 1976, when Roger Sharpe, one of the elite players of the era, was summoned to a Manhattan courtroom to prove that it was a game of coordination, skill and strategy, not blind luck. In one dramatic and defining moment, he called a shot up the middle lane like Babe Ruth pointing out a home run, and delivered. The ban was overturned.
For Vrabel, enjoying pinball was about learning to see the rules and patterns that elude so many beginners, the ones that really make it a game. Every machine has its own rule set, the specific series of actions—like shooting a ball around a certain ramp a certain number of times—that unlock the special events and big scores. That's what really changes pinball from a button-mashing exercise inside a box of sound and color to a test of skill and strategy.
Most players I talk to describe learning the rule sets of a machine as an interactive, cooperative process, one that involves sharing information with other people—including your competitors. It's a phenomenon I get to see first-hand when Vrabel takes me to a release party for a new pinball game, which is themed around the WWE. Everyone clusters around and watches as each player pokes and prods the machine, shooting the ball up this ramp or around this loop to see what happens. Nobody knows the "right way" to play yet, so all they can do is experiment, share insights, and pool their knowledge.
"A lot of times you just have to talk to people who know more than you," says Vrabel. "That's the biggest thing about playing in tournaments as a new player. I always say, talk to the person you're playing against. There's no defensive 'I'm not going to tell you because then I might not win', because if you don't have the skills to play the game, you shouldn't win. Learning the rules of a new game is very collaborative—it's not about hoarding secrets."
For Belles and Chimes member Sarah Michelle Donovan, who used to be very active in the fighting game community, it's a very different vibe—and a welcome one. "In fighting games, nobody's going to be like, 'Oh, let me show you my combo with [Mortal Kombat character] Mileena!" says Donovan. "Pinball has a different vibe; it's more like the player versus the game, than player versus player."
The social aspect of pinball comes up a lot, in part because it's a both an analog experience and a public one. It's not something you can do from your couch, like video games; indeed, the experience of leaving the house, grabbing a drink with friends and playing a game is precisely why a lot of players gravitate towards pinball in the first place. "People get more socialization if they play pinball," says Jen St. Hilaire, one of the Belles and Chimes players. "I think that's a lot of the point of it."
Since her transition from Windows 95 to the real deal, Vrabel has become one of five women in the top 500 pinball players in the world, and a member of Portland's famous (and sometimes infamous) Crazy Flipper Fingers gang. "The entire reason there's a pinball scene in Portland in bars is because Crazy Flipper Fingers would patronize you more often and buy more beer if you had pinball machines and kept them maintained," says Vrabel. "That grew the scene to where it is today, where we have more pinball machines than any city in the world."
While pinball culture at large tends to have a bit of nerdy reputation—attracting what Vrabel calls the "white sneaker crowd"—the Crazy Flipper Fingers has a reputation as a tough, hard-drinking crew that's been in its share of brawls over the years. She's one of a handful of women in the 35-person gang, but it's not hard to see how she's carved out a space for herself; she's an imposing presence, a former college rugby player who stands about 5'10 and isn't afraid to talk (or shout) back at anyone who crosses the line. "I'm kind of drawn to male-dominated spaces in general, just in a 'fuck you, I'm gonna do it anyway' sort of way," she says.
It's a familiar story, not just because I hear it in the subtext of so many of conversations I have with women in pinball, but because it's the way I've lived my entire life: pushing or forcing my way in to male-dominated worlds like comic books, tech, and video games, and trying to make my own space to live in it. In my experience, the fewer women there are around you, the better you have be—the harder you have to work than everyone else—to earn that space.
Vrabel takes me out to several co-ed pinball events in Portland to help me get a feel for them, and one night, she invites another female friend to join us, one who doesn't really play pinball either. We sit there for hours, talking about boys and bad relationships; occasionally, Vrabel jumps up to join her Crazy Flipper Finger pals in a game, or invites me to play one with her.
While I wouldn't have felt afraid to come here on my own, I doubt I would have had the guts to roll in solo and fail grievously at pinball in between these rows of experienced male players. I certainly wouldn't have felt comfortable sitting down and blasting girl talk at a nearby table. But Vrabel belongs here, and she knows it, so we get to belong too.
When I ask Vrabel if she's experienced sexism in pinball, she laughs, and tells me a story about rolling in to a bar in Oakland to play a game called Medieval Madness. Pinball machines tend to be loud and bright, especially when you're playing well, and Vrabel was playing very well indeed; by the time she was done, she had claimed every high score on the machine.
"When I left, there this random guy sitting outside who had noticed me playing, and he said, 'don't worry, you'll get 'em next time.' And I was like, 'actually, I got 'em this time.'" Even in retrospect she sounds frustrated, not just by the knee-jerk dismissal of her abilities but by the relative irrelevance of the man who dared to offer it. "I mean, who are you, random dude I've never met? I'm involved enough in pinball to know that you're not even part of the pinball community, so why do you feel this need to think I'm bad at something you don't even care about?"
As with so many other forms of entertainment, the culture around pinball has problems not only with the way it treats real women, but the way it depicts fictional ones. With very few exceptions throughout its history, women appear on pinball games almost exclusively as sex objects. During one of our several visits to local pinball events, Vrabel shows me a flier advertising for the Playboy pinball machine, which allows operators to swap between clothed and nude photo inserts, and notes, hilariously, that "exciting women can be hiding everywhere!"
But the most notable flashpoint for controversy was a game called Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons, a crude breast-themed pinball game that somehow manages to make the Playboy machine look like an exercise in subtlety. After the announcement of the game—which depicts a young woman named "Melony" holding "ripe and ready" melons up to her chest while a man ogles her, literally drooling—a number of pinball fans started pushing back on social media.
The response from Stern Pinball—the only pinball manufacturer left standing since the industry's decline—was less than ideal. "When women commented about it on the Stern Facebook page, their comments would just get deleted without response," says Vrabel. The few criticisms that remain on the page are written by men, followed by responses from the official Stern account admonishing them to "please respect those who enjoy it" or "go play pinball and have some fun!!!!"
For Vrabel, it sent a clear message that she was all too accustomed to hearing: that pinball was a space where men were entitled to feel comfortable and respected, but one where the comfort and respect of women was not a concern. "If people are just going to shout us down when we talk about feeling objectified and marginalized, then it's not really fun to be around that," she says. "You don't feel like a full member of the group."
Last year, Vrabel represented Oregon at the US National Pinball Championships, where she was the only female competitor in the entire state championship series. "It was just so weird," says Vrabel. "No one was actively creepy to me, but I just couldn't help but notice looking around that it was all men, just men."
She says the elite, professional players end up in a bubble, where they don't encounter many—or any—women, so for the most part, they just don't have to think about it. "They aren't doing much to support women because they don't realize it's an issue, because they just talk to the same top hundred players who are all guys," says Vrabel. "There's only one woman in the top hundred, Helena Walter, and she lives in Sweden."
Helena Walter's name comes up a lot when you talk about women in pinball, because as the top female player in the world, she's the clearest exception to the "rule." When I call her at her home in Stockholm, she tells me that while there still aren't many women at the most competitive levels, she sees more women coming out to events, and that the growth of female players in America is particularly impressive.
"It's accelerating so quickly in the U.S. pinball scene. It's really cool," she says. "I wish I lived there, really, because it's an exciting time for pinball." While the shift in the Bay Area has been particularly dramatic, since the 2013 founding of Belles and Chimes there's also been a larger surge of women-only leagues and events around the country, in cities like Seattle, Toronto, Milwaukee, New York City, Austin, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles.
"Women are taking up more space, and getting into more activities that they didn't before," says Walter. Although she too has gotten her share of snide remarks about how she plays well "for a girl," she says that she's always felt accepted by men once she proved how well she could play.
That's the Catch-22 of so many male-dominated spaces: if women need to be excellent in order to be accepted, how many are really going to stick around long enough to get good? There will always be some, like Vrabel and Walter, who make their way through sheer determination (and perhaps a little bit of contrariness) but plenty of others won't.
Back at the Belles and Chimes tournament, the world of pinball feels a world away from the frustrations they describe, though of course that's by design. The website for the league is peppered with the kind of language meant to explicitly welcome women, and perhaps tip the scales for people like me who might otherwise end up watching instead of jumping in.
"Our goal is to provide a fun, supportive environment for Bay Area women to socialize and play pinball together. Beginner and novice players are encouraged to join," it reads. "We are always excited for new members, and you can join at any point during the season—all you have to do is show up!"
I think about Amy, the new player I met at Belles and Chimes, and how she announced—after losing a round—that she was having fun and wanted to come back again. I think about how many times I lost that day, how little it bothered me, and how much better I felt like I'd gotten at it by the end.
During one of my interviews with Vrabel—the one where she talked the most about her frustrations—the conversation somehow winds its way back to how much she enjoys being a part of the Crazy Flipper Fingers, and how they feel like family now. She talks about the new online pinball forum her friend made, which has a strict code of conduct forbidding harassment and sexist language. And she tells me how excited she feels every time she sees a woman she doesn't know playing pinball: "I just want to go up to her and say, who are you, please stay!"
At the end of the conversation, Vrabel turns to me and says, "you know, I thought I was just going to end up talking you about the sexism that drives me crazy in pinball, but I actually ended up remembering all of the reasons I love it so much," She pauses for a moment, and then her face breaks into a smile. "That's kind of great."
The next time we're out at a bar surrounded by pinball machines, she invites me to step up and play a two-player game with her. We're two of the only women in the room, but she walks around like she owns the place, and her confidence extends around me like a shield. It occurs to me that this is probably one of the most powerful things you can do as a woman in a male-dominated field, and the same thing Schneider is doing too: carving out a space for yourself, and then widening it so there's room for as many other women as possible.
"Sure, I'll play. But I'm going to do really badly," I warn her.
"That's the only way to start," she replies.
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