If you haven’t yet heard, pinball is having a resurgence.
At least it is in the Washington, D.C., area; the site pinballmap.com lists about 20 bars and restaurants with pinball machines inside the Beltway alone.
On a recent balmy spring evening, Stephanie Traub is playing in a charity pinball tournament for a local library branch at Lyman’s Tavern, a D.C. bar. A State Department lawyer by day, Traub, 37, is the top-ranked woman in Washington and 19th in the country, according to the International Flipper Pinball Association, an organization that tracks pinball players. Men and women regularly compete against each other in tournaments, though increasingly women like Traub are organizing their own leagues and tournaments to encourage more women to play.
“This game is awful,” she says as her ball falls past the flippers, ending her turn. “Argh,” she groans. Game over.
Traub plays in weekly tournaments there and often broadcasts her games on the live-streaming platforms Twitch and Facebook Live. (Disclosure: Twitch is owned by Amazon; Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) They typically attract about 1,000 unique viewers, Traub says, but they’re among the small fish in the growing pinball video ecosystem. One Twitch account, DeadFlip, has 2.7 million unique views. Watching pinball online is an important way to improve your game; it helps familiarize you with machines that you might need to play on during a tournament.
Great pinball players have different strategies for every machine they encounter. Some tournaments use only classic machines, which have shorter game times and smaller flippers than newer ones. Other tournaments have participants play rounds on every era of machine. And some machines are heavier than others, which makes them harder to “nudge” — that’s when a player bumps or tilts the table to shift the ball’s trajectory. Many manufacturers even install tilting mechanisms to keep players from nudging games too hard. Nudging is one of the few areas of the game where physical strength comes into play.
Men don’t have much of a natural physical advantage in pinball — no woman I spoke to had any difficulties with nudging — but it remains a male-dominated activity in the same way that video games and bar sports like pool are. Plus, many of the most popular pinball machines are decorated with cartoonish or sexualized images of women. There’s even one called Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons, which features a blond woman in cutoff shorts and a bikini top holding two watermelons in front of her breasts. Traub herself owns the game Baywatch, complete with Pamela Anderson in a small red swimsuit.
One of the few other women players at Lyman’s, Mollie Lee, tells me that she does consider the images and themes of many of the machines to be sexist, but the 27-year-old likes playing on them enough to put on blinders. The biggest pinball maker in the country, Stern, still designs new games (including, recently, one with a “Game of Thrones” theme), so she hopes more non-offensive ones are on the way.
Meanwhile, Traub’s gone back to play Pabst Can Crusher again. No one’s watching her closely — it’s bad form to stand over a machine while someone is playing. She has a good turn, and when she’s done, she’s smiling. “It’s very fulfilling, in a weird way,” she says. “You’re alone, but you don’t feel alone.”
Mikaela Lefrak is the arts and culture reporter for WAMU-FM (88.5).