Pinball—the pastime of slapping buttons and nudging machines to rescue an 80-gram steel sphere from its downhill trajectory — is enjoying a renaissance.

  • The International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA) has gone from 10,000 ranked players to 40,000 over the past five years.
  • Pinball parlors are making a comeback.
  • And new pinball manufacturers now enter the market every year after two relatively stagnant decades.

Yet one thing remains the same: It’s still male-dominated.

Robin Lassonde is the top-ranked female pinball player in the world. At a tournament this summer, a man approached her during a break and asked whether she was playing or just watching. Playing, Lassonde said. “Oh,” replied the man. “I was just asking because I didn’t know if you were here as a cheerleader.”

Lassonde and others are often navigating the pinball community’s sometimes-sexist culture. And a few have pinned their hopes on a controversial solution — a wave of new all-female leagues and tournaments.

Belles & Chimes

“Everybody I played pinball with was a guy,” says Echa Schneider, a competitor in Oakland, Calif., who founded Belles & Chimes, touted as the world’s first women-only pinball league, in 2013. “I really was like, I just want to meet some other women to play pinball with.”

Now Belle & Chimes boasts more than 200 players, with franchises in Oklahoma City, Cleveland, Phoenix, Denver, Chicago, Charlotte, both Portlands, Eugene, Ore., and soon Minneapolis — and a handful of other women’s pinball leagues have formed. Schneider has fielded accusations from complete strangers that Belles & Chimes did the game a “huge disservice” and would “ruin pinball.”

Women in pinball

  • Of the top 200 ranked players in the world, only three are women.
  • IFPA President Josh Sharpe estimates that just over 11 percent of IFPA-registered players are female — though, he points out, that’s up from 8 percent when he began tracking the metric a few years ago.

Sexism in pinball

Pinball bears the scars of a classically male hobby.

Barely clothed fantasy women populate the backglasses and playfields of older machines, often with little relevance to the game’s theme. Echoes of that linger — manufacturer Bally sold a Playboy pinball machine in 1978, Data East copied the theme in 1989, and Stern Pinball released a more modern Playboy version in 2002, this time with optional full nudity.

“When people ask, ‘Why do you need a special women’s league?’ ” Schneider say, “I’m like, ‘This is why, because parts of this industry can be tone-deaf and uninviting.’ ”

One relieved new Belle & Chimes member confided in Schneider that she had competed in a local coed contest that had 12 people and six of the guys asked her out.

Many women have discussed other causes of discomfort on pinball message boards such as Pinside, Tilt Forums, and Rec.Games.Pinball. Elizabeth Cromwell wrote a post called Sexism in Pinball: Practical Examples that touched a nerve. Obvious harassment is relatively rare. More insidious and pervasive are the inadequately disguised assumptions that a female pinball player must be an amateur or some male player’s supportive girlfriend.

“It’s a one-off thing for a guy to be asked, ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’ ” says Zoë Vrabel, the fourth-ranked female player in the world. “It’s an every-time thing for a woman.”

Eyes roll whenever a man calls an exuberant female player “distracting” or grouses about how he can’t believe he “lost to a girl.”

Plus, Schneider says, there’s just something intimidating to a lot of women about “30 dudes being super intense.”

IFPA’s support

Happily, Schneider has found the IFPA supportive of the new women-only tournaments, rankings and leagues.

“I’ve never pretended to put myself in the shoes of the women players out there,” Sharpe, the IFPA president, said in an email, “so my process has always been, let me ask the women and see what THEY WANT.”

And what they want, increasingly, are steps to make competitive pinball less daunting and more inclusive. Schneider feels optimistic and is even finding male players less likely to see their female counterparts as lower-tier — because, she suspects, “now they’re used to getting their a — kicked by women.”

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