Not your father's pinball arcade. But maybe your mother's.

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Not your father's pinball arcade. But maybe your mother's.
Emily Sutherlin, front, and Claire Feeney, behind her, during a Belles & Chimes event in Chicago, May 24, 2023. Belles & Chimes, a pinball league “run by women, for women,” makes some noise in a pastime where women were once consigned largely to the sideline. (Lyndon French/The New York Times)

by Peter Kujawinski

NEW YORK, NY.- When Rachel Karlic and her sister, Rebecca Hinsdale, were students at Western Michigan University, they sometimes played pinball with their friend Kate Porter in a 24-hour video rental store near campus. The store was called Video Hits Plus, with the Plus maybe referring to the basement attractions, which, in addition to the pinball machines, included an air hockey table and a pornographic video section.

After graduating, the three women went their separate ways, eventually reuniting in Chicago in 2011. This was around the time that pinball machines, after nearly dying out in the early 2000s from competition with home gaming consoles, started becoming more popular again.

It helped that new machines were more complex, with modern electronics and mechanical features like the motorized skyscraper on the 2021 Godzilla machine. The number of avid players grew, as did competitions and tournaments. Many of these events were sanctioned by the International Flipper Pinball Association, which ranks players globally.

In Chicago, one of the hubs of pinball’s resurgence was a onetime record store in the Logan Square neighborhood. The back of the store housed a selection of pinball machines, and if you bought something, you could play the machines for free. In 2014, James Zespy, the owner of the store, transformed it into a pinball and arcade bar called Logan Arcade.

That’s where, in 2017, Karlic, Hinsdale, Porter and their friend Tavi Veraldi started the Chicago chapter of the Belles & Chimes. Founded in 2013 in Oakland, California, Belles & Chimes bills itself as “an international network of inclusive women’s pinball leagues run by women, for women.” The Chicago chapter has about 50 members and hosts two seasons of league play every year.

Hinsdale designs and makes custom pinball-inspired patches for the chapter’s top players every season. The patches are “a celebration of what Belles is supposed to represent, which is just that anybody who is marginalized can play in a tournament and in a league,” she said. Hinsdale, 41, also has a day job at Stern Pinball, a manufacturer of pinball machines.

“Pretty much all of my time is pinball,” she said. “I work in pinball. I play pinball usually two to three days a week. I have pinball machines at my house.”

While some Belles & Chimes members like Hinsdale have been playing pinball for years, other members, like Katie Frederick, 33, a Salesforce consultant, started only recently. She had stopped by Logan Arcade shortly after moving to the neighborhood.

“There seemed to be some event going on when I was up here that involved a lot of women playing pinball, which isn’t always what you get at an arcade,” she said during a recent Belles & Chimes tournament at the arcade. “It’s just usually when you go to an arcade, there is a certain type of crowd there. Male. Loud. White. Straight.”

Jessica Papilla, 32, a member of Belles & Chimes playing in her second season, said playing with Belles has expanded her comfort level with arcades.

“If there’s an interesting arcade in another city, I’ll check it out,” she said.

Karlic, Hinsdale and Porter all said they had seen sexism in pinball tournaments.

“They still cater to a specific demographic that is not necessarily welcoming to the fact that there are female players,” Hinsdale said.

The male-dominated culture can be seen in the machines themselves. Although most modern machine artwork is no longer filled with the pinup tropes of machines from the 1960s and 1970s, even the newer games don’t have women represented in an empowering way, Papilla said.

“It would be cool to see a Spice Girls pinball game or something like that,” Frederick said. “I have lots of ideas about that.”

Having a Belles & Chimes chapter at Logan Arcade has been crucial, said Melissa Geils, 45, a manager at Logan Arcade. She recounted the 2015 release of a pinball machine called “Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons,” which contained lurid artwork that was a staple of pinball culture in the 20th century.

“The backlash from women players — it was a whole thing,” Geils said. “And I think that was when pinball manufacturers perhaps started to think about how they portray certain kinds of people through their themes.”

In response, “Whoa Nellie!” was “re-skinned” twice, Arunas Ingaunis, 53, said. Like Geils, he is a manager and original employee at Logan Arcade. The original artwork and theme were replaced with a game that was played the same but was called “Pabst Can Crusher.” Later, this theme was replaced by one that paid homage to the rock band Primus.

Zespy, 46, noted that pinball culture was one of several gaming traditions that had developed in places dominated by men.

“Pinball, pool, darts. They were considered seedy things from seedy pool halls and bars,” he said. “Men had decades of playing these things.”

Zespy, who has worked in the music industry for many years in roles ranging from record store owner to distributor to record-maker, sees similarities in pinball’s evolution and punk rock’s. Male bands dominated early punk rock, he said, but things changed with the arrival of the Riot Grrrl movement in the 1990s.

“That’s very much the way that Belles & Chimes feels to me,” Zespy said. “It’s a new community saying, ‘No, we have our own version of this.’”

Belles & Chimes serves as an entry point for the “pin-curious,” Hinsdale said. Members often start with Belles & Chimes tournaments and then participate in open tournaments around the world and join in other aspects of pinball’s modern reemergence. Hinsdale, for example, also helps host Hot Nudge, a Twitch pinball channel.

The pinball resurgence has continued. In addition to new manufacturers entering the business, Stern Pinball, which at one point in the early 2000s was the only manufacturer left, recently reported that its business has been growing 20% to 30% per year. It also announced that it is doubling its real estate footprint.

The Chicago chapter of Belles & Chimes may also benefit from the city being the epicenter of pinball. The major pinball manufacturing companies are in the Chicago area: Stern, Jersey Jack Pinball, Chicago Gaming Co., American Pinball and Spooky Pinball (just across the Illinois border in Wisconsin). Game designers and other pinball employees frequent the many pinball bars around town, including Logan Arcade.

“This place fosters a kind of pinball nerdery,” said Karlic, 44, an events DJ.

The arcade is just off a busy intersection in the neighborhood, and as you walk toward it, you can still hear the roar of vehicles traveling along the nearby Kennedy Expressway. Inside, though, it’s all beeps, call-outs, sirens, laughter and music of the more than 70 pinball and arcade machines and their devotees. Almost all the machines are part of Zespy’s personal collection.

Natalie Nonos, 32, lives in Indiana and commutes about 55 miles to Logan Arcade as a member of the Belles & Chimes. Pinball was her pandemic outlet, she said, but it has become much more.

Nonos plays in as many tournaments as possible. Pinball, she said, has surpassed her love of video games (an impressive feat for someone in data analytics who says she “thinks like a computer”).

“It gives me the biggest rush I’ve ever had,” she said.

Belles & Chimes members generally roll their eyes at references to “Pinball Wizard,” the 1969 song by the Who about an expert pinball player. But even newer members like Papilla acknowledge their pinball prowess.

“Whenever I play with my partner, he’s like, ‘OK, there’s no point,’” she said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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