By Kayla Greet
Originally published in Skill Shot 29
The first time I played ranked competitive pinball was in 2009 at the biennial Shorty’s Powder Puff tournament. Like Kristen Daniels, I got hooked into pinball from discovering the simulated Williams Collection for Wii and Playstation that my ex-boyfriend brought home and we sought out physical machines from there. Besides the few female friends I had who were also captivated, most of the people I was meeting in the pinball world were men who were all fiercely cut-throat. Powder Puff sounded like a place where I could enjoy some friendly sport and modesty instead of losing to the guys all the time.
The competition at Powder Puff is certainly combative, though like the majority of events in this hobby/sport, there’s a gamut of seriousness in all players involved. Some are there to rub skill in the face of their opponents while others are interested purely in having fun. Women like Heather Willott, who is joining Powder Puff for the first time, says she’s really looking forward to hanging out with some of the coolest chicks she’s ever met.
Many of the women I’ve talked to have expressed a love of the social aspect of pinball. People like Mary Pacha and Linda “Cheeseboat” Nasfell started playing through friends who were already involved, which led them to join the Seattle Pinball League shortly after. As Kristen puts it: “I’m stunned by how much pinball has broadened my social circle. I have met so many lovely fun people!” Similarly, Julie Gray got recruited to league play (the Vancouver Regional league or VRPA) after a Shorty’s tournament. “That is where I truly learned to enjoy and learn about competitive pinball,” Julie explains.
Though the community facet is strong in pinball, on the other side there are plenty of friendly rivalries. Cathy Cartoon says that while she plays her best no matter who she’s up against, Claire Sutcliffe has always been her favorite to beat. The International Flipper Pinball Association (IFPA) keeps rankings of over 18,000 players world wide, yet among the top players it isn’t until #90 that you find a female player. Helena Walter from Sweden is behind 89 male players although her top position was #22 in ’08. On the USA side of things, there’s not a female competitor until #174 with Seattle’s own Julie Gray.
Julie started meeting serious pinball players around ’05 and she remarked that there are far more women players now then when she started. “I was like a goddess then because there really weren’t many women at these tournaments. Now the guys all see me as one of them and I don’t even think they notice I’m a woman.”
Kayla Ellington thinks the gender division is instantly noticeable and states: “I don’t see it as inherently negative; just one part of many of the ways our society is structured, combined with natural inclinations.” She still has a hard time rationalizing why something like pinball would be more populated by men however, she figures girls haven’t been exposed to the arcade world as much and are therefore not as encouraged in this setting.
Shorty’s biannual all-girls tournament is certainly the place to change all that. From the ladies I’ve talked to, many agree that Powder Puff is the best place for your first tournament. Cheeseboat says that she thinks girls are generally more respectful of fellow players, “but there is just as much competitiveness and aggression as there is in co-ed tournaments.”
Pinball certainly motivates people to do their best and frustrates them when it doesn’t work out. “Sometimes you want to punch a wall, or a game, or a person upon losing because it’s really challenging!” Kayla explains. Kristen also has noticed top notch playing amongst the girls of pinball. “I don’t expect to have my ass kicked any less. Seattle women pinball players are just as hard to beat as the males,” she says.
For some, that drive to do your very best sometimes comes down to being the top female player in the co-ed, or league events. Women like Cheeseboat and Julie often do strive to be the top in their gender, though obviously would prefer to be at the top, period! “Hell, if there was at least one or two females in the IFPA top 10 world rankings, I might feel differently. But with how the pinhead culture currently stands, being top female is something to be damned proud of,” says Cheeseboat.
While pinball is considered a sport, it’s not one that requires physical strength, so as Kayla puts it, “Why should a male play any better or worse than a female? So why have a female-only tournament?” Though on the other hand this tournament draws girls from as far as Canada and Portland and mixes in the Shorty’s regulars who rarely play competitive pinball. “Ultimately,” Kayla says, “Powder Puff does more good than harm and should be held up as a legit and awesome tournament.” Women like Heather focus on enjoying themselves above all else: “I like to have fun, sometimes I play well, but it has to be fun is the rule I have set.”
Cathy suggested we start a women’s only pinball league. Or a gang.