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Belles of the Silver Ball: Women Fuel Pinball's Rising Popularity in Phoenix

Women like the members of Belles & Chimes in Phoenix are helping propel the popularity of pinball.
Women like the members of Belles & Chimes in Phoenix are helping propel the popularity of pinball. Benjamin Leatherman

click to enlarge RUPAM GRIMOEUVRE
Rupam Grimoeuvre

The Force is strong with Tracy Lindbergh when she’s playing pinball. That’s what the 40-year-old Chandler resident is doing at this exact moment — and doing it phenomenally. Lindbergh hunches over the controls of a high-tech Star Wars pinball machine at StarFighters Arcade in Mesa on a recent Saturday and is on target like a proton torpedo fired from Luke Skywalker’s X-wing.

Her hands repetitively tap and slap on the flipper buttons on either side of the game as a silver steel ball ricochets around a playfield adorned with pictures of Princess Leia, Han Solo, and Darth Vader. The dramatic strains of “The Imperial March” roar as a cannonade of multicolored lights flash and Lindbergh racks up millions of points. Every so often, she uses her diminutive frame to give subtle nudges to the 280-pound machine for some extra English to get the ball to roll her way.

A few minutes of intense action later, the ball slips past the flippers and into the drain. Game over. Final score: 256,960,850.

“I’ll be honest, I could’ve done better,” Lindbergh says sheepishly. Not many players, male or female, can. Lindbergh is at the forefront of a surge of interest in pinball — especially among women. She’s currently one of the top 10 female players in the world according to the International Flipper Pinball Association, one of the organizations overseeing competitive pinball. She’s also the founder of the Phoenix chapter of Belles & Chimes, a worldwide women’s-only pinball club. Her Star Wars game today is part of a monthly tournament she organizes at StarFighters. (She finished second.)

For Lindbergh, an assistant to the president of the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine, pinball isn’t just a hobby, it’s a lifestyle. In addition to overseeing Belles & Chimes Phoenix, she runs a few other local tournaments each month and travels to competitions around the country with her husband, Mark, two or three times a year.

This weekend, they’ll be at ZapCon, the annual arcade and pinball convention at the Mesa Convention Center from Saturday, May 4, to Sunday, May 5, where Tracy will help run IFPA-sanctioned tournaments for women. As many as 50 female players are expected to compete. She’ll also be competing in two other tournaments at the event.

It will be just another pinball adventure that they’ve experienced during their relationship. They even bonded over pinball early on, she says. “When Mark and I met, we started going out to bars and trying to find pinball machines, since we both liked playing,” Lindbergh says. “It was just this fun pastime for us.”

They’ve also become collectors. Their Chandler home is outfitted with more than a dozen different machines they’ve purchased over the last decade.

“I sometimes even dream about playing pinball,” she jokes. It seems fitting, considering she’s had a dream career as a competitive pinball player. Last year, she tied for fifth place in the IFPA Women’s World Pinball Championship in Las Vegas.

click to enlarge Chandler resident Tracy Lindbergh, one of the top 10 female pinball players in the world. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
Chandler resident Tracy Lindbergh, one of the top 10 female pinball players in the world.
Benjamin Leatherman
Not bad for someone who only got into competitive pinball six years ago. In 2013, the couple had a chance encounter with IFPA men’s world champion Andrei Massenkoff at the Pacific Pinball Museum in San Francisco. He got them hooked on competing at the highest levels.

“He chatted with us and told us all about it, and I was fascinated,” Tracy Lindbergh says. “I’d played in high school and was always drawn to it, but we never knew competitive pinball even existed. I don’t know how we missed it. We were always playing pinball, but somehow we never realized there was this whole other world.”

She immediately dived in. The couple began making monthly trips to Tucson to play at D&D Pinball, Arizona’s only exclusively pinball joint at the time. They also began attending ZapCon, the annual arcade game and pinball convention, which had launched the year before.

Lindbergh is also helping other women seek pinball glory. Belles & Chimes’ Phoenix chapter, which Lindbergh launched in 2017, currently has more than 25 members — and they’re a diverse bunch. Teens, millennials, Gen-Xers, middle-aged women, and even retirees participate in the club.

“We have a wide variety of women that come out to play pinball with us,” Lindbergh says. And they’re learning the finer points of the game while doing so.

“A big part of Belles & Chimes is helping you play and learning what the rules are and how to become a better player,” she says. No one has to worry about being embarrassed by poor performance. “It’s a really encouraging environment while getting you used to the competitive nature of tournament play,” she adds.

Phoenix Mirrors a National Trend

Pinball has been experiencing a major resurgence in popularity, and not just in cultural hubs like L.A., New York City, or Portland, Oregon. Pinball fever has spread to the Valley in recent years, and signs of the outbreak are everywhere. Participation in local pinball leagues and tournaments has increased severalfold. Owners of local arcades and game bars tell Phoenix New Times they’ve seen a major spike in pinball participants.

Hundreds of people flock to StarFighters, the retro-themed Mesa arcade, every weekend to play pinball, for instance. According to co-owners Steve Thomas and Mike Lovato, the turnout has increased steadily since they first opened in 2014, and there’s been a larger number of people playing their 45 machines. As a matter of act, he credits pinball with helping fuel StarFighters’ popularity.

“Right now, pinball’s pretty hot. It’s palpable. When people come in, they’re coming in to play pinball. Our pins are normally very busy for the entire [time] we’re open,” Lovato says. “The rising popularity of pinball has really helped us with our growth. If pinball had not come back [into style], I don’t necessarily know that we would see the turnout we’ve been seeing, because it adds a whole other element to the arcade.”

click to enlarge Rachel Bess, owner of Electric Bat Arcade in Tempe. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
Rachel Bess, owner of Electric Bat Arcade in Tempe.
Benjamin Leatherman
Nightspots like Cobra Arcade Bar in downtown Phoenix have also seen more pinball fanatics. “It’s been huge,” owner Ariel Bracamonte says. “Ever since we opened, people have been demanding more pinball so we added some. At our Tucson location, we took it a step further and have about 10 games there … and they definitely get played.”

Other arcades have taken similar actions. Many offer pinball in their mix of games and attractions, ranging from a modest selection (like Golfland Sunsplash in Mesa) to a staggering number (like StarFighters and Tempe’s Tilt Studio, which features 22 machines). Geeky businesses like Jesse James Comics in Glendale also have added pinball games in the last year.

And new pinball-friendly joints are also springing up, like Electric Bat Arcade in Tempe, which was opened last fall by local artist and ZapCon co-founder Rachel Bess and features 12 machines. (It’s also the only female-owned arcade in Arizona.) Later this year, Cobra’s owners are planning to open a pinball-centric nightspot called Stardust Lounge adjacent to music venue The Van Buren in downtown Phoenix.

“Pinball has really blown up in the Valley, and actually, all over,” says Bess, who also works for pinball supply company Marco Specialties. “I travel a lot to pinball shows and just in the past year or two, you can see how much it’s increasing, compared to where it used to be.”

And where it used to be was a couple of decades of ignominy. Pinball’s modern heyday peaked in the ’80s and ’90s, when arcade game manufacturers like Bally/Williams and Data East released dozens of titles each year. In the aughts, home gaming consoles like PlayStation and X-Box decimated the arcade and pinball industries. Companies like Stern still produced a trickle of pinball games, but the pursuit was exiled to the back corners of neighborhood bars, the occasional bowling alley, or in the homes of private collectors.

“Pinball machines pretty much disappeared for awhile. When we started ZapCon in 2013, it was because there wasn’t much of anything going on,” Bess says. “There weren’t many arcades in the Valley other than Castles ’n’ Coasters. Tilt [Studio] wasn’t there yet. Cobra wasn’t there yet, StarFighters wasn’t there yet. We were all playing in living rooms at collectors’ houses.”

What brought back pinball’s popularity? Bess says it’s a byproduct of the rise of arcades and nightlife-oriented game bars in recent years, as well as a cool factor with pinball and its more social aspects.

“The renewed interest in pinball is sort of twofold: Part of it comes from people getting exposure to barcades,” Bess says. “But the other part, I think pinball offers something more physical in the way that consoles and arcade games [don’t]. It’s just so different from other types of games we’re used to playing. There’s an actual ball being propelled by flippers, it’s hitting actual targets, and making it fall. It’s something just more kinetic and fun than [pixels on a screen].”

Lindbergh says that the opening of StarFighters in 2014 and Tilt Studio in Tempe in 2016 were also game-changers for Phoenix’s pinball scene.

click to enlarge More local arcades like StarFighters in Mesa are adding pinball machines. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
More local arcades like StarFighters in Mesa are adding pinball machines.
Benjamin Leatherman
“All the places opening up … have helped. It’s become location pinball,” she says. “I think the ability to play lots of different titles in all these arcades has brought people out of the woodwork who always liked to play pinball but didn’t really have a place to play. But now there’s a social aspect, too, like with all the leagues; so many people come just to hang out with friends and play pinball now.”

Millennials are also discovering pinball for the first time, Bess says.

“I think it’s one of those things that older people gravitate toward because they remember pinball’s peak. Gen-X people are somewhat the same, but for us, it wasn’t that long ago. We mostly remember it from the ’90s when pinball was really big,” she says. “But the millennial kids, they never saw it. Now they’re old enough to go to bars and they’re starting to get into it because it’s something new, so for them it’s like a first-time excitement.”

Women Are Becoming Pinball Wizards, Too

In a 2017 Washington Post article on women’s pinball, IFPA President Josh Sharpe estimated that more than 11 percent of IFPA-registered players are female, which is an increase from 8 percent from a few years before. Lindbergh says that membership in the Belles & Chimes Phoenix chapter has almost doubled, going from 15 members in 2017 to more than 25 people today.

“It used to be pretty much all dudes who were playing,” Bess says. “When I started playing in high school, it seemed like it was myself and a few other women out at arcades.”

Things have changed, however.

“There’s still more men at pinball and arcade shows, but not by much,” Bess says. “When we started ZapCon, the joke was that whenever people were looking for me, I’d say, ‘Oh, you’ll know me, I’m the female.’ That wasn’t too terribly long ago, and now there are significantly more women, not just at ZapCon but at other pinball shows.”

It’s a change from pinball’s heyday, when the game largely targeted men.

“I think it’s because pinballs were in bars and most of the machines were catered more toward men, especially with all the sexy artwork from the early days of pinball,” Lindbergh says. “It seemed like it was all meant for bars where guys were smoking and drinking and playing pinball.”

Misogynistic art on pinball machines was the norm from the ’70s onward, often with illustrations of well-built women in revealing clothing or various states of undress.

“The art on the games was so bad back then, but it’s been changing because manufacturers have been realizing what a huge market women could potentially be,” Bess says.

The sexist imagery has been largely ditched by pinball manufacturers, but it hasn’t been completely excised. In 2015, Stern released Whoa Nellie! Big Juicy Melons with artwork of buxom farm girls and loads of double entendre. Last year, American Pinball’s Oktoberfest game depicted a cartoon monkey feeling up women.

“Women freaked out, because it was like, ‘Okay, that kind of stuff existed in the past, but the world is different now. You just can’t do that. You can’t have women being groped on a backglass,” Lindbergh says. “It’s just not appropriate anymore. So they changed it. Women are speaking up now where they maybe wouldn’t have before.”

click to enlarge Women like the members of Belles & Chimes in Phoenix are helping propel the popularity of pinball. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
Women like the members of Belles & Chimes in Phoenix are helping propel the popularity of pinball.
Benjamin Leatherman
They’re speaking up about condescending encounters with men while playing pinball, too.

“Guys don’t always know the right thing to say. Sometimes it’s malicious, sometimes it’s not, but they have a tendency to say, ‘Wow, you play really good pinball for a girl.’ And girls don’t like that,” Lindbergh says. “Women want to just be seen as a pinball player and not just a female pinball player and they don’t want you to assume you’re going to beat me because I’m a girl when you walk up. For the most part, we don’t see it here much, but it’s out there.”

It’s one of the reasons why she feels groups like Belles & Chimes are important.

“The more women we have playing, the less people notice, which is one of the reasons I started our chapter,” she says.

Besides giving women more opportunities to play, Belles & Chimes also offers them to chance to learn the game and to play competitively.

“There’s an opportunity just for us to compete against each other,” Lindbergh says. “And what I found, a lot of women don’t necessarily care about that, they’re not trying to become the next world champion. When women get together to play, it’s a different experience than co-ed. It’s very supportive and I’ve structured it that way. Our intention is for us to get together to learn, to become better players, and have fun.”

But this weekend at ZapCon, when she’ll be competing against men, too, is about more than just having fun.

“As I’ve gotten better, it’s been interesting watching guys [act surprised] when I started beating them,” she says. “And I’ve been beating them a lot more than I used to.”

ZapCon 2019. 9 a.m.-11:30 p.m.; Saturday, May 4; and 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Sunday, May 5, at the Mesa Convention Center, 263 North Center Street; Admission is $20-$40 via the event website.
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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.