Beating the Machine

Katie Sheehan poses next to one of the machines in Blairally Vintage Arcade

Written by Samuel Bass

Photos by Hannah Neill

Arriving in Eugene five years ago, Katie Sheehan and her boyfriend Andy Marler had a mission: They wanted to find a fun way to plug into the community and make new friends. Blairally Vintage Arcade was only a few blocks from where they lived, so they stopped inside one evening. Marler was already a pinball player, but Sheehan had never touched a pinball machine. That night Sheehan befriended a competitive player and was invited to play. After several games she quickly found her passion for pinball and the community that surrounds this niche sport.

“It was fun, so I got more involved,” Sheehan said. “But there were no other women playing.” After that first night Sheehan competed for over four years and officiated for one year in mixed-gender leagues. With change in mind, in 2015 she helped usher more women into competitive pinball by co-founding the Belles and Chimes all-women’s pinball league of Eugene with Kristine Morgan, another player. Working with Chad Boutin, owner of Blairally, they gained sponsorship for the Eugene chapter, which is the ninth addition nationally to the Belles and Chimes all-women’s leagues.

According to them, a major benefit to an all-women’s pinball league is that it provides women the freedom to play without men overshadowing them. For many years, pinball was mostly a men’s competition. With women making up just 12 percent of players in the International Flipper Pinball Association, the game is still nowhere near equal. Competitive pinball, unlike most male-dominated sports, isn’t won by physical strength, yet as Sheehan put it, “for a long time now this has been a boy’s club.” She said that in the past, men’s aggressive style of competitiveness and preexisting pockets of sexism towards female players pushed women away from this sport. But that’s changing. Women across the country are addressing this problem by starting women’s leagues of their own and driving new interest in competitive pinball.

In past mixed tournaments, Sheehan and Marler said they witnessed some men being too forward in arcades around Eugene, making women competitors uncomfortable. But both further explained how these types of players get sorted out quickly at places like Blairally where other players will step in and put a stop to any misconduct.

Another issue occurs when female players are treated as inferior. “Women’s skills aren’t taken seriously,” said Portland Belles and Chimes league member Zoe Vrabel. Vrabel is ranked third in the women’s IFPA World Pinball Player Rankings and 213th overall in the IFPA’s mixed league. Vrabel said women’s leagues create a more welcoming space compared to a mixed league’s. “We don’t want to be treated like we’re on Tinder when we’re just here to play pinball,” she said.

Getting hit on isn’t the only way women players are belittled. When Belles and Chimes Eugene was first established, Sheehan, 29, said she occasionally dealt with a male player at Blairally who was much older and more experienced. Over the age of 50 then, he had been playing since he was 10. Sheehan, and Marler said they felt he treated most new male players with respect. But he treated female players differently to the point of telling Sheehan that she wouldn’t understand his ideas on pinball when she asked for his advice on a machine. “He talked to me condescendingly,” she said.

During mixed tournaments, Vrabel witnessed men acting out aggressively and said they were often vocal with their anger. Many players, including Sheehan, felt these actions made women apprehensive about pursuing competitive pinball. But Vrabel said she enjoys the Belles and Chimes because “it’s a more warm and accepting environment.” She explained how some men she’d spoken with would also prefer the cordial atmosphere that women’s leagues like Belles and Chimes offer.

Travis Kerr, a mixed-league competitor at Blairally, said that “a deeper feeling of comradery is in the women’s leagues.” Eugene Belles and Chimes Facebook page makes this clear: “All women are welcome, free from labels or characterization.”

With the growth of women’s competitive pinball leagues, the IFPA decided to sanction women’s-only events in December 2016. Creating all-women’s leagues presents an opportunity where it didn’t previously exist. “The women-only angle allows women to get off the bench,” said Josh Sharpe, president of the IFPA. The first all-women’s championship took place in Las Vegas on March 1, 2018. The top 24 women with the most IFPA points competed for cash and reputation.

Some women in Belles and Chimes are just starting out, and want to learn in a welcoming environment. Sheehan explained that three members of Belles and Chimes Eugene only want to play in the women’s league because “they don’t feel comfortable playing with that level of competition and the number of players.”

Even if some aren’t interested in competing outside of women’s-only leagues, others want to win in both. “When I get better, I want to compete in mixed leagues,” said Eugene league member Alysha Shipley. She started playing with the Belles and Chimes about six months ago.

Katie Sheehan and her boyfriend, Andy Marler, fix one of the machines at Blairally Vintage Arcade.

Gender and Competition


Published in 2011, an economics article written by Stanford researchers Muriel Niederle and Lise Vesterlund titled “Gender and Competition points to one possible reason women weren’t previously thriving in competitive pinball: confidence levels.

This comprehensive study found that when it comes to competition in problem-solving tasks, men show significantly higher levels of confidence compared to women even though their abilities may be the same. It also found that confidence increases the likelihood of someone entering a contest. This results in more low-skilled men entering tournaments due to overconfidence. Meanwhile, high-skilled, under-confident women enter tournaments less often.

Sensory physiologist Dr. Jagdeep Kaur-Bala, who teaches in the psychology department at the University of Oregon, also pointed out that women will underrate their confidence while men will overrate theirs. According to Kaur-Bala, once in a competition, it’s also been shown that men and women exhibit aggression differently. She said that research finds men and women to be equally aggressive, yet men exhibit physical aggression while women exhibit instrumental aggression, a type used to achieve goals that is more passive. Despite men and women having different strategies, the lack of physical abilities required in competitive pinball means winning should be a matter of skill that anyone can achieve through practice.

Niederle and Vesterlund provide one reason behind varying levels of confidence. Evidence suggests that people’s preferences for competition are influenced by the way they’re raised as children—in other words, nurture, not nature. This points to another study written by sports psychology professor Linda Bunker and published in 1991 through The Elementary School Journal. Bunker focused on building children’s self-confidence and self-esteem through the role of play and motor skill development. The results: With an adult’s healthy encouragement and proper corrective feedback for any given activity, a child’s confidence will improve, which helps grow their skills. An environment such as Belles and Chimes is a later-in-life example of a more supportive approach to competition.

League of Their Own

Luna O’Neal, a player who competes with Belles and Chimes Eugene, plays in both mixed leagues and all-women’s leagues. O’Neal said she felt an obvious tenderness within women’s leagues in comparison to the mixed leagues. “We’re all human, so it doesn’t matter to me. But there is a lot of testosterone in co-ed pinball,” she said.

Jamie Blair, another Belles and Chimes member, doesn’t like playing in mixed leagues because men have made fun of her in the past. She joined the Eugene chapter after she moved from Los Angeles over a year ago. “I was looking for something cool. I came for the pinball at Blairally, then Katie saw me playing and said, ‘Hey, you’re pretty good.’” Blair isn’t a fan of computer games or anything resembling sitting around, but she’s also not interested in extremely active sports. “I’m 39, I drink, and I smoke,” she said as she smiled and took a sip of her beer.

Belles and Chimes co-founder Kristine Morgan had similar sentiments about playing in women’s leagues. “Our league allows us to have fun in a more relaxed environment,” she said.

During an early March 2018 mixed tournament at Blairally for IFPA points, everyone who took to the machines had their own runner’s stance with one foot back and front knee slightly bent. Some players threw their hands up in anger when success escaped them after a rapid tapping of flipper buttons. One player even flipped off the machine as he walked away.

In mixed tournaments, Sheehan and Marler noticed some men hit the sides of pinball machines after losing. But Sheehan said this doesn’t happen in women’s leagues. She’s never seen a woman “smash” a machine, though she did admit that occasionally “I put my hands up like I’m about to smash the machine, but I just put them down.”

On the final night of the season, the women of Belles and Chimes stood together inside Blairally. With excitement, they wore new team hoodies with their logo on the backside, which was inspired by the classic multi-pointed star that’s painted on the top of pop-bumpers.

Jurassic Park was their first battleground that night. Pulling a spring-loaded plunger, the first contender released her fingers from the handle. A metal ball sped off. Lights started to blink, bumpers popped, bells rang; that shiny ball danced around the board with the unrelenting tapping of a woman’s fingers behind two classic arcade flipper-buttons. To beat the machine, said Sheehan, “it only takes one good ball.”