I’m not sure what to expect when I show up to Milo’s Yard on a brisk Tuesday evening in early January. The little neighborhood bar looks like many in the area, but tonight there’s something special happening here. Through the door, past the tables and typically hip Brooklyn bar types, a group of two dozen women has crowded into the back of the building. They’ve shed their heavy coats and bags in the large corner booth, sweating from the combined body temperature and crackling with excitement. They’re all here for the same reason, announced by the telltale jingles and flashing lights: pinball.
This is Belles & Chimes, New York’s women-only pinball league — a chapter of a nationwide organization started in Oakland, California by Echa Schneider in 2013. And I arrive just as things are getting started. Someone’s reading names off an iPad, organizing the 20-plus players into a rotation through the five pinball machines. They’ll spend the next few hours angling for the highest scores — and as this is an International Flipper Pinball Association-sanctioned event, their results tonight and throughout the league season will in turn affect their IFPA ranking.
I catch Kaite Martin, this year’s league organizer, before her first ball.
“I remember going on a date with a guy nine years ago,” she begins, “where he asked if I wanted to play pinball, and I said ‘Pinball is for nerds.’ And now I own four pinball machines. My apartment is very cramped.”
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Martin describes the league as “just as competitive, but way less aggressive and much friendlier” than other bar leagues in the city. “We all want to do our best,” she tells me, “but more than anything we have a community together and we want to be friends. A handful of the women here were at my New Year’s Eve party.”
It suddenly strikes me that pinball is, very loosely, a video game usually played in bars. And imagining adding alcohol to the already intense cocktail of masculinity and competition, I can instantly see how a women-only league would be a different experience.
Martin’s been involved with the league for three years — almost as long as it’s been around. She’s picking up from Jade Ang, the previous league organizer. Hearing her name called, she excuses herself to play her first round, pointing me in her predecessor’s direction.
As we find a table close to the machine she’s up on next, Ang tells me how, over the past few years, she’s helped make Belles & Chimes NYC into the full league it’s become. Her goal was to create a space geared towards all skill levels, and one in which, echoing Martin’s comments, “everyone is cheering each other on.” That goal has clearly been achieved out in more ways than one; not only does everyone seem to be having a good time, but, Ang tells me, her bar league team The Pinbabes, which draws its roster from Belles & Chimes players, recently won its first lower division championship.
Anna Wolk is one of the founders of that team, as well as the original founder of Belles & Chimes NYC. She happened to stumble into the team league in a bar a few years ago, and rather than join an existing team, decided to start one herself. Belles & Chimes has since spawned a second all-women team in the bar league, The Trolls.
Wolk has to step away from our conversation as a newcomer, Katie Bergin, arrives out of the cold. She’s late, but Martin assures her that they can fit her in for the night. Before Bergin slips into the rotation, I grab her to ask a few questions, which she’s gracious enough to answer.
As it turns out, she just happened see a poster for the league in the neighborhood. She thought it would be a good excuse to get out of the house and meet people. Bergin’s played pinball here and there, but isn’t deep into it… yet.
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I’m struck by how closely Bergin’s story follows another league member, Tammy Oler. She, too, was only somewhat into pinball before joining Belles & Chimes. It wasn’t until she saw a poster and showed up — not knowing anyone in the league — that she got in deep. Now, she’s a member of The Pinbabes.
It’s obvious to me at this point that there’s something special about this space. The idea that you could show up as a total stranger one day, and become a part of a community while building your skills, is an amazing one. It’s also a very different path than most of my forays into competitive games. I wonder if the smooth transition has something to do with pinball specifically.
“You’re forced to be outside and socialize in a way that you’re not with other esports,” Ang points out. “There are a lot of things you can’t learn by yourself in pinball and each game plays a little bit differently. So you can read about those things online, but you can’t know for sure unless you talk to somebody familiar with the machine.”
This element of physicality—both needing to be physically present in a location to play and learning the quirks of a mechanical game—keeps coming up in conversation. Miriam Nadler, a member of the Pinbabes, says that she fell in love with pinball while working as an expediter in a kitchen, because it provided her with a means of shifting out of work mode.
“My hands were moving constantly all day, so at first pinball was just a way to go from doing that all day to going home and being still,” she says between balls on The Shadow table. “It’s kind of like drumming for me.”
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As Nadler reminds me, there’s a simplicity to pinball that’s absent from most contemporary competitive games. Like classic arcade machines, anyone can tell the goal of pinball at a glance and try their hand at it without too much trouble—but to master it requires dedication. In comparison, the biggest esports genres today—first-person shooters, fighting games, and MOBAs—throw up immediate barriers to new players.
And pinball isn’t directly competitive in the same way as, say, Street Fighter or Hearthstone. It’s more like what board game fans call a “Euro,” named after a style of game design popular in Europe, in which players compete only indirectly. In Nadler’s words, this epitomizes the classic literary struggle of “man versus machine.” There are no team members who refuse to get on the payload — no Fox players constantly crouching whenever they land a hit. It’s just you and the table.
“For some reason, that conflict just seems very gay to me,” Nadler says. And that brings up one last question I have. A number of players are here with their female partners, girlfriends, or wives; is there something particularly queer about pinball?
Wolk’s theory is that pinball as a whole is far more gender-balanced than the male-dominated competitive scene. You’re likely to see more queer women involved in the latter simply because they’re more likely to break gender norms. Nadler thinks about it for a moment, adding, “It’s also the one sport they’ll let trans women be good at without wanting to see your testosterone levels.”
My curiosity satisfied, I gather my things to head out. As I sling my bag over my shoulder, Martin reaches into her pocket and gives me an enamel pin in the shape of the Belles & Chimes NYC logo. She, and everybody else, invite me to come back next time. And while—as I’ve insisted all night—I’m terrible at pinball, it’s such a unique space that I just might. And who knows? Maybe in nine years I’ll be sharing my apartment with four machines, too.