Women – usually scantily clad women – have long been a staple of pinball machine artwork. But plenty of women enjoy playing pinball too: go to almost any league meet or tournament and there’ll be a small minority of female competitors.
Now a few people may prefer pinball to be a men-only affair, but many more would like pinball to be something that everyone – male or female – can enjoy, participate in and compete in if they like.
“Historically it’s been a man’s hobby mainly, considering the boob art work, and comments like ‘you’re good for a girl’, but new times are coming and the community wants more women who are into pinball,” says top female player Helena Walter.
“Everybody needs to make an effort to make women feel more welcome – it would be good for the sport/culture in the future.”
Or as Australian pinball legend Norbert Snicer memorably put it in this Pavlov Pinball feature, “No-one wants pinball to be a sausage party.”
The fact that comparatively few women are involved in the sport of pinball suggests that more could be done to encourage female participation, and one possibility is holding more women-only competitions at major events.
Another is offering prizes to the top female competitors in tournaments that are open to both men and women.
Now the issue of women’s tournaments is a minefield for a variety of reasons. That’s because pinball is one of a rare breed of sports (like Olympic show jumping and some sailing events) where men and women compete against each other at the very highest level.
So tournaments in which only women compete could be seen as a retrograde step: they could seem to some to imply that women can never compete on equal terms with men at pinball, and therefore that women need their own competition.
On the other hand, all top competitions are currently open to both women and men, so as long as women continue to be welcome in those, does it do any harm to have women-only competitions for those that would like to compete in them instead – or as well?
The idea of prizes for top placed female competitors is also contentious. Does it encourage women to participate, or is it slightly patronising – a case of “you didn’t actually win, but you played jolly well – for a woman – my dear so here’s a sparkly trinket to take home and treasure”?
Kate Morris, a top UK-based player, has strong views on the matter. “When I attend a tournament, I want to be seen equal,” she says. “I believe that men have an advantage physically which would only affect nudging ability – but then, if I make the shots, I shouldn’t need to nudge that much.
“So I think that male/female distinction is irrelevant.”
But that doesn’t mean she is against the idea of women’s tournaments or prizes. “If there is a trophy up for grabs for top female, I’ll be aiming for it – winning is winning,” she says.
“I do think I’m more likely to attend a show that has a top female prize on offer over one that doesn’t, so yes I would say that it is a desirable award,” she continues.
“The one pinball show I particularly look forward to attending each year is the Dutch Pinball Open, simply because there is a “ladies only” tournament. So if there is any distinction between men and women in pinball, it is eliminated in this competition.”
So would she like to see more “ladies only” events like our clog-wearing friends in the Low Countries put on? “I would love for there to be more women’s tournaments, I would certainly make the effort to attend,” she says.
“But there lies the problem in demand for them. As far as I’m aware, I’m the only UK female that travels abroad to play pinball competitively, and many women I know attend shows because their partners are enthusiasts and will compete because they are ‘there anyway’.”
Roger Sharpe, founder of the Professional & Amateur Pinball Association (PAPA), believes that women’s tournaments can only be a good thing for pinball.
“I have always liked the notion of having a separate women’s division because it encourages more women to step up and play,” he says.
“Having said that, the ability to play in different groups is also wonderful . We even see that now with seniors having their own division and then being able to compete in another division. So why not for women as well?
“When Steve Epstein and I started PAPA I strongly believed in providing competitions that were open to anyone – multiple divisions based on skill and competitive performance – as well as Juniors and a Women’s division.”
But Helena Walter has mixed feelings about separate competitions. “There has been some debate lately regarding having women’s tournaments or not,” she says.
“I can agree that it’s good to some extent: getting together and pushing each other, spreading technique between each other and preparing for bigger tournaments.
“But I think that no bigger tournament should have separate tournaments for women, (even if) they can participate in the main tournament as well.”
“Being a woman or a man really doesn’t matter when it comes to pinball,” she adds.
“It’s not like you need a lot of strength to play pinball. Some people say women just don’t have the upper body strength needed to play proper pinball, but that´s just bull s**t. Hey – even kids – like Escher (Escher Lefkoff, aged 11 and currently ranked 87th in the world) – are crushing it!
“What is needed is mental strength, aim, ball control, stamina enough to stand a play for twelve plus hours, quick reactions, ability to block out others around you, etc. I don’t buy that women and men should be any different when it comes to these skills.”
And that means Walter is pretty convinced that men and women competing on equal terms is the way to go. “I’m happy pinball is in the lead when it comes to having mainly mixed tournaments, not having women’s divisions,” she concludes.
“I hope we can keep this position of being front runners. I fully get that we should probably have different divisions for weight lifting, but in pinball… there is just no justification for that.”
Do you think women-only competitions or prizes is a good idea or a bad one? Male or female, if you have any strong views on the matter please feel free to leave a comment.Follow pavlovpinball