On visualizing the loveliness of the pinball universe

“Don’t you think they’re the same thing? Love and attention?” 
(Lady Bird, 2017)

There’s a moment, when I walk up to a pinball machine with somebody I care about, that I don’t know what will happen.

We probably just walked through a loud, chaotic room to get there— somewhere filled with flashing screens but otherwise under-lit. In Seattle we might be walking through a Coney Island-themed bar filled with clown decor and the smell of mustard. In Ann Arbor we would definitely have descended a staircase into a vast basement arcade filled with undergraduate students.

When I bring somebody new to pinball — an old or new friend, a lover, an amused coworker — they’ve probably head me talk about pinball before. Perhaps they’ve heard the words “Theatre of Magic” or “a castle that looks kind of phallic when it explodes.” If I’ve told them that I am not very good at pinball, they probably don’t believe me (invariably they will outscore me by the third or fourth game).

In that moment, I see the pinball machine for what it materially is: a strange, heavy box decorated in weird Americana pastiche. The aspect of this machine I want to share is sort of embarrassingly earnest, and I’m not entirely sure it will exist for them, right in that moment. Have I hyped it up too much? I’ve probably hyped it up too much.

All I can do is hope that the something will show up. I drop the requisite quarters for a two-player game into the slot and step aside.

Last year, Ryan Callihan published “Pinball Across the U.S.,” a data visualization project that “let[s] you explore the current state of pinball in the U.S. through all the known pinball machines in public places.”

Screenshot of the Pinball Across the U.S. visualization. (source)

The visualization draws from PinballMap, an extensive collection of pinball data that tracks machines across the United States. The story it tells is excited and emphatic: pinball is in all corners of the country, and it’s growing.

Callihan doesn’t just show ready-made data on a map. Instead, he makes a number of clever decisions in how to transform this data.

First, he geocodes all machine locations (or converts street address-level data into latitude and longitude coordinates) in order to determine which machines fall within the boundaries of the 2010 Census metropolitan statistical areas (MSA). This results in data that can be easily aggregated and mapped with a tool like Tableau. Next, he presents the data in multiple views that emphasize different ideas: the spread of machines across the country, a new spike in machine production since the 2010s similar the 90s, and so on. Finally, he joins in demographic data that conform to the MSA geographic boundaries. As a result, users can select measures like most machines per capita in a metropolitan area (Boulder/Lyons, Colorado, if you’re curious).

It makes me happy to think somewhere in the glowing bubbles are machines that I’ve fed with quarters and hopefully treated with care. And yet, as I try to wrap my mind around the way pinball is growing, I realize how small and personal it feels to me now. Am I really part of this contiguous world? What would my pinball universe look like, if not this one?

For me, one of the most striking things about pinball is how poorly it communicates what makes it special.

Pinball was around as a kid, but it never really made an impression on me. I used to play at a bowling alley at the birthdays of my elementary school classmates. The experience usually went:

  • Drop in quarters;
  • Keep the ball moving while anxiously watching the score;
  • Fear the inevitability of the exactly-down-the-middle bounce-back;
  • Experience the exactly-down-the-middle bounce-back three times; and
  • Wander away.

I think as a kid, I assumed that a physical game in an arcade would conform to the same principles I expected from video games. If there was anything to get, I assumed I would find out in a tutorial, or else I could infer the rules based on other similar games. As a result, pinball felt like random stimulus flashing at me. Even now, while I can remember the layout (and the carpet) of the pinball room at Lanes & Games, I can’t recall the name of a single machine I played.

All of the special and inviting and joyful parts of pinball were never obvious to me. It took other folks (in particular, other women and queer folks) pointing out what was happening on the playfield, and in doing so, apprenticing me in ways of relating to these unlikely machines.

For me, it was Carolyne, my friend and coworker at an academic library in Seattle, who first introduced me to Medieval Madness. She explained that this game was sort of a weird, side-eyed take on fantasy adventures. If you hopped into Merlin’s hat and the random event scroll stopped at just the right points, trolls would pop out of the floorboards (years later, my friends would attempt to compel the hat to stop by chanting “trolls!… trolls!…trolls!…”) Most importantly is Medieval Madness’s castle drawbridge, which descends to provide a route to attacking and eventually raising the castle gate, until finally, a bold pinball strike exactly up the middle destroys the castle in a flurry of gyrating stone towers.

This brief apprenticeships was, in itself, just a start. But over the years, it has made all the difference. When several friends moved from Boston to Seattle, I passed on the few mechanics I had gotten to know (with lots of enthusiastic jumping up and down). We started spending time at Shorty’s and places like Add-a-Ball, all the while nudging each other further and further down the rabbit hole. I moved to Ann Arbor, and I kept playing. Pinball became the thing I do when beloved old friends visit, or something I try sharing when I want to feel closer with someone new.

Through it all, I hardly improved at all in terms of points scored. Nor have I acquired encyclopedic knowledge about flipper techniques or obscure machines. But I learned to hear that soft voice beneath all of the blinking and whirring and ricocheting: pay attention, pay attention, pay attention.

So what would it look like if I could map out the universe of pinball as I experience it? I decided to try answering that with the concept of a network of machines.

After poking around the Pinball Across the U.S. visualization, I discovered that the developer had shared code for fetching pinball data from PinballMap. This would let me run my own secondary analysis on the data — and in particular, I started thinking about how to use the choice of pinball machines in arcades & bars to infer the closeness and connections between the machines themselves.

Social network analysis is a common framework for modeling a bunch of information about connections — the end result is often a network graph that shows relationships as connections (or “edges”) between individuals (or “nodes”), as well as relationships between & within subgroups (also called cliques or communities). These relationships can be tightly clustered around a core handful of individuals, or they can show dispersed distributions, or somewhere in between.

A simple network graph showing both distinct and indistinct communities. (source)

Network graphs are useful for expressing relationships in all kinds of contexts — so why not pinball?

I wrote a script to convert PinballMap data into a series of nodes and edges that I could subsequently import into network visualization software. I chose to use Gephi, a robust open source platform designed for just this purpose. And after some playing around with filters and network physics (de-clumping takes time!) I had a new formulation of the “pinball world” to work with: a giant, interconnected network of machines.

Network view 1: the most frequently appearing machines

This view of the pinball graph excerpts just the most frequently occurring pinball machines out of ~880 in the dataset. Lines represent frequent and strong connections between machines — in this case, machines that frequently show up in the same place all across the country.

The Addams Family shows up as a large and central machine in the graph. In particular, it appears that Addams Family has a uniquely high betweenness centrality score. In social network terms, betweenness centrality is a measure of how many connections in the graph as a whole must run through a given individual. In a network of teenagers, it would be a measure of the friend that seems to know somebody in each clique and subculture , even if they aren’t necessarily the person with the absolute highest number of friends. I ran a second analysis to confirm my intuition, and sure enough:

Only a handful of machines connect disparate parts of the pinball machine universe together

We can expect the Addams Family to show up in a wide variety of locations, as a bridge between very different types of games. Twilight Zone appears to play a similar role, but on a smaller scale. After the first twenty or so machines, the importance of any one machine as a connector or subculture match-maker slowly converges to zero.

One nice thing about making a network graph with Gephi is that you can investigate sub-regions of the data. For instance, what’s going on with Theatre of Magic?

Network view 2: close connections to Theatre of Magic

This view matches my on-the-ground perception of Theatre of Magic — I don’t find the machine at places too often, but when I do, I tend to find games like Medieval Madness and Lord of the Rings as well (for example, this is true at the Seattle Pinball Museum. The Addams Family is there as well.)

Network view 3: the same graph with a lower filter threshold

If we remove some of the filtering on the network graph and view more machines at once, the intelligibility of the network starts to break down. We can see that those few machines with high betweenness centrality scores are somewhat of a special case in the realm of pinball machines; many machines are only subtly grouped together. You’re likely to see The Champion Pub and Indiana Joins and AC/DC (Premium) in some of the same places, while PIN-BOT may be more of a special case.

Making network visualizations is fun, to be sure. I like the implications of thinking about pinball machines as individuals with affinities — some pairings are like oil and water and others resemble close confidants in a friend group. (Perhaps we are just the biological mechanism that enables these complex machines to have their own social lives?) Machines and bars/arcades/other venues are reasonable places to focus, as they are fundamental to the experience of playing pinball.

But this approach ignored the part of pinball I held most dear: the way pinball knowledge is shared between people, and the way the game is experienced together in this embodied, frenetic space. The way I had sourced my data above had focused entirely on the choice of machines in specific venues, and lost the ability to capture the rich ecosystem of shared knowledge — suggestions of ways to pass a ball between flippers, or how to progress through the Fellowship party-building system in Lord of the Rings.

What kind of data would I need to explore and express the social infrastructure of pinball? As I searched for answers, I quickly realized a large part of this story had to be women’s pinball leagues.

I first heard about women’s pinball leagues after Carolyne introduced me to Medieval Madness in 2015. I found the excellent mini documentary Player 2, which followed a pinball league in San Francisco called Belles & Chimes. The documentary made me incredibly excited to bond with other women over pinball. But after moving to Ann Arbor for grad school, I found myself in a city with an incredible arcade but no pinball league. I lost the thread of the big-picture community connection, and focused on my affectionate friend visits and occasional pinball dates instead. Pinball felt like a personal world, and anything resembling Pinball Culture or even Women’s Pinball Culture felt entirely outside of my experience.

Last year, I moved to Ithaca, New York — even more of an island apart from pinball lands. But head a couple of hours in any direction, and in particular north-west out to Buffalo, and the pinball scene is thriving — including a women’s pinball league, Buffalo Women’s Pinball. In the fall, I reached out to BWP for advice on visiting Buffalo on a brief pinball pilgrimage, and found a friendly group of folks eager to immediately share advice (like, within minutes). Just a couple weeks prior, I had met a pinball mechanic in Las Vegas and found her infinitely encouraging as well. It was so wonderful and motivating to meet badass women making things happen in their cities.

Last week, Fanbyte published an excellent article about the New York City chapter of Belles & Chimes. The article captured a spirit of pinball playing that resonated with me so much:

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.”
Women-Only Pinball Shows Another Side of Competitive Gaming” by Merrit K. (source)

This winter of new pinball connections made me realize that yes, this universe of pinball that I hold close does expand outwards into this web of badass, wonderful folks. I am not an island, whatever the relative emptiness of my city’s pinball map might suggest.

Within the larger narrative of pinball’s growth in the United States exists specific set of histories of women building infrastructure and connections for each other. When I first saw Player 2, Belles & Chimes had just started up in San Francisco and had begun opening a couple of new chapters (NYC, Portland). I just peeked at Belles & Chimes’ listing of chapters — so much has changed!

Belles & Chimes chapters are opening across the United States! Here’s a little visualization in Tableau.

Copying the Belles & Chimes website data into a spreadsheet cell by cell feels very different than fetching data from an API or calculating network parameters. But the map allows me to see this vibrancy clearly and undeniably — and in that way, takes its cue from “Pinball Across the U.S.” It also feels like an open invitation to keep going: what data do I need to continue exploring and filling in this pinball universe? How can I better understand how other people, especially women/nonbinary/queer/trans/poc folks (& folks who exist across those categories) relate to these strange machines? And how can I show up and contribute myself?

There’s one last aspect of pinball that I don’t want to get lost in the narrative: the joyfulness of taking up your space in public.

When I first played Medieval Madness, I wasn’t in the habit of making myself any more visible than I already was. I was new to Seattle — I had come out as trans and moved from Boston just a few months earlier. And though I was profoundly, bone-deep relieved to be building this new life in the Pacific Northwest and living openly as a queer woman, I was also terrified. Leaving my apartment in those early months meant strangers starting at me at best, and strangers taunting or grabbing or propositioning me at worst. It was a difficult, wonderful, thrilling, exhausting time, and if there was a loudest message coming at me at public, it was: your body is a problem.

It can be tempting to make everything about gender transition into stories of empowerment and transformation. Sometimes shitty things are just shitty, and there’s no particular lesson to learn from them.

I will just say that during that first fall, pinball felt like a goddamn revelation. When I played pinball, I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing: cheering as a friend pulls of a trick in Theatre of Magic, or frantically hopping around to keep up with a Multiball Madness, or (occasionally) grinning at the alarming cabinet thwack that means you’ve won a free game. During a time where just existing in public felt dangerous, pinball brought out the most present, excitable, hop-around version of me, and asked me to celebrate it and share it with others.

It was a comfort when I needed a comfort. It was the loveliest of reasons to leave the apartment. More than anything else, it was really, really fucking fun.

So what is the data-driven bridge between our intimate experiences and the wider universes in which they exist? How can we use data storytelling to visualize experiences of sharing embodied knowledge and creating communities?

I like these questions. I want to spend time with them, give them space to roam around. And if that means more seeking out communities of pinball players, and more time foraging for data & creating it with others, all the better!

For now, I’ll say: somewhere along the way, pinball for me became less a game embedded in a weird box-table-machine, and more a place I consider one of my homes in the world. I want to keep sharing that place with others, so long as they are curious. All pinball asks is that we show up and drop the requisite number of quarters into the slot.