I first met Midway’s World Cup Soccer at a pinball show in a small town in Northern California. I describe my experiences with pinball machines like others do people because, for me, a pinball machine is a galaxy of history, science, and storytelling in and of itself; I see who we are and what we aspire to be in the buzzing phantasmagoria just barely trapped beneath the glass. I was also tripping on acid. The carpet was alive, a guy’s koi tattoo was talking to me, and when I hit the flippers and felt the shudders of the machine, it was like a part of me was sucked into it, like how dementors suck parts of your soul out in Harry Potter – but in a very benign, consensual way.
Imagine a guitar string being tightened to meet the pitch of a tuner; something within me aligns to resonate with the machine. Call it nostalgia, maybe. A lot of pinball machines are designed to elicit an immediate nostalgia upon viewing; the electro-mechanical ones (ones created before the advent of solid state technology) are often focused on America’s “glory days” of colonialism and memories of the perfect American town before modernity tainted its simplicity. Ones made made as promotional tools, hawking movies or rock stars, are in some senses “born a relic”, created alongside more advanced and easily distributable arcades and console games.
World Cup Soccer (which was released to promote the ‘94 World Cup) reminds me of growing up in rural Germany. Americans living abroad have to be, like, informed about American apathy for soccer, because when you live in Europe as an American, soccer is a main means of relating to your host country. Or, in my particular case, as someone whose father was stationed at a NATO base, relating to an international community of expats who could agree on the Cold War being good money but not on whether or not baseball was boring and baffling in equal measure. I had every soccer video game (including World Cup USA ‘94 for Super Nintendo), played in youth leagues, and voluntarily got steamrolled in pickup games with neighbors. Not because I was a fan of the game, but that’s just because what you did as an American then and there.
There was a comfort, a sort of belonging in that alienation. Somewhere stuck between innocence and estrangement. It’s hard to convey, but it hits me like a sledgehammer when I play World Cup Soccer, when I hear the canned roar of the audience and see the tick-tock of the goalkeeper. I could once see myself as small, unnoticeable by the elephantine malice of the world. I’ll never be able to buy or steal that back. But games like this let me windowshop a bit. And this is a gift.
Who provides this gift, and how to respect that giving, facilitates a lot of discourse (see also: conflict) within the pinball community.
Pinball is the hard luck woman of hobbies. It was criminalized on a national scale as part of gambling prohibition; in the places where it’s been decriminalized, there are often obtuse laws or limits on how many machines you can have in one place or who is allowed to receive money for their use. The decline of arcades in the US killed most manufacturers. And many machines feature pointedly racist or sexist artwork, which puts the collectors of these machines (usually white men) at odds with the people who are driving the revival of pinball in the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the continent: millennial women and PoC.
And in discussions of how to “save” pinball, the focus is almost always placed on how to preserve and generate deference to the machines already created, rather than how to make the spaces more inclusive of women and PoC and maybe, instead of clutching to rotting, depreciating collections, give the new generation of players the tools to create their own art and move the pursuit forward.
It feels like many collectors want pinball to have a future but not a present; I sense women and people of color who work in soccer media can relate to this. The people with the means and access feel that the thing they love should continue to exist because it has existed, and that we should put into the work because it needs doing, regardless whether or not we’re supported in that work.
To insist that something’s mere existence is of more value than the community involved in preserving is a rhetorical tool of capitalist chauvinism. By looking at the state of say, women’s soccer coverage, and saying “well the product just isn’t very valuable” instead of acknowledging that the labor of the players itself is devalued, we reward ourselves for our sexism.
Similarly, pinball collectors use the posterity of sexist and racist artwork to justify making women and people of color feel uncomfortable in pinball spaces. We should just be there because. The product is its own merit.
I don’t believe it’s possible to have a struggle for gender equality without being conscientious of capitalism (and also how to defeat it); we must never be afraid to contest or even deface our passions if it will not make room for us. Soccer has historical roots in military training, the hanky code started out to help men find square dancing partners. You can’t get too hung up on original intent; what doesn’t evolve, dies.
When white male collectors tell me that my social justice whinging is ruining their hobby, I say “good”. I also say other things, like “the action in your left flipper is weak” or “this machine would be so much better if you knew how to wax a playfield worth a damn”—insipid, petty outbursts. When you’re a woman, and constantly have the authenticity of your devotion to something questioned, it’s easy to stray from the path of discourse and just scream whatever random bullshit you think will slightly undermine someone’s mastery.
In “enthusiast scenes”, the appearance of fun is often prioritized over actually having fun; as long as the machines are present, and people pay their admission or tournament fees, the collectors, event organizers, and industry people don’t seem too worried to discuss the future and how we’re going to create events and projects to ensure that there is a future for pinball, i.e. an economy that runs mostly on pocket change in an increasingly cash-averse culture.
Pinball leagues are different from other social competitions in that, at least in the tourneys I’ve played, people are aggressively supportive of one another, especially if they’re playing against each other. It’s not uncommon for experienced players to offer tutorials on complex machines at the end of a pinball meet so people have a better chance next time. Without this community, and the tools they’ve introduced to the sport—social media, selfie leagues—there would be no pinball scene in 2016, unless you call the same white dudes getting together in smaller and smaller numbers every year “a scene”, which would be playing very fast and loose with my original, intended meaning of the phrase.
Every year, the pinball shows get bigger and more diverse; eventually, the “owning class” that fancies itself the vanguard of the pastime will have to reconcile with the people who actually play pinball, who schedule leagues, who share pictures on social media, who provide the maps that allow these machines to be seen as worlds unto themselves.
World Cup Soccer does a more-than-fair job at capturing the stakes and excitement of international soccer, in terms of what the pinball format and technology circa 1994 can offer. When I play it, I’m taken back to a time when I felt a part of something larger than myself, before coming out and getting involved in anti-oppression politics would strip me of the frivolous comfort of holisticness. That’s cynical of me. It’s not a productive cynicism, like the way that believing that all the labor, physical and emotional, that has gone into preserving a work of art is supplemental at best to the work in and of itself.
The designers of World Cup Soccer didn’t make it to conjure in the player a soothing nostalgia. They did it to cash in on a world event. The manufacturers of the game likely expected to stop moving units once the World Cup had ended. It’s not as if there was a local Midway dealer you could take your machine to get serviced. Every blip and conk World Cup Soccer has bestowed upon the world since its release was a gift from a community that preserved and shared it.
The machine in itself says nothing. It has its melodies and its pretty lights but it’s the world outside of it that allows me to interpret its music. Likewise, it can’t advocate for itself as it slips into entropy, lost in the fog of a game afraid to let go of its history as a hobby for rich white dudes and let the current generation of fans take it forward.
Everything is here because it’s always been here and will continue to be here. Until it isn’t.