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Vermont's pinball wizards on why this throwback game is picking up in popularity

A man in a red shirt leans over a pinball machine in a dark room full of pinball machines.
Eric Ford
Vermont Public
Vermont state pinball champ Eric Marz plays a round at the Pinball Co-Op in South Burlington.

When was the last time you played a game of pinball? Maybe it was on a machine in a friend’s basement when you were a kid. Or maybe you’re a competitive player who regularly visits a pinball arcade. Perhaps you've never played at all.

Vermont's pinball scene — though comparatively small — is growing, according to a cohort of its most devoted members. There are now three dedicated pinball arcades in the state: the Pinball Co-Op in South Burlington, Pastime Pinball in Manchester, and Gravitate in Brattleboro. Many local bars have machines as well.

Greg Bemis teaches his students about pinball in his game history class at Champlain College. During a conversation about the state's pinball scene on Vermont Edition, Bemis said he's noticed more and more of his students voicing an interest in pinball's many tactile, analog elements.

"Once I start talking with them about the depth of pinball, and how these games go deep — there's a lot you can learn, there's a lot that the games reveal about themselves the more you play — a little light goes on in their heads," he said.

Three people stand in a pinball arcade and look at a pinball cabinet decorated with the stars and stripes.
Eric Ford
Vermont Public
Mikaela Lefrak (right) looked on as Eric Marz and Emily May installed a pinball game that May lent to the Pinball Co-Op in South Burlington.

Like Bemis, Mike Havens also enjoys teaching a new generation about pinball. He's a math teacher at Burlington High School, as well as the owner of the Pinball Co-Op in South Burlington. The two-room establishment hosts weekly open play nights, machine repair sessions and occasional tournaments.

"A lot of people, when they hear pinball, they think of it as this simple thing, and maybe even outdated," Havens said. "They don't know that there are competitions associated with it, and there's many different ways that you can enjoy pinball."

Havens loves the social aspect of the Co-Op and the friends he's made through the state's pinball community. "If you see a game," he said, "hit the start button, give it a shot, and see for yourself."

Emily May of Cornwall plays at the Pinball Co-Op nearly every week. For a time, she was ranked in the top 10 women players globally. She is now part of an effort to make pinball more inclusive. She noted that about 90% of players who compete in tournaments identify as men.

A woman in a gray shirt, jeans and a yellow baseball cap stands in front of a pinball game called Dr. Dude.
Eric Ford
Vermont Public
Emily May, a competitive pinball player from Cornwall, stands in front of her favorite game, Dr. Dude and His Excellent Ray.

"There have been places that I've played [outside of Vermont] where it's uncomfortable to be a woman player, just because of the nature of being in a male-dominated space where most people are drinking," May said. "But here, the Pinball Co-Op is one of the best places that I found for being a woman player. It is a very friendly, casual space."

May works with the local chapter of Bells and Chimes, which organizes women's pinball events and tries to create a safe space for women, trans and nonbinary players. "It's been really great here," she says of the statewide scene.

Neither Beth nor Marty Friedman consider themselves serious players, even though they own Pastime Pinball, a Manchester arcade and pinball museum with games dating back to 1947. Their oldest game, Humpty Dumpty, was the first game to have automated flippers.

"I hope that people will not think that pinball is beneath them," Beth Friedman said. "Pinball is for everybody."

Broadcast at noon Thursday, August 10, 2023; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
As Director of Content Partnership, Eric works with individuals and organizations to make connections leading to more Vermont stories. As Producer of the Made Here series, Eric partners with filmmakers from New England and Quebec to broadcast and stream local films. Find more info here: