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tournament, pinball, arcade, accessibility, disability

Accessible Sport and “Wheelchair Romance”

1980s Pinball and Arcade Tournaments for People with Disabilities

Matt Knutson (University of North Dakota)


In June 1979, the Pocono Record out of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, ran a human-interest story about eighteen-year-old Rob Marince, who was recovering in a Colorado hospital from an auto accident in January of that year. With the school year ending, Marince’s classmates sent a “huge scrapbook, filled with drawings and messages by 350 persons who want[ed] Rob to know they [hadn’t] forgotten him,” including messages such as “Everyone at Hopewell [Area High School] prays for you and hopes that one day soon you will come back. Then our days will be filled with brightness.”1 The article offered as an encouraging sign that Marince had recently built up his ability to go off of his respirator for three and a half hours at a time. Even so, the auto accident had paralyzed him from the neck down, and despite his classmates’ prayers and wishes, his prognosis provided no reason to believe that he might return to Hopewell or regain motor movement.

With his brother Gary, who custom-built numerous technological accommodations for him, Rob would become the subject of many future articles in local newspapers, national coverage through repeated exposure in the Associated Press, televisual news appearances, a documentary short that ran on PBS, and a cover story on the October 1981 issue of RePlay Magazine, a trade publication for the amusements industry. RePlay is one prominent example of how Rob was frequently depicted or described in these stories as playing pinball and arcade games, typically in a way that lightened the story’s tone. Rob’s personal circumstances attracted attention from these outlets as an example of new technological methods of accommodation, brotherly love, human ingenuity, digital amusement, and the cutting edge of telecommunication. At the same time, his case illuminates the complex emotional relationships that individuals have with disability; in particular, this essay examines Gary’s frustrations with an ableist public. After Rob’s accident, Gary took six weeks off of school at Penn State to do all he could for his brother, beginning years’ worth of projects to enable Rob’s access to technologies such as phones, pinball, arcade games, and eventually satellite communications. Working with a friend, Gary taught himself to engineer these accommodations made largely from parts donated by manufacturers of coin-operated amusements. Gary’s profound love for Rob motivated long hours of work to custom-build technological interfaces for Rob’s benefit; at the same time, he expressed personal dissatisfaction with any solution short of restoring his brother’s motor function. At a subcultural level, the games industry donated generously to aid players with disabilities such as Rob but responded at glacial speed to the broader need for accessible games, a situation still very much in progress forty years later. Beyond gaming, Rob’s case attracted the attention of an ableist public that venerated his perseverance as inspirational while also entertaining a “wheelchair romance,” or in Gary’s terms, when “some people might think it’s fun to be handicapped” (see fig. 1).2

Figure 1

September 23, 1979, article from the Pittsburgh Press : “He Huffs And Puffs … And Wins Every Game”

Alt text: This scan of a newspaper article features under its title on the left-hand side a large photograph of a young Rob Marince with a tube between his lips, eyes focused on an object offscreen. In the upper right of the scan, a young Gary Marince stands over a pinball table that has been opened up to reveal its network of circuits. Gary points to a spot inside the cabinet.

This essay first discusses the periodical record of the Marinces’ story in both newspapers and, in particular, RePlay Magazine. As such, it connects to contemporary identity politics regarding disability as well as the reason Rob’s case was of such interest to the amusements industry that he would appear on a cover story. Next, the essay discusses Robbie, a 1980 documentary short about Rob and his family that complements the print material with an audiovisual recording of a week in his life. Notably, the short fills in a gap in the printed documents by actually taking Rob’s perspective, listening extensively to his speech, and communicating the emotional resonance of his achievements in pinball competition. Finally, the essay brings the topic into the present in order to illuminate recent discourses on the relationship between the games industry and accessibility. In doing so, the essay relates Gary Marince’s indictment of wheelchair romance to the present state of disability in games.

“These Games Are Like Lightning”: Disability Awareness and Visibility

Part of what made Rob’s story exceptional, and the reason that RePlay eventually covered him, was that he could play pinball and arcade games through an oral “sip and puff” apparatus that his brother Gary had designed for him. As Gary explained:

I was back at school, Penn State, and I met a person who had a pinball arcade that traveled. So it started to hit on me [sic] that I could take a couple of wires, short out the flipper switches, and “Oh, we’ll shoot the ball into play for him,” but at least he’ll be puffing away and working a pin game. … I found that there was a game that had a solenoid shooter, so [an arcade owner and I] worked it out that he made this machine available to me, and I took it back to my apartment at Penn State, forgot about classes for about the next six weeks, spent day and night getting relays and switches and transformers and resistors and transistors in line so that Robbie could start a game, shoot the ball, and work the flippers on a command by moving his cheek. Thus the interface sequence unit was born.3

Having removed the last barrier for full sip-and-puff control by replacing a manual shooter with a solenoid one, Gary had achieved a one-of-a-kind accommodation for his brother. Not stopping until every aspect of a game of pinball could be controlled orally in order to offer Rob as much independence as possible, Gary demonstrated a deep love for and dedication to his brother when he took six weeks out of his semester to craft this apparatus. This device was one of many that Gary would craft: an April 1983 story described Gary’s engineering efforts with his friend Ted Ruscitti as “$100,000 worth of components from manufacturers. With some creative tinkering, they integrated different technologies into a turnkey system.”4 Dr. Ron Cole from Carnegie Mellon University described it as “the best example anywhere of a home computer being able to help the handicapped. As far as an in-house system goes, Rob’s is state of the art. There are none like it anywhere else.”5 The system in question recognized voice commands to control an Apple II Plus to perform tasks such as “dimming or brightening the lights, adjusting the bed, playing video games or taping TV shows on his Betamax.”6

Rob’s home system was a particularly early and particularly acute example of Stacy Branham and Shaun Kane’s concept of “collaborative accessibility,” or “situations in which family members, friends, acquaintances, or strangers help (or hinder) accessibility.”7 In addition to enabling Rob to perform more tasks independently, Gary’s designs produced new ways for him to communicate with family members via the phone as needs arose, as well as making coin-op play accessible again through a custom-built controller as seen on the October 1981 cover of RePlay (see fig. 2).

Figure 2

High-resolution scan of the October 1981 cover of RePlay Magazine (Courtesy RePlay Magazine )

Alt text: Rob Marince’s gaze focuses on a screen off-camera, lips tightly formed around a mouthpiece connected to a metal cylinder, itself connected through a clear piece of tubing to circuits and wires behind a clear rectangle of Plexiglas. Photographed in a dim location, Marince’s face is lit from his left side, casting a strong shadow over his right. His hair is combed back out of his face, and he is clean shaven. He wears a red Telephone Pioneers of America top under a black scarf; to the right of his head, some fur is wrapped around the headrest of his motorized chair, whose metal frame peeks out from behind Marince’s left shoulder. In the background sit a pair of cabinets running Astro Blaster and Space Panic , their illumination faint in comparison to Marince’s face in the light. The layout of the cover includes no border or graphics. The title and subtitle of the magazine (as well as price and date) appear at the top, and the only other addition to the full-page photo is the cover-story description: “‘Pins & Pongs’ in Pittsburgh: Special Players Compete In A Games Tourney for Handicapped.”

Among covers of trade-industry publications at this time, this issue stands out as unique in its visibility for people with disabilities.8 On it we see Rob Marince in the act of play, operating the sip-and-puff interface his brother had designed. Cabinets for Astro Blaster and Space Panic form a background as Rob plays at the tournament site—a “gymnasium at Harmarville Rehabilitation Center” in Pittsburgh where the cabinets had been arranged in a “horseshoe pattern.”9 While RePlay commonly featured a Tournament News section, only a few issues at this time made competitions into cover stories. The cover story of this issue, “‘Pins & Pongs’ in Pittsburgh: Special Players Compete In A [sic] Games Tourney for Handicapped,” alludes to both pinball and arcade games in this competition. Gary created the Third Annual Quadriplegic Pinball Tournament to benefit players with disabilities like his brother, and participants competed in both pinball and arcade games, each taking up half of the competition space. The top prize was an $800 stereo supplied by local radio station WDVE, which also contributed a pair of disc jockeys who put on a mock broadcast at the venue. During the proceedings, the deejays also climbed into wheelchairs, played the games themselves, and gave away albums to those who could best their scores. WDVE was one sponsor of the event, with the others being the Telephone Pioneers of America and Gary Marince himself. Additionally, amusement manufacturers lent a number of pinball cabinets to the event, including “‘Star Trek,’ ‘Hot Hand,’ ‘Firepower,’ ‘Countdown,’ ‘Superman,’ and ‘Pinball Lizard.’”10

The publication’s usual motivation for promoting tournaments was to demonstrate to other operators that tournaments were an effective way to bolster attendance and generate publicity, and write-ups in RePlay often commented on whether local press had taken note of the event and its location. This particular article noted in its first paragraph that “the scene could have been played out in any arcade,” implicitly suggesting that other operators should try such an event as a way of gaining positive attention for their businesses.11 Importantly, as Carly Kocurek has noted, the arcade industry in the early 1980s sought to improve its public image.12 Moral panics around teenage delinquency, sexual abuse, health concerns such as so-called video elbow, and/or the coin-op entertainment’s historical association with organized crime had prompted the industry to manage its image more actively. In this context, an unquestionably charitable tournament for players with disabilities offered an exceptional opportunity to demonstrate public goodwill. Here was some of the best evidence that the unique capabilities of coin-operated amusements could be leveraged for the communal good: unlike traditional sports, pinball and arcade games were playable through oral interfaces such as Marince’s sip-and-puff design and were therefore more inclusive of a range of player abilities. This kind of publicity for the industry would have been practically ideal, especially when considering how, as the RePlay story noted, the September 1981 event attracted the participation of NFL players and prompted the Marinces’ appearances in the local news.

Interviews with event attendees highlight the stakes of accessibility in gaming as a pastime. Attendees offered glowing endorsements of these adapted cabinets in their interviews with RePlay. One competitor commented “It’s beautiful ... It’s something for the handicapped that I’d like to see in the arcades in the malls”; another offered a more electric description: “It’s unbelievable ... These games are like lightning. The next time I see a pinball machine, I’ll see if I can play it and master it.” Debbie Hutchins, director of Recreational Therapy at the Harmarville Rehabilitation Center, commented on the stakes of the event to the competitors: “Many paralysis victims are traumatized by their injuries and feel they can’t do anything, Ms. Hutchins said. The more they can do, the easier it is for them to adjust. ‘The ability to beat one of these games might be the only success or accomplishment they can have at this point in their lives.’”13 What Hutchins seems to imply is that success with an arcade or pinball cabinet constitutes an initial act that breaks one’s sense of helplessness and demonstrates to oneself that one can indeed continue to accomplish new things. In this sense, game competitions offer opportunities to reach people with disabilities whom other types of programming or interventions might not.

The September 1981 event RePlay had reported on was only one of many Gary Marince had organized, with several attracting the attention of newspapers. Some of this media coverage linked athletics to coin-op competition, including a series of stories that ran in Centre Daily Times from State College, Pennsylvania. In coverage from April 15, 21, and 23, 1981, the paper previewed and then highlighted a pair of show matches between players with disabilities and Joe Paterno of Penn State collegiate American football fame, “sponsored by the Association for Barrier-Free Living Environment Design (ABLED)” and coinciding with that group’s observation of Disability Awareness Day, April 22.14 Coverage in Centre Daily Times advertised that “Fran Fisher, the Voice of the Lions, will handle the play-by-play,” enticing football fans to see this public appearance of Paterno as an extension of Paterno’s sporting presence.15 The postgame reporting of Paterno’s show matches continued this athletic tone, quoting Fisher as having pleaded with Paterno to “run one up the middle, Joe.” Despite the excitement of proximity to local celebrity Paterno and the visibility-focused event benefiting people such as his brother, Gary Marince’s comments struck a critical tone: he was quoted condemning “wheelchair romance,” or “the condescending attitude that leaves people admiring the courage of the handicapped, but doing little else to see that their disabilities are cured.”16 While this critique offers a productive commentary on an able public and its frequently hollow respect for those with disabilities, it also indicates a contemporary assertion that nothing short of a cure can be a satisfactory outcome for people with disabilities (see fig. 3).

Figure 3

Gary tinkering with a pinball cabinet (Still from Robbie )

Alt text: This still from the documentary Robbie shows Gary kneeling beside a pinball cabinet, both arms elbow-deep in the unseen recess, evidently determined to fix or alter something inside. The top and front panels of the cabinet have been swung open as widely as possible. Gary wears a white button-down shirt that has been rolled up to the elbows. The location is in the Marince household, apparently in the room in which Rob is able to play pinball from his bedroom using a CCTV feed. The carpet is a dark red and the walls are cream colored.

This sentiment may have had personal implications for the elder Marince, who had produced engineering solutions to certain problems for his brother, yet no amount of tinkering could itself be a remedy for Rob’s condition. Demonstrating some frustration with the social issues surrounding disability during this charitable event he had helped put on, Marince said, “we wouldn’t have to put money into building ramps … into rearranging bathrooms” if there was a better “concentrated financial effort” made in medical cures for disabilities.17

Accordingly, Marince’s comments exemplify a sentiment about disability as a term that Victor Finkelstein works to reframe in Attitudes and Disabled People, a scholarly work that was contemporary (1980) with the event in question. Finkelstein writes: “What is now required, it seems to me, as phase three is ushered in, is that there is a great need to question, research, analyse and focus upon ‘disability’ from a completely different standpoint. That standpoint defines ‘disability’ not as an attribute of an individual but as an oppressive social relationship between people with physical impairments and society.”18 Finkelstein reorients the problem of disability away from the supposed shortcomings of the individual and onto the palpable shortcomings of a society that is ableist in its infrastructures, economics, and discourses. While Marince’s words about wheelchair romance fault the public in a general sense, by privileging the pursuit of a cure over accommodation, people with disabilities are nonetheless framed as incomplete until they are mended. Undoubtedly, Gary Marince had worked tirelessly and at personal cost to improve his brother’s situation and produce cutting-edge accommodations for him, yielding results that were staggering to Dr. Ron Cole from Carnegie Mellon and repeatedly newsworthy to journalists; Marince’s efforts testify to the strength of love for his brother. Yet even while Gary acted as an ideal advocate for people with disabilities, in his own comments he dismissed the very type of advocacy he performed as an insufficient treatment of a problem in need of permanent solution: “Nothing could make me happier than to have my inventions become obsolete” by the discovery of a cure.19


While records of Rob Marince’s life in periodicals are extensive, they tend to observe him outwardly rather than giving the reader much insight about his own perspective. Providing an illuminating contrast, a 1980 documentary short about Rob Marince, Robbie, aired on PBS after having appeared at events such as the New York Film Festival.20 The film was directed by a family friend of the Marinces, Richard Greenberg. Greenberg shot the film in a single week on a budget under $10,000 by borrowing unused 16mm cameras from a TV station he had worked at.21 The short film, twenty-eight minutes and forty-five-seconds long, features interviews with Rob as he speaks candidly about his experience, including his joys and struggles. Several other interviewees provide commentary, including Gary, the Marince parents, and the physician who treated Rob at time of his injury, Dr. Laibe Kessler.22 Interviews are interspersed with footage of Rob’s day-to-day routines. The film shows Rob at play and interacting with friends and family, often through custom-built interfaces. Rob speaks about his outlook, his frustrations at having his life altered, and whether the entertainment of pinball will last him longer than the immediate future. Throughout the documentary, we see Rob’s use of technology, such as his phone, which was modified to detect his whistling with rising or falling intonation (see fig. 4).

Figure 4

Rob whistling (Still from Robbie )

Alt text: Rob lies in bed, his head propped up on a blue pillow, looking offscreen to the camera’s right where there is an unseen digital display connected to his rotary phone. The phone sits on a high bedside table in the foreground of the image. Behind it, held up on a stand near Rob’s pursed lips, is a stick microphone. Rob is whistling into the microphone to dial the number of a friend.

Later, we see Space Invaders running in Rob’s room on a CRT tilted ninety degrees (as is convention), except in this case we notice the tilt because there is no vinyl arcade cover over the top to hide the SONY label. The short documentary culminates in an event like the one reported in RePlay, except this event finishes with Rob competing in a “grudge match” as announcer Jimmy Roach describes it in the film, against Les, a fellow player with disabilities.

The documentary then begins to take on some conventions of a sports film in a montage set to music, communicating the emotional element of the competition in a clearer way than newspaper and magazine coverage of Rob achieved. Jimmy Roach, a deejay from radio station WDVE acting as emcee for the event, previews the match as an alternative to the two “having to go out in the alley and fight it out.” The ambient noise of the busy room fades out as the electronic sound effects of their pinball machine, Firepower, consume the film’s soundtrack. The camera zooms in on Rob’s concentrated face, and we see his lips purse as he activates the flippers. Rob loses his last ball and drops the tube from his mouth with a smile before the film cuts to a close-up of the scoreboard, now climbing up to 4590 points as nondiegetic guitar-heavy funk music begins. The film cuts back and forth between the two competitors as they exchange smiles that prove the irony of Roach’s comment about alleyway violence. Abruptly, the music stops and Roach announces Rob the winner to applause before commenting that Les plans to return next year. The sequence provides a crescendo to the film, a moment of triumph for Rob over a (friendly) rival, that valorizes this act of competition and public achievement. According to Greenberg, the competition was unplanned and really a lucky development that nonetheless provided good closure to the story.23

Overall, this short film strikes a conflicted tone: on the one hand, it is celebratory of the accomplishments of medical professionals working with the Marince family (as Kessler describes it, “a combination of … splendid efforts”). On the other, it is soberly honest in its presentation of Rob’s condition; at the end he laments no longer being able to care for himself and hangs most of his hopes on a cure. “Well I’m thinking what am I going to be doing when I’m 50? Pinball’s a lot of fun, but after a while, like what am I going to do? So I can take care of myself?”24 In similarly sober tones, Rob’s mother describes the situation as “almost an understood fact that he will not even regain his breathing.” The film consequently captures many valences of Rob’s exceptional story—one being the potential for pinball and video game competitions to draw together community while improving the lives of competitors to whom physical sport is not equally available, another being the recognition that such outlets for competitive achievement aren’t everything.

Scalability and Expectation of Life, Forty Years Later

Rob did not, indeed, keep playing pinball up to the age of fifty. In 2005 thePittsburgh Post-Gazette interviewed Rob at age forty-six; he was not playing any pinball to speak of but continued to access the world through technological accommodations: “Rob, from his fixed position, can operate just about everything in his room. Using a voice recognition program, he can TiVo television programs; he can close the blinds; he can switch off the lights; he can play music; he can search Google. Behold: a computer expert who’s never touched a keyboard.”25 This enumeration of digital accommodations bears similarity to how Dr. Ron Cole had been impressed by Rob’s equipment in the 1980s, but in both cases, it would be practically impossible to replicate this technological array for everyone in Rob’s position. As before, it was his brother who configured the setup. However, not everyone has a Gary Marince in their lives: when one of Rob’s friends was asked whether this setup was replicable, he said “not really—because so much of it is specialized, customized. It’s high-maintenance, time-consuming work” to make all of this function.

Today, four decades after Robbie and nineteen years after the Post-Gazette article, scalability remains a pressing issue for accommodation. In the 2010s, organizations like AbleGamers raised awareness in the gaming community about players with disabilities, releasing Includification: A Practical Guide to Game Disability through their Includification Project and giving a talk on this topic at the Game Developers Conference 2016. The arrival of the Xbox adaptive controller in 2018, as Kishonna Gray has shown, was a major moment in accessibility for games as the industry responded to the needs of players with disabilities and, to be blunt, the market those players represented.26 The attentiveness to access that the Xbox adaptive controller represents constitutes a paradigm shift for industry engagement with disability, going well beyond the donation of equipment that the Marinces witnessed from coin-op manufacturers in the 1980s. Nonetheless, as Michael James Heron argues, technology alone cannot achieve an accessible games culture: “Colour blind modes, alternate controller mappings, variable font sizes, and such are all tremendous fixes to existing problems. However, they are only a fix for the people already willing to play the games in front of them. There are accessibility barriers that not only stop people from playing games but stop them from thinking games are even a thing they should play” (emphasis in original).27 We would therefore be remiss to place our hopes for accessible games on the gaming industry, let alone on a single peripheral, when ableism pervades inside and outside the medium of games. Tech by itself cannot address these issues, and instead what is needed in Heron’s view is “discussion, empathy, and visible advocacy.”28 Without such social interventions, technological ones will only help some individuals with disabilities to access games while doing nothing to thwart the condescension and cripfacing of our contemporary wheelchair romance.29


I’d like to thank the Strong Museum of Play for the use of their archives during a research trip in 2017. I’d also like to thank RePlay for the high-resolution scan of their October 1981 cover. Thank you to the editorial team at ROMchip, particularly Laine Nooney for your patient encouragement to refine and submit this work and David Parisi for your thoughtful feedback. And thank you to my partner and children for your continued love and support.


1. ^ “Package of Love Delivered to Paralyzed Classmate,” Pocono Record (Stroudsburg, PA), June 22, 1977,

2. ^ Bob Dvorchak, “High-Tech Helpmate Serves a Crippled Master,” Spokane (WA) Chronicle, June 7, 1983,

3. ^ Robbie, directed and produced by Richard S. Greenberg (1980; Richard S. Greenberg Productions), Vimeo.

4. ^ Bob Dvorchak, “Man Builds Computer for Paralyzed Brother,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 26, 1983,

5. ^ Dvorchak, “Man Builds Computer.”

6. ^ Dvorchak.

7. ^ Stacy M. Branham and Shaun K. Kane, “Collaborative Accessibility: How Blind and Sighted Companions Co-Create Accessible Home Spaces,” in CHI ʼ15: Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (New York: Association for Computing Machinery, 2015), 2373–82,

8. ^ I’d like to thank the Strong Museum of Play for the use of its archives during a research fellowship I had there in the fall of 2017 when I first encountered this RePlay issue.

9. ^ Bob Uhrinak, “Special Fun for Special People at September 17 Pin-Video Competition,” RePlay Magazine, October 1981, 66.

10. ^ Uhrinak, “Special Fun.”

11. ^ Uhrinak.

12. ^ See Carly A. Kocurek, “Gaming’s Gold Medalists,” in Coin-Operated Americans: Rebooting Boyhood at the Video Arcade (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 59–62, where the author details the public ills that the arcade industry was accused of.

13. ^ Hutchins went on to earn her doctorate in health care education at Nova Southeastern University and teach at Slippery Rock University.

14. ^ Jane C. Musala, “Coach’s Score No Prize in New Style of Old Game,” Centre Daily Times (State College, PA), April 23, 1981,

15. ^ Musala, “Coach’s Score.”

16. ^ Musala.

17. ^ Musala.

18. ^ Victor Finkelstein, Attitudes and Disabled People: Issues for Discussion (New York: International Exchange of Information in Rehabilitation, 1980), 15.

19. ^ “Pinball and Video Can Help Handicapped,” Tyrone (PA) Daily Herald, April 21, 1981,

20. ^ Richard Greenberg, telephone interview with author, March 1, 2023.

21. ^ Greenberg, interview.

22. ^ Robbie.

23. ^ Greenberg, interview.

24. ^ Robbie.

25. ^ Chico Harlan, “Wired for Life: Upbeat Attitude, Loving Support Enrich Rob’s World, One Innovation at a Time,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 24, 2005,

26. ^ Kishonna L. Gray, “#TechFail: From Intersectional (In)Accessibility to Inclusive Design,” in Intersectional Tech: Black Users in Digital Gaming (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2020), 120–47.

27. ^ Michael James Heron, “The Sociological Accessibility of Gaming,” in Gaming Disability: Disability Perspectives on Contemporary Video Games, ed. Katie Ellis, Tama Leaver, and Mike Kent (New York: Routledge, 2022), 153,

28. ^ Heron, “Sociological Accessibility.”

29. ^ As Boluk and LeMieux define it, cripfacing is “the phenomenon of able-bodied performers acting in disabled roles.” See Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux, Metagaming: Playing, Competing, Spectating, Cheating, Trading, Making, and Breaking Videogames (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 137.