World-ranked pinball champion Robert Gagno is the subject of crowdfunded documentary Wizard Mode, which tracks his rise through the international ranks and his experience coming of age with autism. The film premiered Monday, May 2 at the 2016 HotDocs Festival. Here, Gagno—with the help of his mother, Kathy—talks about his experiences with autism, his love of pinball, and what he hopes to achieve by sharing his story with the world.
What is it like to have autism? I guess itdepends on the day you ask me. Sometimes it sucks, sometimes it is cool, andmost of the time I don’t think about it. I have always had it so I can onlycompare myself to people who don’t have it, and sometimes I don’t always pickthe best role models to compare myself to. I know that sometimes I havedifficulty communicating my thoughts and ideas clearly. That makes me say“random things” sometimes, as my sister says, like I say whatever springs intomy head. It makes conversations confusing at times because someone will say Ihave been on the topic for too long and then a minute later say that I switchthe topic too often. Some days everything is too loud, too smelly, and I feeljumpy. Now that I am an adult, I have learned that I can avoid informationoverload by listening to music through earphones or headphones.
I have had always had strong interests incertain things. I used to love exit signs, rotating fans and fire alarms when Iwas little. My mom said she would let me turn switches on and off to keep me inone place but would have to watch me around fire alarms. I remember followingthe “Pull Alarm” directions at least three times and all the excitement itcaused. Other interests included numbers, like telephone codes, bus schedules,and serial numbers on buses, then hockey and hockey statistics, The Simpsons and SpongeBob cartoons, and Nintendo games. It wasn’t until I was ayoung adult that I understood that most people don’t have the same level ofinterest in the same things I do. I still get surprised when people say thatthey don’t want to talk about something anymore. I often don’t realize I can berepetitive talking about something I enjoy.
Pinball is something I really enjoy. I haveliked it for as long as I can remember but the intensity of my interest changedoften. It was high from the ages of ten to 12, then low-to-medium until aboutthe age of 19, when it became high again. My parents even bought me a pinballmachine when I was ten, during a high-interest time, but after about a year Igot into video games so they covered it up for about eight years.
I knew I was good. I remember peoplewatching me play and commenting on how good I was but I didn’t realize how good until I started playing intournaments. I am lucky because my parents like pinball a lot too, and soinstead of normal “vacations,” most of our holidays are now “pincations” topinball tournaments and shows. For some we’ll drive to Washington, Oregon orNorthern California tournaments and others we’ll fly to, usually me and my dad.I don’t mind flying but I get very stressed anytime I have to go somewhere byplane because I hate all the waiting around and the lines and I get veryanxious about all the security checks partly because I can’t wear myheadphones. The anxiety makes things even louder than they probably are.
I love being good at pinball. It makes mefeel good inside to know that I am one of the best players in the world. Iworked hard to get into the top ten of the International Flipper PinballAssociation’s world player rankings, and it is just as hard to stay in the topten. I don’t think my memory for language is great, but it is very good forvisual information. This is very useful in pinball because the newer gamesrequire following certain rules and sequences to get to the highest level.Supposedly, I process visual information differently. Some people claim I havemagic powers with pinball but they might be joking. I can concentrate very hardon good days, but on the bad days I have a terrible time focusing. In bigtournaments the final rounds are often very early in the morning, kind of likepunishment for being a night person. I hope to be number one in the world oneday but I am happy with where I am now. It is nerve-wracking in some waysthough because now I not only have to go to the bigger tournaments, which meansair travel, but I also have to do well to stay at a high position in therankings.
TheStigma of Autism
I hear and have read that pinball ishelping me overcome the stigma of autism. I am not too sure what that means. Itend to see the same people over and over at tournaments and most of them seemto be friendly. Some of them ask about autism or mention it but a lot of thetime it doesn’t seem to be too big of a deal. One news story said somethingabout my autism disappearing when I play pinball. I don’t know about it actually disappearinglike “poof! It is gone,” but maybe it just blends in. Other pinball players,especially in tournaments, do things that might seem odd if they did it in apublic place like a mall or grocery store. Some players talk to themselves orto the pinball machine and say random things, they jump up and down or pace,some wear headphones, and they are just as obsessed with pinball as I am. Outside of the pinball tournament that wouldlook autistic! It is okay if I don’t feel like talking or if I just want toplay on my own. Pinball might be one of the only sports where it is okay toturn your back on people and it is even expected. Sometimes it is stillconfusing figuring out people’s behaviours but less confusing than, say, at abirthday party.
I like to be alone sometimes but I alsoenjoy being around people I like and meeting new people, just like everyoneelse. I have goals and dreams and want to be independent one day. This is whereautism can be very frustrating and a pain in the butt. Everything new has to belearned in pieces and sometimes that takes a long time. Every time I learnsomething new it’s like someone throwing a bunch of jigsaw pieces down andputting them together to figure out the picture. Sometimes the pieces fittogether strangely, so mistakes happen. At those times I feel like the stigmais still there.
The Wizard Mode Documentary
The first time I met the directors ofWizard Mode I was confused about who they are. They came to my house andinterviewed my family and me and I learned they wanted to make a feature lengthdocumentary. This was exciting because I wanted to show people how good I am atpinball and also what it’s like living on the autism spectrum.
I’m excited about Wizard Mode because it’sgoing to be inspiring to see a person on the spectrum achieving their dreams.Working with the directors, Jeff Petry and Nathan Drillot, has been overall agood experience. One thing I really likeabout doing the film is that I got interviewed by an Italian newspaper. Becausemy Dad is from Italy, it means a lot to us. The only negative is that sometimeswhen you make a movie you have to do the same thing over and over again. I findit can really test my patience a lot. But it’s good sometimes to test yourpatience because it teaches you to be able to do things that are important butnot always fun.
We’ve traveled a lot together and had thechance to eat a lot of interesting food. Once, we were in Pittsburgh and we had the best burger of my life atButterjoint. It was perfectly round and cooked medium rare. The biggestadventure we had on the film was taking the train from Seattle to Chicago. Ittook 72 hours and at the end we went to the Stern Factory to see how they makepinball machines.
I hope people like the movie because it’s beena long time making it and I hope they’ll become more fascinated by the world ofautism and do their own research. Hopefully people will buy more books about autismand talk about it more. Because then it will help people understand the peoplearound them better and not just see them as a label.