Celebrating Female Game Devs of Yesteryear

Celebrating Female Game Devs of Yesteryear

As Women in Games International’s Austin conference approaches, Next-Gen takes a moment to recognize the outstanding female developers who molded the industry during its early years.

Pictures from top to bottom: Dona Baily, Carol Shaw, Carla Meninsky, Julie Hoshizaki, Roberta Williams, Dani Bunten Berry, Brenda Brathwaite and Anne Westfall. 

 

Last May, Xbox Live Arcade put up a "new" game that was actually 27 years old: Centipede. The 1980 Atari classic still appeals even in these days of GPUs that can process a billion vertices per second, for one reason: it has great gameplay. Among its other achievements, Centipede was the first arcade game to attract large numbers of female players. Nobody knows quite why it did, but it may have had something to do with the fact that it was also programmed by a woman, Dona Bailey. Bailey took over a half-finished game called "Bug Shooter" that had been started by fellow programmer Ed Logg, and turned it into an all-time hit. But surprisingly few people know her name.

Women represent less than 15% of the game development workforce, but they’ve always been important contributors to the industry, and as more and more women begin to play games, companies increasingly need the female perspective in order to reach that growing market.  On September 8, Women in Games International will host a conference in Austin, Texas with the theme "She Got Game," to explore the past and present experience of female developers, and to debate what the future may hold for them. In honor of her early achievement with Centipede, Dona Bailey – who now teaches game design to a new generation of developers – will deliver the keynote address.

Bailey was by no means the only female programmer in the infant game industry, however. Women created or contributed to a number of games that have since been recognized as seminal works.

The Atari 2600 is arguably the most famous classic console, and Carol Shaw programmed one of its best games, River Raid, in 1982. She anticipated the industry’s current interest in procedural content generation by 25 years, using algorithms to create the continuous, but non-random, landscape in River Raid. It was sheer necessity – the machine only provided 128 bytes (yes, bytes) of RAM. Carla Meninsky is now an intellectual property attorney, but in the early 1980s she too coded several games for the Atari 2600, including the highly-regarded multiplayer Warlords, and a pseudo-3D space shooter, Star Raiders.

An unusually large number of women worked on games for the Mattel Intellivision, some as programmers, others as artists. Connie Goldman became a genius at creating recognizable 8×8 pixel sprites. With the growing popularity of handheld and mobile games, there’s still a use for those skills; she works in the business today for Realtime Associates.  Anita Clock programmed some of the hardware drivers for the Intellivision, and Julie Hoshizaki wrote a quirky little game called Thin Ice that involved a mischievous ice-skating penguin named Duncan. It went through so many changes imposed by Mattel Marketing that it took four years to get out the door – an enormous length of time for a game in those days.

The most famous female developer from the industry’s early years, and probably of all time, was Roberta Williams. She founded On-Line Systems (later Sierra On-line) with her husband Ken in 1980, and designed over two dozen adventure games until the sale of Sierra in 1996. At the time, graphical adventures offered the most content and best graphics of any genre, and her King’s Quest series was adored by millions. In Williams’ final game, Phantasmagoria, she broke new ground by introducing mature content from an adult woman’s perspective.

The business has also included its share of transgendered women.  Dani Bunten Berry was without doubt one of the greatest game designers of all time, although much of her work was published under her original name, Dan Bunten. Berry created games that are considered industry milestones, most notably M.U.L.E. (which stood for Multi-Use Labor Element). It was a multiplayer trading and exploration game with a clever and innovative auction interface. Berry died of lung cancer in 1998 and is sorely missed.

Not all the industry’s female pioneers have moved on or passed away, however. The longest-serving female game developer in the business will also be attending the WIGI Conference. Brenda Brathwaite got her start as a playtester on Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord in 1981, and has been building games ever since. More recently she was lead designer on Playboy: The Mansion. She’s now a contract designer, and teaches at Savannah College of Art and Design. Brenda is also the founder and chair of the International Game Developers’ Association’s Special Interest Group on Sex in Games.

Archon (1984) featured multi-level gameplay, with both strategic and arcade modes. Loosely based on the idea "what if chess pieces had to fight each other to take over a square?", Archon included elements of magic and an innovative feature in which some of the squares on the board slowly changed color from light to dark and back again, giving a combat advantage to first one side and then the other. The game was programmed by Anne Westfall, the only (apparent) woman on Electronic Arts’ famous "We See Farther" poster (Dani Berry is also present as Dan).

What was it like to be an early female game developer? It may actually have been easier in 1982 than it was in 1992. The industry was so young, and moving so fast, that there were no preconceptions. Don Daglow, once a manager at Intellivision and a WIGI Advisory Board member, points out that his team had better gender balance than many dev teams do today. The team on any given game consisted of three or four people at most, so a woman’s influence on a team was proportionally much higher than it is now.

I’m sorry there isn’t room to do justice to all the female game pioneers, and I apologize to anyone who feels slighted. I hope you can take comfort in the fact that your achievements are remembered with pleasure. We, the women and men of the modern game industry, salute you!

The WIGI Conference will be held on September 8, 2007 at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas. Visit www.womeningamesinternational.org for more details.

Ernest Adams is a freelance game design consultant with the International Hobo design group. His professional website is at www.designersnotebook.com.