Even now in 2019, video games are looked at as a “boy’s game”. In truth, women make up 45% of gamers, and that number has been steadily growing for the last ten years.
Anyone who works in the game industry can tell you that there isn’t a game on the shelves that women haven’t played an integral role in creating. From design to art, from production to quality assurance, you will find countless talented women building the games we love.
Today, on International Women’s Day, we would like to tell you about two amazing women and the legacies they created.
The daughter of a mechanical engineer, Carol Shaw wasn’t interested in the usual activities girls were expected to take part in in the early and mid-1960s. Dolls collected dust while Carol spent endless hours tinkering with her brother’s model railroad set.
In high school, Carol came across her first computer and was quickly drawn in by the text-based games the PC had. Like the dolls before it, the railroad became a dusty monument to Carol’s interests. The computer would be Carol’s future.
Carol graduated from the University of California, Berkley with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. She followed that up with a master’s degree in Computer Science before taking a job with Atari in 1978.
For the Atari 2600, Carol created 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe and Video Checkers before working on Super Breakout with Nick Turner. When she wasn’t creating her own games for the system, Carol was the one everyone turned to in order to figure out issues with their own games. Her co-worker Mike Albaugh once called Carol the best programmer of the 6502 microprocessor, if not the best programmer period.
After just two years, Carol left Atari for Camden Computers before heading to Activision where she made what is arguably her biggest contribution to the industry; River Raid.
In the creation of River Raid, Carol Shaw conceived of a way of creating repeating non-randomized terrain despite the technical limitations of the 2600. Instead of trying to store the terrain sequence in the code, which would greatly limit what River Raid could do, Carol built a procedural generation algorithm that would manifest the terrain by developing a linear feedback shift register with a hard-coded vector. With a hard-coded starting value, River Raid would generate the same game world with every play. The challenge of the game came from the enemy AI who worked on a random number generator, making it impossible to figure out their strategy.
River Raid went on to be a huge hit for Activision, selling over a million units. It was also the first game to be banned in West Germany, which is pretty cool.
Carol continued to work in games until 1990 when she retired at just 40 years old, thanks in large part to the money she made off of River Raid. While we hope she has enjoyed her retirement, we can’t help but wonder what other amazing games she has in her.
Dona Bailey was just a young programmer when she was hired by General Motors and trained in assembly language programming. She used her training to work on microprocessor-based cruise control systems for the auto company.
It was during this time that Dona first heard the song ‘Space Invaders’ by the Pretenders. The song quickly became a favorite of Dona’s – so much so that a friend of her’s asked if she had ever played the game of the same name. Dona hadn’t heard of Space Invaders before, but the moment she played the game, she was hooked.
It wasn’t long before Dona figured out that the Atari used the same microprocessor as GM, and with that, she switched career paths, leaving behind the General for the bright future of video games.
Dona joined Atari’s coin-op division in 1980 and quickly realized that she would be the only woman on the team of 30. An introvert at heart, Dona was having trouble finding her place on the coin-op team. She felt disconnected from her male counterparts and wasn’t sure how to break through. Looking through a notebook of game ideas that everyone on the team would add to, one concept caught Dona’s attention – a description of a bug traveling down the screen in a winding pattern. To Dona, the idea of shooting a bug didn’t seem too bad. She took the simple idea to Ed Logg – co-creator of Asteroids and Super Breakout, and the two ran with it.
Thanks to Dona, we can play Centipede.
Centipede wasn’t just a hit for Atari, it was a shocking hit. While most of their games had a female audience, it was a small audience, making up roughly 5% of the players. With Centipede, the game maker found that 60% of the players were women.
The game went on to be named “Best Action Game” by the Arkie Awards, and since it’s release some 38 years ago, Centipede has consistently found itself on best of lists.
Sadly, Dona was never really accepted by her co-workers, and after the success of Centipede, the team turned on her. From spreading false rumors that Dona didn’t actually have anything to do with the creation of Centipede to straight up claims that her success was just a fluke, Dona found herself constantly feeling scrutinized.
Much to the loss of the game community, Dona walked away from the industry and took a position teaching programming at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock. Bailey rarely gives interviews about her time in the game industry but has said that she is working on a screenplay that will tell her story. We hope to see that movie one day soon.
As the world of video games grows ever larger, it is important that we look at our history and celebrate those who made it possible. We also must remember to look back and see the mistakes along the way. With both Carol Shaw and Dona Bailey, we can find things to celebrate and things we must work to never repeat. That Dona was chased away from video games is a black mark on the industry, but one that we can learn from.
Without women like Carol and Dona, we may never have been able to enjoy the talents of women like Amy Hennig, the head writer, game director, and creative director for Naughty Dog’s amazing Uncharted series. Or Siobhan Reddy, co-founder and studio director of Media Molecule. Or Kim Swift, who helped create Portal and the Left for Dead games. Or Heather “sapphiRE” Garozzo, a CS:GO pro and manager for Dignitas Female.
The list of women who have helped shape the history of video games is endless.
As more and more women take interest in video games, and as more women join in esports, our collective love for games will only grow. The beauty of esports being so early into its inception is that we can take the moment to do something that other sports have so far failed to pull off – have full integration. All people, all genders, playing together.
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