Aardvark Swift's Joey Relton looks back in time to five women who made their name in the games industry

A Herstory of Gaming

We’ve just had the time of the year when we celebrate the often overlooked achievements of women in Women’s History Month. And while history is full of prominent women who have contributed to science, technology and culture, you often need to dig around to find them.

While recent movements in other industries have pushed to get these women the acknowledgement they deserve today, gaming is another matter altogether. Research by PwC found that only 22% of students could name a famous women working in technology, while three times as many could name a man.

Promoting female role models can play an important part in encouraging more young women into the industry – so without further ado, here are just five women who fought against prejudices and stereotypes to become critical in making gaming what it is today.

Carol Shaw: The first woman Game Programmer

Carol Shaw found her love of gaming in high school. The school provided computers for their students and Carol quickly became hooked on text-based games. Defying massive gender barriers, Carol pursued her natural affinity for maths in school and graduated with a Masters degree in Computer Science.

Carol would soon become the first woman credited with working on a video game after joining Atari, where she worked on the 1978 game 3D Tic-Tac-Toe. Similar to the pen and paper game, the Atari version involved a 4-4-4 grid, where users would have to line up four counters in any direction to win.

It wouldn’t be until Carol left Atari to join Activision that she’d program her most famous scrolling shooter game, River Raid. The game did so well that Carol listed it as a significant factor in her early retirement in 1990, allowing her to carry out voluntary work. 

Dona Bailey: The first woman to work on an arcade game

One night in the late 70’s, Dona Bailey was taken to an arcade by her friend and introduced to Space Invaders. Being one of the only women in the country with programming experience at the time, Dona instantly recognised the similarities between the game and her work at General Motors. Overwhelmed by what she was playing, Dona decided there and then that she would quit her job and pursue a career in gaming.

Soon after Carol Shaw’s departure from Atari, Dona found herself working for the company. It was here that she’d work alongside Ed Logg to become the first woman to work on an arcade game, creating the hugely popular hit, Centipede.

Despite its massive success, Dona abruptly disappeared from the industry. It would take 26 years for Dona to reappear as a Keynote speaker for the 2007 Women in Games Conference, where she revealed that heavy criticism from male colleagues made her leave the industry. Today, Dona encourages women to enter the industry and teaches games design.

Roberta Williams: Co-Founder of Sierra

Roberta Williams holds a number of firsts in the gaming industry to her name. Co-founding On-Line systems, which later became Sierra Entertainment, Roberta not only became one of the first female owners of a studio, but also developed the first home computer adventure game with graphics, Mystery House.

Mystery House released to critical acclaim, becoming a hit for the studio and allowing Sierra to claim its place as one of the largest independent developers at the time. A future game by the studio, Time Zone (1982), became one of the most ambitious projects developed at the time, and was the first game to require outside artists to help create the 1400 rooms the game required.

Roberta retired in 1996, where she was credited with the development of over 30 top games, including the hugely successful Kings Quest series.

Danielle Bunten Berry: Pioneer of multiplayer games

Born Dan Bunten, Danielle Bunten Berry was renowned for her perseverance and dedication to multiplayer games, with almost every game she produced having a heavy multiplayer focus. Her early game, Wheeler Dealers, came packaged with a special controller which allowed four players to play the game simultaneously.

Famously saying “No one ever said on their deathbed, ‘Gee, I wish I had spent more time alone with my computer’”, Danielle claimed her desire to create multiplayer experiences stemmed from her family who would put aside their many differences when playing games together.

With a number of failed attempts under her belt, it is often said that Danielle’s ideas were ahead of her time. Determined to carry on, Danielle saw success in her economic strategy game Cartels & Cutthroat$ which caught the eye of Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins, who wanted to bring the game under EA’s label.

Unable to obtain the rights to the game, Danielle claimed she could make an even better original title and formed her new software company, Ozark Softscape and developed the now cult classic multiplayer game M.U.L.E..

Doris Self: The world’s oldest competitive gamer 

Doris discovered video games after treating her daughter to pizza at a local arcade. It was here that Doris would lay her eyes upon the game Q*Bert for the first time and would subsequently find herself visiting the arcade time and time again.

At the tender age of 58, Doris was one of the first female competitive gamers when she entered a Video Game Masters Tournament in 1983. Not being held back by gender stereotypes or her age, Doris achieved a world-record score of 1,112,300 points on Q*Bert, which she would hold for a number of years to follow.

Becoming somewhat of a celebrity in the gaming scene, Doris had still been practicing for her next world record attempt until she unfortunately died in 2006 from injuries she received from a car crash. Doris flourished in a scene that is still predominantly male dominated and, to this day, the Guinness World Records credits Doris as the oldest competitive gamer at 80 years old. 

Current day Role Models

The women mentioned here were pioneers in the early gaming industry and, against all odds, ultimately laid the groundwork for the women who came after them. Nicole Lazzaro developed the first iOS game to utilize the iPhone accelerometer and carried out research which has improved the experiences and engagement of millions of players around the world.

Brianna Wu, cofounder of independent studio Giant Spacekat, has been a fearless vocal activist for improving conditions in the industry for women, despite harassment received during Gamergate in 2014. After the presidential election in 2016, Brianna announced her intention to run for Congress, focusing on privacy and online harassment. 

While the causes of the gender disparity in gaming are many and complex, the many vocal female developers of today, such as Nicole and Brianna, can stand up and act as modern day role models.

Aardvark Swift is a proud sponsor of the Women in Game Awards and founder of the Breakthrough Talent Award.

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