If you’ve believed up to this point that video games are primarily the purview of gamer dudes, we don’t blame you. Video gaming IS (and has historically been) a male-dominated industry. That being said, the history of video gaming is probably less bro-heavy than you’ve been led to believe.
It’s unfortunate, but true: the many women who shaped the video game industry often go unacknowledged, hidden from popular narratives by male-centric scholarship and harmful “lone genius” myths. This year, for Women’s History Month, we’re aiming to set the record straight by shedding light on some of the most iconic, most influential, and most overlooked gamer girls throughout history.
Game: The Sumerian Game
For most of her life, Addis was a teacher dedicated to her love of history: she wrote historical articles and books and cultivated a love of history in the young minds she encountered. Then, in the 1960s, she was elected to work with IBM to create an educational game for her students.
What resulted was a text-based strategy game called The Sumerian Game, the first-ever video game created for a computer, making Addis the first person (not the first woman — the first PERSON!) to write a computer video game. It’s important that we mention the date here — The Sumerian Game was released in 1964. 1964! That’s almost a full decade before either Pong or The Oregon Trail came onto the scene — both games that are often, erroneously, cited as the first computer video games.
Addis poured her historical passion and expertise into The Sumerian Game, setting it in Lagash a Mesopotamian city in the year 3500 BC, and casting the player as the ruler, who must decide how much grain to feed their people, what to do about rat infestations, and how much of their city’s funds to dedicate to land expansion. The first players of Addis’s groundbreaking game? Her students, of course!
Companies: Atari & Activision
Games: 3D Tic-Tac-Toe, Othello, Video Checkers, Super Breakout, River Raid, and Happy Trails
Shaw was one of the very first women to design and program video games and is often considered to be the first *professional* female video game designer. Working at Atari and Activision over an astounding career that spanned decades, she designed skillful, innovative games that left the industry flabbergasted. She's most well-known for River Raid, which sold over a million copies and established top-down shooters as a lucrative and popular genre of their own. Even today, River Raid is recognized as a masterpiece of its time, an astonishing amount of programming skill crammed into a 4KB game that offered endless hours of entertainment. In 2017, Shaw won the Industry Icon Award for her massive impact on the gaming industry.
Dona Bailey is yet another “first” — the first woman to create an arcade game! When she accepted a position at Atari in 1980, she was the only female game designer at the company. While there, she created the classic arcade hit Centipede — one of the most commercially successful arcade games during the arcade golden age. She is especially well-known for insisting on excellent visuals in the game; she meticulously wrote additional code to populate the screen with colorful mushrooms and random spiders that crawl across the screen, enhancing the game’s immersive quality.In 2013, Bailey was awarded the Women in Gaming Lifetime Achievement Award.
Company: Coktel Vision
Games: Freedom, Gobliiins, Lost in Time, Mewilo
After working as an engineer for an aerospace company, Muriel Tramis returned to her first love: games. She found a job at a video game start-up and began designing rich puzzle-adventure games that became wildly commercially successful. Unlike other popular video games of the time (think Super Mario Bros), Tramis’s games push back against the idea that video games, as a medium, can only encompass light, silly fare for kids. Her games grapple with powerful historical questions — for example, Freedom is about enslaved people fighting against their masters. Now considered a visionary, Tramis’s work recognized the potential of gaming to incorporate the kinds of themes that were, at the time, reserved for more “serious” mediums like film and literature. If it weren’t for Tramis busting open the genre, we might not have recent gaming sensations like Last of Us!
Bunten Berry was a pioneer game developer who created one of the first successful multiplayer games on the Atari platform. Decades before blockbuster multiplayer games like League of Legends came to dominate gaming, Bunten Berry designed the groundbreaking multiplayer game M.U.L.E. M.U.L.E. sold 30,000 copies across various computer platforms and, over the years, it has emerged as one of the greatest influences on the genre's greatest designers. Ahead of her time in more ways than one, Bunten Berry insisted that the future of gaming was interconnectedness, and her vision has proved incredibly prescient. In 1998, she was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Computer Game Developers Association. In 2007, the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences chose Berry as the 10th inductee into its Hall of Fame.
Games: Mystery House, King’s Quest series, Phantasmagoria, Space Quest, and more!
In 1980, Roberta Williams, a soft-spoken housewife with little coding or design experience created Mystery House, the first-ever computer game with graphics. While she couldn’t have known it then, Williams’ kitchen-table hobby would found the graphic adventure genre and become the origin of graphic design in computing and tech. Before Williams, adventure games were walls of text—innovating in leaps and bounds, she added graphics, music, and even voice actors to her games, completely disrupting the gaming industry. Williams and her husband, a programmer at IBM, formed the company Sierra and became the dominating force in computer games. By the time Williams retired in 1996, she was credited with more than 30 top computer games. For their massive influence on the video game industry, she and her husband received the Industry Icon Award in 2014.
Games: Paper Mario, Donkey Kong, The Legend of Zelda, Animal Crossing, Super Smash Bros Ultimate, and more!
Both of these women are fully deserving of their own entries in this list, but they have been such frequent collaborators that it seemed right to keep the dream team together! Tabata and Kyokguku are video game producers and directors at Nintendo, and their fingerprints are all over many of the games that dominate the contemporary gaming landscape: The Legend of Zelda, Animal Crossing, Super Smash Bros Ultimate…the list goes on! We can’t wait to see all of the games that these two dream up in the decades to come.
Interested in learning more about women who are making their mark on STEM fields? Check out our blog on groundbreaking apps created by women.