The public perception of video games as a “boy’s club” has done the industry a lot of damage. But ever since the very earliest days of computer gaming, women have been right in there with men in all roles, from design and programming to art and marketing. In fact, some of the most intriguing developments in the genre – influential games, cutting-edge technology, and progressive ideas – came from women.
In this piece, we’ll travel back in time to create a Hall of Fame of women whose contributions definitely helped transform electronic games into the medium we know and love today.
The early days of video gaming were a veritable Wild West, as hopeful inventors threw stuff at the wall and saw what stuck. One of those pioneers was RCA engineer Joe Weisbecker, who in his off hours put together a homebrew computer which he named FRED – the Flexible Recreational Educational Device. His daughter Joyce started monkeying with it as a little kid, and by the time RCA got on board she was in college at Rider University. In 1976, her father asked her to write some code for RCA’s Studio II console – making her history’s very first female video game programmer. Because she wasn’t an employee, she can also be considered the first indie video game developer.
After being hired at Atari in 1978, Carol Shaw quickly gained a reputation as a very talented programmer, wringing performance out of the 6502 microprocessor at the heart of the Atari 2600. She became one of the first women to design and program a commercial game the next year with 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe and also worked on Super Breakout. In 1984, she made the jump to upstart publisher Activision, who were part of a new wave that treated designers like superstars. While there, she designed and coded River Raid, the vertical scroller widely considered one of the 2600’s best games. One of her innovations was using a procedural algorithm to generate the game’s complex (for the time) scenery while saving memory.
As co-founder of Sierra On-Line, Roberta Williams developed 1980’s Mystery House, the first adventure game to pair text descriptions with graphics illustrating the scene. This would kick off one of the most popular genres of the decade, and titles like King’s Quest, Space Quest and their ilk made Sierra a critical and commercial powerhouse. Williams knew that the audience for electronic gaming was far wider than the ultra-nerdy and continually made inroads into the mainstream until her retirement in 1999. There were reports of Williams working on a mobile game a few years back, but nothing ever came of them.
Danielle Bunten Berry
In the early years of computer gaming, most experiences were pretty solitary. But an independent developer named Danielle Bunten, founder of Ozark Softscape, wanted to push things into a social world. 1983’s M.U.L.E, published by Electronic Arts, was a remarkably deep multiplayer strategy game that supported both cooperation and competition in ways that were totally new to the medium. Although it wasn’t a commercial success, the game was wildly influential on the new generation of game developers, including Will Wright who dedicated The Sims to her.
In 1981, Brenda Romero was hired at Sir-Tech Software to test the company’s new Wizardry games. Her facility with the material quickly got her promoted to running the hotline to answer questions from players who called in lost and confused, then started writing manuals, in-game dialogue and finally working as lead designer on Wizardry 8. Her career has spanned both big-budget franchises like Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon as well as personal projects about her family history, and she’s also taught game design at colleges around the world.
With a career spanning three decades, Michiru Yamane is one of the most respected composers of video game music in the industry, Japan or otherwise. Making her debut with King’s Valley II in 1998, Yamane began a working relationship with Konami that saw her score a number of their greatest games including Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night. Yamane’s rich orchestration and moody melodies have inspired people to push the emotional power of music in games, and since leaving Konami in 2008, she’s worked as a gun for hire for several studios looking to tap into her magic.
Interactive fiction has been a staple of computer games since the early days, but some brave souls are still working to push the genre forward. Emily Short is recognized the world over as one of the most influential and progressive designers in the IF space, creating multiple award-winning games while also helping contribute to the development of text-based game platforms like Inform. Her 2000 game Galatea featured a staggering 70 different endings and still stands as one of the best simulations of emotion in video games.
As a student at DigiPen, Kim Swift and some classmates started working on the idea that would become Narbacular Drop, a first-person environmental puzzle that let players warp space through portals they could stick to any surface. If that sounds familiar, that’s because Valve hired Swift and her team to turn the idea into Portal. That game and its sequel were massive hits that basically built a market for first-person puzzle adventures. Since then, she’s worked on the Left 4 Dead series there and then left Valve to work with Airtight Studios on the equally mind-bending Quantum Conundrum.
As video games became more high-profile, the effort to bring them to the same level of quality as Hollywood movies brought an influx of talent into the creative side of the business. One of the most obvious places that’s seen is voice acting. Dubbed the most prolific female video game voice actor of all time by the Guinness Book of World Records, Canada-born Jennifer Hale has been providing her dulcet tones to dozens of characters starting in 1999 as the titular character on the Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? cartoon. In games, she’s voiced Samus Aran in the Metroid Prime trilogy, femShep in Mass Effect and many, many more.
Unlike the other names on this list, cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian doesn’t have a single game to her credit. What she does have, however, is a keen eye for systematic sexism and the willingness to put video games under the same lens we use to analyze other media. This seemingly basic concept earned her the ire of a certain group of gamers, but it also brought her to studios around the world to help them rethink how they portray women and minorities. The days of every woman on-screen wearing a skimpy bikini for no reason are thankfully passing into history. As the gaming audience grows, it’s important to make sure that everybody feels welcome.
Amy Robinson Sterling
Games can be used for so much more than wasting time, and some might even save lives. As the co-creator of EyeWire, Amy Robinson Sterling knows that better than most. Her project recruits gamers all over the world to help map the structure of neurons in three dimensions, using cutaway views of 3D models to isolate the neural tissue from the surrounding eye material. Players are given all sorts of motivation to do well, and when they rank up to higher levels they gain the ability to edit others’ neuron maps. It’s a remarkably captivating activity that is helping scientists understand the ridiculously complex composition of our ocular nervous system.
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