Skip to content
River Raid Video Game Image

FEMALE FIRSTS THROUGHOUT GAMING HISTORY

In 2021, female representation in gaming has made notable strides. According to Statista, 18 percent of all video games in 2020 boasted female protagonists, up from two percent in 2016.

Women have made important strides behind the scenes as well. Data released by Statista indicated that in 2019, 24 percent of game developers were women, up from 22 percent in 2014. That same year, five percent of all developers identified as transgender or androgynous.

Each of those women is a trailblazer in her own right, but what about the women who came before? From writing and development to research and voice acting, women have broken into every aspect of the gaming industry, paving the way for representation enjoyed today. From 1966 to 1988, here are a number of women who made firsts in gaming history.

In the early 1960s, Mabel Addis wrote the Sumerian, a text-based strategy game focused on resource management. Addis drew on her background as a teacher when writing, using the game as a means to teach economic theory. When the game was published in 1966, it was one of the first video games designed specifically for children, and was one of the first programs to center gameplay around a narrative.

Carol Shaw is credited with being the first female professional, commercial game designer, starting at Atari in 1978. While there, she programmed games for the VCS console, including Tic-Tac-Toe, for which she did the programming, sound and graphics herself. By 1982, she had moved to Activision and released her second game, River Raid. The title was lauded for its revolutionary side-scrolling format and went on to win several awards, including the Best Atari 8-bit Game of the Year.

One cannot bring up Shaw and omit Joyce Weisbecker. Weisbecker is also a video game designer, and her work actually predates Shaw by about two years. Her titles were developed primarily for the little-known RCA studio II platform, and she did her work independently, a contractor for RCA instead of being on staff. In 1976, Weisbecker designed two demos for RCA, Snake Race and Jackpot, before creating TV Schoolhouse I. TV Schoolhouse was a quiz game designed for the RCA II, and Weisbecker created it in the span of one week. She was also only 18 at the time, doing this work while a student at Rider University.

Carol Kantor became the first market researcher in the video game industry in 1976. Already a successful consumer market researcher at the Clorox Company, Kantor was hired by Atari vice president Gene Lipkin to bring her insights to video game development. At Atari, Kantor implemented a variety of techniques including customer observation, focus groups and surveys and applied them to gaming products. Her research results showed why gamers were attracted to certain titles over others, enabling Atari to curate game development specifically for their user base. Due to the success of her work, Kantor was able to go on to hire Colette Weil, Mary Takatsuno and Linda Butcher, all of whom were major contributors in gaming market research in their own rights.

Dona Bailey was another pioneer to come from Atari, the first woman to create an arcade game. After leaving General Motors and moving to Silicon Valley with the intention of working for Atari, she joined the company’s coin-op division in 1980. She was the only woman on the team. When presented with a list of projects to make into a game, Bailey chose Centipede. It was the only concept that visually made sense to her, and the only idea devoid of lasers. Bailey worked as the software developer and software engineer on the game and was responsible for Centipede’s unique pastel color palette. Centipede launched in 1980 to commercial success.

Doris Self scored the title of oldest video game champion in 1984, and is considered the first female competitive gamer. At the Video Game Masters Tournament, she scored over one million points in the arcade game Q*bert, at the age of 58. She faced many of the criticisms female esports players face today, and was told she was too old and too female to beat the younger men who were “faster” and “more competitive.” She also boasted a unique playing style, opting to go with the flow instead of memorizing patterns. Self was in the midst of preparing for another world record attempt at Q*bert when she passed away from injuries sustained in a car crash at the age of 81.

Jennifer Hale is a noteworthy woman in gaming history, credited with giving voice the first playable female character in video games. Samus Aran was introduced in Nintendo’s 1986 Metroid, a bounty hunter who fights space pirates. Interestingly, in the original game Samus is assumed to be a man until after players have beaten the game, when Samus takes off her helmet and reveals herself to be a woman. Hale initially voiced the character in the original Metroid games; however, as Samus had no speaking lines, Hale provided grunts of pain players hear when Samus is injured.

Muriel Tramis earned her place in history as the first black female game designer. While working for Coktel Vision, Tramis designed and wrote Mewilo in 1987, a first-person adventure game in which players learn about the history of the island. Then in 1988, Tramis released Freedom, her second game, about slaves fighting their masters. In an industry that had largely focused on children (Super Mario Bros 2 debuted the same year as Freedom) these games were among the first to deal with heavy, adult topics.

These women were some of the firsts, but far from the last. Current titans in the industry include Jade Raymond, Shannon Studstill, Bonnie Ross and Jay-Ann Lopez, among others. Their work, coupled with initiatives such as Girls Make Games, Girls who Code and VCT Game Changers gives rise to hope that the number of women working in games will continue to rise in the coming years.

Photo courtesy of Activision

MORE FROM VENN