Video games have come a long way in the industry’s short history. Besides evolving from Pong and Space Invaders to Breath of the Wild and Halo, the industry itself has grown in other ways. Prominent figures such as Siobhan Reddy, co-founder of the studio behind LittleBigPlanet who was named one of the UK’s 100 most powerful women, have brought greater visibility to women working in the gaming industry. Though it might be difficult today to imagine Uncharted without Amy Hennig or Journey without Robin Hunicke, women in the early days of video games rarely had their time in the limelight. Carol Shaw and Dona Bailey, creators of River Raid and Centipede respectively, were two of the first female game designers in video game history, yet their contributions have often been overlooked… Until now.
The Strong National Museum of Play, home of the World Video Game Hall of Fame, has announced an exhibit slated for September 2018 that aims to bring these forgotten gaming pioneers into the spotlight. “For me as a historian, my goal has been to shed light on the industry,” explains Shannon Symonds, head of The Strong’s Women In Games initiative. “Women have made so many contributions that are just not seen.” Despite their obscurity, Shaw and Bailey nonetheless paved the way for future female developers and influenced the industry with their work.
Neither Shaw nor Bailey ever saw themselves becoming involved with video games. “No, not at all,” Bailey replies with a laugh when asked. She had never even played a video game until a friend introduced her to Space Invaders after she asked about the Pretenders’ song of a similar name. Shaw occasionally played arcade games at a mini-golf course near her college and owned a Pong-like game from RadioShack.
Seeing Space Invaders' graphics, which used the same microprocessor as cars' visual displays, inspired Bailey to pursue a career in game design.
Both women discovered programming in college and ended up pursuing careers in the tech industry. Shaw, interested in math and science from a young age, switched her majors to electrical engineering and computer science and participated in the University of California Berkeley’s work-study program to get experience with Assembly language programming. After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she went to work with Atari’s home console division in 1978.
Bailey’s path to the video game industry was less direct. She worked as a programmer at auto-parts manufacturer GM Delco for two years, where she learned how to work with the 6502 microprocessor to create cars’ visual displays. After discovering Space Invaders, she realized she wanted to change careers and became determined to work at Atari. “I thought, ‘This is where I can use the skill that I’ve worked for two years to learn,’ and that was that.” She joined the company’s coin-op division in 1980.
Making games and history
The two women had very different experiences during their time at Atari. In the smaller home console division, programmers worked largely independently. “The games were pretty much a one-person show at that time. One person would do all the coding, and the other game designers would contribute ideas, but pretty much one person would do the whole thing,” Shaw says.
Shaw was drawn to the challenge of working with the Atari 2600 console, particularly rendering graphics and programming the computer opponents. Her first game – the game that earned her the title of video games’ first female game designer – was Polo, created for a Ralph Lauren cologne promotion. Though Atari didn’t produce the game for console, it was eventually released on a CD-ROM collection called Stella Gets A New Brain in 1996. Shaw continued to work in this way – designing games’ concepts, code, graphics, and so on with occasional feedback – to develop 3D-Tic-Tac-Toe and Video Checkers.
When Shaw left Atari and later joined Activision in 1982, she had a similarly supportive environment. It was here that Shaw created River Raid, considered one of the greatest games released for the Atari family of consoles. One of the first vertical-scrolling games, River Raid used a pseudorandom number generator to map out a nearly infinite river where players navigated their jet and earned up to one million points by destroying foes. “I got to the point where I could keep playing it forever. You sort of achieved a zen state where you just keep going and going and going,” she says with a laugh. One of Activision’s first big hits, the game sold nearly two million copies and was ported to almost every console available at the time. The studio awarded Shaw a platinum cartridge when the game’s first million copies sold.
River Raid, Shaw's first attempt at an action game, became one of Activision's biggest early successes.
Meanwhile, Bailey says Atari’s larger coin-op division was less welcoming. “There were definitely factions from the very beginning who didn’t want to hire a woman,” she says. “At that point, I was the only female programmer in the coin-op department. There was very much the idea that games were the provenance of males and that didn’t need to change. They didn’t look at it as opening up to another half of an audience, they looked at it as, ‘Having this half of the audience is a good thing, and we’re happy with this.’”
Things became even more difficult once she was assigned to the team of four who would work on Centipede. “I never felt very much at home in my team,” she says. As programmer of the group, Bailey was in charge of the game’s graphics, coding, sound, and more. When asked why she stayed in the hostile environment, she answers, “I loved the work. I knew that I had training that so few women in the U.S. had, and I was so in love with the idea that I could take this technical skill I had worked so hard to learn and apply it to something that…I looked at it as an art. And I did fight back a lot,” she adds. “It didn’t really change it, but I could resist it.”
In Centipede, players must shoot the segments of a centipede before it reaches the bottom of the screen.
Bailey’s resistance to her team’s negativity and devotion to her passion paid off with Centipede’s success. “I hate to use vindicated, but I think that’s the only word for it,” she says. “I’m so proud of [Centipede]. To fight over something for 11 months during its creation and then have it go out into the public…I was nervous, but proud at the same time, and then so happy. It never occurred to me that we’d still be talking about this almost forty years later.” With its vibrant visual style, unique premise for an arcade shooter, and trackball controls, Centipede quickly became an iconic game in arcades across the U.S. It spawned dozens of clones and continues to be ported to modern consoles, such as the Xbox 360 in 2007 and PS4 in 2016. Most importantly, it changed people’s views on video games, leading to the game “opening up to another half of an audience” by attracting a large female fan base.
Looking back as games move forward
Despite their success, both women left video games behind and subsequently faded from view around the first industry crash in 1984. Shaw, having developed five games in five years in addition to working on the River Raid ports and other programming projects, began to feel burnt out and went back to engineering before settling into early retirement. Bailey left Atari in 1982 after the development and distribution of Centipede arcade cabinets ended, then worked as a programmer at Videa and later Activision before moving on. “I felt like I was done with what I could do in the industry,” she says.
As games continue to move forward, it’s important to look back and acknowledge the work of those who came before, especially in cases where they may not have received recognition in their own time. Despite their accomplishments and the impact they had on the industry, early female designers like Shaw and Bailey are often left out of video game history. Acknowledging the fact that influential games like River Raid and Centipede were created by women not only gives the creators the credit they deserve, but inspires future developers to pursue their passion for game development regardless of their background, bringing new perspectives and a spirit of collaboration to the industry as a whole.
“Being a museum that caters to families and children primarily, I want [The Strong] to have this representation of women in gaming so that when young girls say, ‘I want to be a game developer,’ they have examples to see and have that knowledge for when others say, ‘That’s for men,’” Symonds explains. Shaw and Bailey have similar hopes for the message the exhibit will impart to attendees. “I really endorse collaboration, and I think that’s how you make the most of each person’s potential, instead of the race to the finish at all times,” Bailey says. “The main thing is to find something that you’re interested in doing and that you enjoy doing and not let people tell you that you can’t do it,” Shaw adds.
The Strong Museum of Play’s Women In Games exhibit is currently scheduled for September 2018. Anyone who wishes to learn more about or engage with the initiative is encouraged to contact Shannon Symonds at email@example.com.