This photo is from the first video game to ever use pictures — a game developed by a woman. The video game industry has long been considered one big ‘Boy’s Club.’ Most of the top positions are still occupied by men, and even the games tend to be marketed for men. Little by little though, women are breaking the glass ceiling—thanks, in part, to the following people.
As early as the 70’s, when video games were still in their infancy, these women made incredible contributions to the gaming industry. The industry did them no favors, but they proved (by their innovation and skill) that they could be just as good as the boys, and even better.
1. Roberta Williams
She is, when you think about it, one of the ‘mothers’ of the video game industry. She co-created Graphical Adventure Games, and co-founded Sierra. In 1979, Roberta played (and was instantly hooked) by the game Adventure. It was fun, but text-only. She wanted a game that combined text with graphics. So, she and her husband Ken (who was an IBM programmer) sat down to create the very first graphical adventure game—using nothing but their Apple II home computer. ‘Mystery House’ was a huge hit and set the stage for computer games as we know it. Eventually Roberta and Ken formed Sierra, the leading player in computer games. She actually conceptualized and wrote most of the bestselling titles, including the iconic ‘Kings Quest’ and ‘Phantasmagoria.’
Remember the photo at the start of this article? That was “Kings Quest” — and here are the game credits:
2. Carol Shaw
In 1978, Carol Shaw was the first woman to ever program and design a video game (the Atari 2600 title, 3D Tic Tac Toe). She was also one of the masterminds behind the classic River Raid (which she made under Activision) and Happy Trails. When the video game industry crashed in the mid 1980s, Carol went on early retirement. She was, however, convinced to come back and make River Raid II.
3. Dona Bailey
Dona Bailey worked in Atari as an engineer in the early 1980’s. After Dona retired, she became the company’s only female programmer. She became the first woman to design an arcade game, the classic ‘Centipede.’ It was critically acclaimed (and earned millions for Atari) but surprisingly Dona quit soon after. She lived a quiet life for 30 years, but agreed to give a speech at the 2007 Women in Games Conference. There, she revealed that her decision to leave gaming was partially driven by the pressure she got from her male peers. Now a college teacher, she tries to inspire her female students to go after their dreams.
4. Anne Westfall
Do you know the game ‘Archon’? It was released in the early 80’s and was one of the biggest money earners of EA or Electronic Arts. This was created by Anne Westfall, who was the company’s first independent developer.
Anne was a programming genius who spearheaded many gaming innovations. For example, she was able to create the first micro-computer program that would help organize or structure subdivisions. (We don’t know what that means, but apparently games wouldn’t be anywhere near what it is today if it weren’t for that.)
Anne was also the first woman to serve on the Game Developer Conference board of directors. She held that position for six years. Today, Anne continues to create games, under her own company Free Fall Games.
5. Jane Jensen
After Roberta Williams left Sierra, Jane Jensen continued to blaze the trail at Sierra. She was known for writing amazing, high-quality adventure game scripts and designs. In fact, many of the company’s biggest hits—Kings Quest VI and the Gabriel Knight series–were hers. Today, many gaming industry experts say that she was instrumental in creating the way programmers intertwine story and game design.
More than 20 years later, Jane Jensen is still in the gaming industry. She enjoys making computer adventure games, and has released titles under the Agatha Christie and The Women’s Murder Club PC series.
6. Brenda Laurel
Brenda Laurel is one of the pioneers of virtual reality research and development. She worked for Atari (where she became manager of Software Strategy depatment) and helped create virtual reality sims for companies and even industries. For example, she launched the medical sim ‘Laser Surgeon: The Microscopic Mission’ which enabled medical students to take a virtual look at brain surgery techniques. Today, Brenda runs her own virtual reality research company (Telepresence) and has also set up a company that is dedicated to creating software for girls (Purple Moon).
7. Amy Briggs
Amy Briggs was the first woman to create the first adventure game for girls, ‘Plundered Hearts,’ which combined the typical quest with romantic elements. She wanted to show the industry bigwigs that they were ignoring a huge and very profitable market—and there was a need to create games that specifically targeted female interests and psyches. Amy also helped developed titles like ‘Gamma Force’ and ‘Zork Zero.’ She is now a Human Factors Engineer.
8. Doris Self
Doris is the ‘Grandma Moses’ of the gaming world. She was not only the first female competitive gamer, she was the oldest—signing up for the 1983 Video Game Masters Tournament when she was 58 years old! And she certainly proved that she wasn’t there to play solitaire. Doris actually broke the world record for Q*Bert, with 1,112,300 points! Doris even joined competitions when she was 79 years old, and played until her death in 81 from a car accident.