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Celebrating International Women's Day: Women in the Gaming Industry

Today is International Women’s Day, and we thought we’d celebrate by talking about being a woman in an industry that is often thought of as a man’s world: video gaming.

Whether it’s playing video games or making them, women are just now beginning to gain recognition in this area. Obviously, women have always played video games. But the idea is usually that women prefer story over action, or that the interest is more a passing fancy than any serious part of life.

This mentality extends beyond gameplay and has created an imbalance in the number of female creatives within the industry. However, time has shown that women immerse themselves within virtual worlds of fiction and fantasy just as eagerly as men.

Celebrating Women in the Gaming Industry

As gaming companies come to recognize a growing market base, one that includes an increasing number of women, video games continue to evolve. This is causing a demand for more women within the gaming industry because they can offer a much-needed perspective. Real innovation happens when different ways of thinking meet on the common ground of shared interests, after all.

The history of the gaming industry shows this to be true. That’s because women have greatly affected the way we game, right from the very onset of gaming as a pastime. Women have actually shaped some of the areas largely thought of as being a male gamer’s interest.

So, let’s celebrate International Women’s Day in style by taking a look at how four of the most influential women in gaming have contributed to the industry.

Carol SHAW

Atari • Activision • Tandem Computers

Shaw is often recognized as the first woman to work as a game designer. She was involved in many elements of bringing a game to life—including the technical aspects of programming. Shaw is a recognized scholar within the field of computer science, making her a notable woman within the early years of two male-dominated industries. When you read up on her history as a designer and programmer, it's easy to see why Shaw is such a recognized professional.

While at Activision, Shaw created River Raid, a game that is well-known for its impeccable design. River Raid came out in 1984. It’s a vertically scrolling shooter, and it won awards and gained accolades from every corner of the industry. It is easy to look at an older game and fail to see the brilliant coding and design choices that made it possible. It may seem so outdated compared to what we have today, but it took enormous amounts of ingenuity.

River Raid can give a little glimpse of that. Shaw had to figure out how to create an endlessly scrolling map with limited memory, and how to create an effective action game using the graphic design capabilities available in the early 80s. She managed both, using a not-so-random numbers generator to create the map; and placing mirrored images on the sides of the screen to create the illusion of riverbanks. Add in a jet and some tanks, and you have a vertically-scrolling shooter. River Raid became a huge success for Activision. In a 2011 interview with Vintage Computing, Shaw talks about the in-house response she received for the game:

I remember one time I was getting in the elevator in the hotel. The elevator door opened and there were a bunch of Activision salesmen there. They all started applauding.

Not everyone was happy with River Raid, however. Minors in West Germany were actually banned from playing the game by the “Federal Department for Writings Harmful to Young Persons.” It seems that video games have always pushed the envelope as to what is and isn’t acceptable.

Perhaps the greatest thing we should thank Carol Shaw for is her ability to quietly push that envelope. In doing so, she has helped to clear a path that other women can happily follow down.

Shaw had a hand in creating the following titles:

Atari: 3D Tic Tac Toe, Polo, Super Breakout, Video Checkers, Othello, Calculator

Activision : River Raid, Happy Trails

Amy HENNIG

Nintendo • Crystal Dynamics • Naughty Dog • Visceral Games

Hennig did not set out to become a video game designer. She began her education with a degree in English literature, later attending film school. She left film school quickly after working as an artist on the Atari game Electrocorp. Hennig is often credited as the first person within the industry to express the idea that narrative is more important to game experience than rich graphics, and her English lit degree has proven to come in handy throughout her career.

It’s worth asking if this is where the idea that women prefer story to gameplay began. While people continue to believe this today, it is obviously not a hard and fast rule. The huge response to titles such as Bioshock, Mass Effect, The Last of Us, Fallout, Betrayal at Krondor, King’s Quest, and so many narrative-rich games prove this to be incorrect. These are games men seem to love just as much as women. Why?

Because everyone loves a good story.

And this is definitely something Hennig understands. She has worked as a writer, director, and designer; but it's her work as a writer that tends to stand out. To date, she has won two Writers Guild of America Video Game Writing Awards.

Hennig hasn't let her writing skills or her film studies go to waste during her career, and that's a good thing. She'll need them both in her role as creative director for the Star Wars games. The game is being developed by Visceral Games and Lucasfilm. It will use full performance capture, meaning that actors will don equipment to capture every detail of their movement. They then act out the scenes together on a stage, which are later rendered as the game images, resulting in a much better performance.

She'll be keeping an eye on the writing too. In a recent interview with Playstation Lifestyle, Hennig spoke on the importance that she and Lucasfilm place on story for the Star Wars game, stating that:

They want people to be telling new stories. Not in the sense of, 'How is this Star Wars?' It’s all connected. It’s like the Force. It binds everything together. That sense of destiny and inevitability and fate is really important to Star Wars stories.

Amy Hennig has truly led the industry in terms of promoting better storytelling in gameplay. It will be exciting to see more of her work unfold across a long-standing fan favorite. May the force be with you, Amy Hennig!

 

Electronic Arts Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City

Crystal Dynamics : Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain series

Naughty DogJak and Daxter, Uncharted Series

Danielle BUNTEN BERRY

Ozark Softscape  Electronic Arts • Microprose

Danielle Bunten Berry, also known as Dan Berry, began her career in gaming around the same time as Carol Shaw. Much like Shaw, Berry worked as both a designer and programmer. She founded Ozark Softscape and, with the help of her team, went on to develop several titles for EA Games.

Berry worked for most of her career in gaming as a man. She chose to have gender reassignment surgery in 1992, a mere six years before her death. It was a difficult decision for Berry, who later expressed regret over the choice. There is little known about how the gaming community responded, though Berry is known to have joked that she did it to improve the male to female ratio among professionals in the industry.

As for her career, M.U.L.E and Modem Wars are the most notable of Berry’s contributions because they gave way to modern-day MMO gaming. M.U.L.E was one of the first games to make a seamless mulitplayer experience possible through a single game system. Modem Wars featured two-player gameplay over a dial-up, allowing people to play together even if they weren’t in the same room. It was one of the first network mulitplayer games created by a major company. On the subject of Modem Wars, Berry is often quoted as saying

No one ever said on their deathbed, 'Gee, I wish I had spent more time alone with my computer.'

It is this thinking that led to the first MMO-style games, many of which have become like second homes to those who play them today.

Berry has won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Computer Game Developers Association, and in 2007 she was inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame. The hit 2000 game The Sims is dedicated to Berry's memory. It is little wonder why. Without her work, gaming may not have become the interactive social experience that it is today, and her games were often considered to be ahead of the times by other professionals in the industry.

Thanks to Berry's early contributions, people from all around the world can share a common activity; even if they don’t speak the same language. There’s a real power to that.

So, here’s a salute to Danielle Bunten Berry for bringing together the gaming community in the most epic of ways.

Electronic ArtsM.U.L.E, The Seven Cities of Gold, Heart of Africa, Robot Rascals, Modem Wars

Microprose : Command HQ, Global Conquest

Roberta WILLIAMS

Sierra Online • Sierra Entertainment

Roberta Williams is a designer and writer who has also left quite a mark on the video-gaming world. She co-founded Sierra On-Line with her husband, a company you may know better by the name Sierra Entertainment. Williams is often considered as the founder of the graphic adventure genre. She had a hand in creating titles such as King’s Quest, The Dark Crystal, and Phantasmagoria.

Williams is counted as one of the most influential female game designers of all time. There is a large list of titles behind her name, most of which were developed by Sierra On-Line. Williams released Mystery House in 1980 as Sierra’s first video game. It was also the first graphical adventure game. While it was black and white, with no sound or animation, it still marked the creation of one of today's most popular genres.

Williams has been named as number ten on Gamespot’s The Most Influential People in Computer Gaming of All Time. With her impressive array of Sierra games, including Mystery House, it is to see why.

Williams is also known for bringing the female perspective into character and story development. This is most obvious in Phantasmagoria, which features a female protagonist and explores taboo subjects such as rape and domestic abuse.

Let’s give a collective thank you to Roberta Williams for bringing us the graphical adventure game, and for sharing her perspective within the narratives we have come to love so much.

There is not enough room to list every title to Williams' name, so here are few notable games not mentioned above:

 

Sierra Online : King's Quest series, Shivers, Mickey's Space Adventure, The Dark Crystal, Wizard and the Princess

 

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