Carol Shaw: Atari Superstar

The first woman game developer

Key Takeaways

  • Carol Shaw is best known as the first female game designer.
  • Shaw’s groundbreaking game, River Raid, helped smooth the way for women game developers that followed her.
  • Women in the gaming industry are doing big things to make gaming inclusive for everyone.
Carol Shaw in her interview shown at The Game Awards

While women make up 46% of all gamers, there’s still an overall lack of women in the gaming industry. But back when women like Carol Shaw started, there were even fewer women making games.

Experts recognize Shaw, creator of side-scrolling arcade title River Raid, for her influence on the gaming industry during a time when men dominated the business (even more so than now). 

"I think she really helped paved the way for [the] female game designers that came later," Julia Novakovic, archivist at The Strong National Museum of Play, told Lifewire in a phone interview. "She proved that women were not only exceptional programmers, but that they also deserved recognition for their work."

Level One 

Before she entered the gaming industry, Shaw played arcade games growing up in Palo Alto, California. Her interest in games and experience working with computers got her her first job out of college at Atari, the company now known for arcade games and vintage home video game consoles.

According to The Strong Museum, Shaw worked at Atari for two years and was the only woman in her division. There, she created games like Video Checkers and 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe (which took her six months to create).

Atari 2600 VCS console, full view, with joysticks and Commodore 1084S monitor partially visible. 1978 six switch model. Space Invaders game is inserted.
Robee Shepherd / Getty Images

Shaw’s co-worker, Mike Albaugh, who worked in Atari's coin-op division, told Lifewire in a phone interview that Shaw was one of the women making waves at Atari in the late ‘70s.

"There were many interesting women who worked at Atari at the time, including Carol Shaw," he told Lifewire. "Carol was amazing at what she did."

Novakovic said the Strong Museum has some of Shaw’s work in its archives, and that it gives a peek inside Shaw’s mind and how she did her work at Atari.

"It’s really cool because you get to see how she drew graphics on graph paper and then later hand-coded it," Novakovic said. "She also hand wrote her code on paper and then later typed it in."

Level Two 

After her time at Atari, Shaw did a quick stint at Tandem Computers before her former Atari co-workers recruited her for their new company, Activision (Pitfall!, Zork). That’s where she would develop River Raid, which Novakovic said sold 1 million copies upon its release in 1982.

The game is a simple shooter game where players have to fly a jet over the "River of No Return" in enemy territory. Shaw made the game so that when you move left and right, you also accelerate to move through tighter spaces.

"It’s really cool because you get to see how she drew graphics on graph paper and then later hand-coded it."

One of the game's standout features, according to Novakovic, was that the background landscape would speed up or slow down along with the players' acceleration, a groundbreaking design at the time.

And, of course, perhaps one of the most significant achievements of River Raid was that Shaw's name appeared on the game box, making her the first woman to achieve that level of recognition.

"It’s really great to see some of the game boxes we have at the museum say, 'Carol Shaw’s River Raid,'" Novakovic said.

Level Three 

Shaw officially was recognized as a trailblazer in the gaming industry in 2017 when she received the Industry Icon Award at the Game Awards, solidifying her impact in the gaming world.

Also in 2017, Shaw donated a ton of her Atari work to The Strong Museum for its archives. Novakovic told Lifewire that Shaw’s collection includes source-code printouts, game-design documents, notes, sketches, memos, reference materials, and more that Shaw, herself, used during her time at Atari.

Young woman playing video games on computer at home
gremlin / Getty Images

Nowadays, there are more than just one woman making a name for themselves in the gaming industry—take Brianna Wu or Jay-Ann Lopez, for example. But, statistics still show women are outnumbered in the industry.

According to a 2017 report by the International Game Developers Association, people who identify as women only make up about 21% of the gaming industry.

Within the top 14 gaming companies, there is only one woman CEO: Ann Sarnoff of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc, according to Forbes’ 2020 Global Gaming Gender Balance Scorecard. The report also shows that out of 144 executives in these companies, 121 are men, and only 23 are women (about 16%).

"I think she really helped paved the way for [the] female game designers that came later."

It’s clear there’s still a long way to go for women in the gaming industry, but Novakovic said learning about women like Shaw shines a light on the important names of women in gaming.

"The fact that people are really interested in [Shaw] and her story is great," Novakovic said. "We want to continue to let people know about the history of women and what they did in video games."

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