The Most Important Women in the History of Video Games

Women whose influence changed the world of video games

Today, women game developers are taking charge as some of the industry's top executives, but that hasn't always been the case. In the 1970s and '80s when the video game market was just being established, women had to fight hard to get their voices heard in the male-dominated business. We've rounded up a list of the most influential women throughout the history of video games since the first game designed by a woman came out in 1978.

of 08

Carol Shaw: The First Woman Game Programmer and Designer

Carol Shaw holds her numerous video game awards.

Computer programmer Carol Shaw is best known for her work at Activision with the retro hit River Raid, but years before, Shaw had already made a name for herself in the history of video games. In 1978, she was the first woman to program and design a video game, 3D Tic-Tac-Toe for the Atari 2600.

In 1983, the final game that Shaw completely programmed and designed herself, Happy Trails, released just as the video game market crashed. With the industry in shambles, Shaw took a break from making games but returned in 1988 to oversee the production of River Raid II, her final swan song in the world of console gaming.

of 08

Roberta Williams: Co-Creator of Graphical Adventure Games and Sierra

Roberta Williams makes a cameo in Leisure Suit Larry 3.


Roberta Williams is one of the most important figures in the history of video games. In 1979, Williams became inspired after playing the text-only computer game Adventure to put together a design document that outlined an interactive game combining text with graphics. Her husband Ken, a programmer at IBM, developed the software engine and tech using their Apple II home computer. Their game, Mystery House, was an instant hit, and the graphical adventure genre was born.

The couple formed the company On-Line Systems (later called Sierra) and became the dominating force in computer games. By the time Williams retired in 1996, she was credited with more than 30 top computer games, the majority of which she wrote and designed, including Kings Quest and Phantasmagoria.

of 08

Dona Bailey: The First Woman to Design an Arcade Game

Centipede arcade game


Determined to break into the game-making biz, Dona Bailey accepted a position as an engineer at Atari in 1980. Carol Shaw had already left for Activision, so Bailey was the only woman game designer at the company. While there, she co-created and designed, along with Ed Logg, the classic arcade hit​ Centipede.

After its release to instant success, Bailey disappeared from the video game industry only to resurface 26 years later as a keynote speaker at the 2007 Women in Games Conference. Bailey revealed it was the pressure and criticism from her male counterparts that drove her from the business.

Today, Bailey encourages women to pursue careers in games. She works as a college instructor teaching numerous courses about game design.

of 08

Anne Westfall: Programmer and Co-Founder of Free Fall Associates

Archon PC game logo art

Electronic Arts Inc.

Before Anne Westfall started working in games, she was a brilliant programmer who created the first microcomputer-based program to structure subdivisions. In 1981, Westfall and her husband, Jon Freeman, formed Free Fall Associates, the first independent developer contracted by Electronic Arts. Among the games co-designed by Freeman and programmed by Westfall was the hit computer title Archon, which at the time was EA's biggest seller.

In addition to her work as a programmer and developer, Westfall also served on the Game Developer Conference board of directors for six years. Westfall and Freeman renamed their company Free Fall Games, although Westfall herself has spent the last several years as a medical transcriptionist.

of 08

Jane Jensen: Historic Adventure Game Writer and Designer

Moebius floats in space in Jane Jensen's Moebius: Empire Rising

Phoenix Online Publishing

Where Roberta Williams left off, Jane Jensen picked up the torch and kept high-quality adventure game writing and design alive. Jane worked for Williams in the early 1990s, where she got her start in Creative Services at Sierra, eventually writing and designing hits such as Kings Quest VI, the Gabriel Knight series, and many others. Her work in classic games has molded how story and game design intertwine in modern point-and-click adventures.

Jensen continued her work in computer adventure games with the line of Agatha Christie and The Women's Murder Club PC titles. She developed her dream project, Gray Matter, with Wizarbox, and then opened a new game development studio named Pinkerton Road with her husband, Robert Holmes. Jenson also writes fiction under the name Eli Easton.

of 08

Brenda Laurel: Specialist, Writer and Designer in Human-Computer Interaction

Game developer Brenda Laurel
Wikimedia Commons

Brenda Laurel's life mission has been to explore how we interact with computers and the benefits derived from them. She started using games for her work in the early 1980s as a member of Atari's research team and Manager of Software Strategy. In 1987, she co-produced the educational, medical sim gameLaser Surgeon: The Microscopic Mission, which gave a virtual look at the technique of brain surgery.

In the 1990s, Laurel continued her work as one of the strongest voices in virtual reality research and development with her company Telepresence. She also co-founded Purple Moon, one of the first software companies to specialize in developing games for girls.

Laurel works as a consultant, speaker, and professor, teaching 2D and 3D interaction design.

of 08

Amy Briggs: Creator of the First Adventure Game for Girls

The text adventure game Plundered Hearts

In Amy Brigg's brief stint in the world of gaming, she showed a vision far ahead of its time with an adventure game featuring a narrative and protagonists aimed specifically at women.

In 1983, Briggs worked at the text game adventure company Infocom as a tester. Her strong writing skills and go-getter spirit convinced the bosses to greenlight her concept for a text adventure-romance game for girls, Plundered Hearts. After writing and designing Hearts, Briggs co-wrote Gamma Force: Pit of a Thousand Screams and co-designed portions of Zork Zero.

Briggs left the gaming industry in 1988, returning to school to earn her graduate degree. Today, she continues to write and owns a company that specializes in human-factors engineering and cognitive psychology

of 08

Doris Self: The World's First and Oldest Woman Competitive Gamer

Doris Self plays Q*bert in King of Kong

At the age of 58, Doris Self was one of the first women competitive gamers when she entered the 1983 Video Game Masters Tournament and broke the world high score record for ​Q*Bert with 1,112,300 points. Although her score was beaten a few years later, Self continued to work towards conquering Q*Bert.

Self was featured in the documentary ​​The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, when ​Pac-Man world champion Billy Mitchell presented her with a Q*Bert arcade machine, spurring the then 79-year-old Self to start competing again.

Was this page helpful?