The Most Important Women in the History of Video Games

Women Whose Influences Changed the World of Video Games

The days of the video game business being a boy's club are over with female game developers now taking charge as some of the industry's top executives. However, it wasn't an easy climb. In the '70s 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. Those that succeeded made major marks in the gaming industry because their innovations and influences changed the world of video games for the better.

Here are the most influential and women in the history of video games.

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

Roberta Williams makes a cameo in Leisure Suit Larry 3.
Screenshot © Activision Publishing, Inc.

Roberta Williams is one of the most important figures in the history of video games. In '79, Williams became inspired after playing the text-only computer game Adventure and 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. When finished, the 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.

Carol Shaw: The First Woman Game Programmer and Designer

Gameplay tips from Carol Shaw from the original River Raid manual.
Image © Activision Publishing, Inc.

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.

Shaw and her husband Ralph Merkle, a specialist in the fields of cryptography and nanotechnology, are retired.

Dona Bailey: The First Woman to Design an Arcade Game

Video game Centipede
Wikimedia Commons

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 female 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, among them game design.

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

Archon
Packshot © 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 their 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.

Jane Jensen: Historic Adventure Game Writer and Designer

Packshot © Activision Publishing, Inc.

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 '90s 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 writes fiction under the name Eli Easton.

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

Brenda Laurel
Wikimedia Commons

Brenda Laurel's life mission has been to explore how we interact with computers and the benefits derived from it. She started using games for her work in the early '80s as a member of Atari's research team and Manager of Software Strategy. In 1987 she co-produced the educational, medical sim game​ Laser Surgeon: The Microscopic Mission, which gave a virtual look at the technique of brain surgery.

In the '90s, Laurel continued her work as one of the strongest voices in virtual reality research and development with her company Telepresence and co-founded one of the first software companies to specialize in developing games for girls, Purple Moon.

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

Amy Briggs: Creator of the First Adventure Game for Girls

Plundered Hearts
Packshot © Activision Publishing, Inc.

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 narrative and protagonists aimed specifically at a female audience.

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 198, returning to school to earn her graduate degree. She owns a company that specializes in human factors engineering and cognitive psychology and continues to write.

Doris Self: First Female and the World's Oldest Competitive Gamer

Q*Bert Arcade Flyer
Q*Bert Flyer © Sony Pictures Digital Inc.

At the age of 58, Doris Self was one of the first female 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.

Tragically, in 2006, at the age of 81, Self passed away from injuries she received in a car accident. Although she is no longer in the game, her legacy will last in the annals of classic competitive gaming.

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