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The Most Important Women in Video Games

Video games are largely seen as a young man’s game.  Where do women fit in this ever-expanding, adventurous world of role-playing?

On a side note, Emily McCombs from A Woman’s Perspective had a really great video on video games.  And it’s pretty funny.

Now, back to business.  This post is not an ode to large-breasted video game characters nor a rant about Japanese rape video games (yeah, it’s real).

This is about the real women behind the scenes designing, programming, writing, and winning video games.  This information comes from About.com’s guide on the subject, written by D.S. Cohen.


Roberta Williams: Co-Creator of Graphical Adventure Games, Co-Founder of Sierra

Screenshot © Activision Publishing, Inc.

One of the most important figures in the history of video games. In ’79 Roberta became inspired after playing the text-only computer game Adventure and put together a design doc outlining 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 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 Roberta retired in ’96 she was credited with over 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

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 Carol 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 Carol would completely program and design herself, Happy Trails, released just when the video game market crashed. With the industry in shambles, Carol 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.

Carol is now retired with her husband and fellow brainiac Ralph Merkle, a specialist in the field of nanotechnology.

Dona Bailey – The First Woman to Design an Arcade Game

Centipede arcade flyer © Atari

Determined to break into the game making biz, Dona received a position as an engineer at Atari in 1980. As Carol Shaw had already left for Activision, Donna was the only female game designer at the company. There she co-created and designed, along with Ed Logg, the classic arcade hit, Centipede.

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

Today Donna encourages women to pursue careers in games and works as a college instructor, teaching numerous courses, among them game design.

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

Packshot © Electronic Arts Inc.

A brilliant programmer, before Anne started working in games she had already created the first microcomputer-based program to help structure subdivisions (whew). In 1981 Anne and her husband, John Freeman, formed Free Fall Associates, the first independent developer contracted by Electronic Arts. Among their games co-designed by John and programmed by Anne was the hit computer title Archon, which at the time would be EA’s biggest seller.

In addition to her work as a programmer and developer, Anne also served on the Game Developer Conference board of directors for six years. Today Anne and John continue to make games, renaming their company Free Fall Games.

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 Roberta back 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.

Today Jane continues her work in computer adventure games with the latest line of Agatha Christie and The Women’s Murder Club PC titles. Now she is developing her dream project Gray Matter, with developers Wizarbox and publisher DTP Entertainment.

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

Brenda’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 back in the early ’80s as a member of Atari’s research team and Manager of Software Strategy. Then 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 Brenda continued her work as one of the strongest voices in virtual reality research and development with her company Telepresence, plus co-founded one of the first software companies to specialize in developing games for girls, Purple Moon.

Brenda now works as a consultant, speaker and professor, teaching 2D and 3D Interaction Design.

Amy Briggs – Creator of the First Adventure Game for Girls

Packshot © Activision Publishing, Inc.

In Amy’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 Amy 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, Amy co-wrote Gamma Force: Pit of a Thusdand Screams and co-designing portions of Zork Zero.

Amy left the gaming industry in 1987, returning to school to gain her graduate degree. Now she owns her own company specializing as a Human Factors Engineer, Cognitive Psychologist and continues to write.

Doris Self – First Female and the World’s Oldest Competitive Gamer

Q*Bert Flyer © Sony Pictures Digital Inc.

At the age of 58 Doris 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, Doris continued to work towards conquering Q*Bert.

Doris 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 Doris to start competing again.

Tragically, in 2006 at the age of 81, Doris 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 forever.

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The Search for the Holy Grail of Female Viagra

Recently the FDA rejected an application to market a new drug to increase women’s libido – flibanserin.  It doesn’t have quite the same ring as Viagra, does it?  However, with the rejection the FDA gave a big thumbs-up to the idea pending more research.  There are reportedly several other companies working on a similar medication.

The issue of women’s frigidity is a historical one.   I’ve recently been reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment, in which she discusses a similar situation in the 1950s.  White upper-middle-class women were housewives while their husbands brought home the bacon.  Marriage was both an economic and social relationship  – both men and women were “required” to marry to fulfill their gender roles.  However, Playboy, first released in 1953, suggested men could be real men without marriage and encouraged a life of bachelorhood.  “Free Love” became women’s libido-enhancer.

Marilyn Monroe on the first issue of Playboy in 1953.

Things have changed a bit post-AIDS epidemic.  Although Samantha from Sex in the City has shown America that women still have a healthy sexual appetite (check out this ABC news poll giving some stats on that), Camille Paglia, professor at the University of the Arts, argues that we’re undergoing a current “sexual malaise” again due to stagnate gender roles.  Paglia explores this and other issues of gender, race, and class in pop culture in her New York Times editorial, “No Sex Please, We’re Middle Class.” Here are some juicy segments:


The implication is that a new pill, despite its unforeseen side effects, is necessary to cure the sexual malaise that appears to have sunk over the country. But to what extent do these complaints about sexual apathy reflect a medical reality, and how much do they actually emanate from the anxious, overachieving, white upper middle class?

In the 1950s, female “frigidity” was attributed to social conformism and religious puritanism. But since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, American society has become increasingly secular, with a media environment drenched in sex.

The real culprit, originating in the 19th century, is bourgeois propriety. As respectability became the central middle-class value, censorship and repression became the norm. Victorian prudery ended the humorous sexual candor of both men and women during the agrarian era, a ribaldry chronicled from Shakespeare’s plays to the 18th-century novel. The priggish 1950s, which erased the liberated flappers of the Jazz Age from cultural memory, were simply a return to the norm.

In the discreet white-collar realm, men and women are interchangeable, doing the same, mind-based work. Physicality is suppressed; voices are lowered and gestures curtailed in sanitized office space. Men must neuter themselves, while ambitious women postpone procreation. Androgyny is bewitching in art, but in real life it can lead to stagnation and boredom, which no pill can cure.

Meanwhile, family life has put middle-class men in a bind; they are simply cogs in a domestic machine commanded by women. Contemporary moms have become virtuoso super-managers of a complex operation focused on the care and transport of children. But it’s not so easy to snap over from Apollonian control to Dionysian delirium.

Nor are husbands offering much stimulation in the male display department: visually, American men remain perpetual boys, as shown by the bulky T-shirts, loose shorts and sneakers they wear from preschool through midlife. The sexes, which used to occupy intriguingly separate worlds, are suffering from over-familiarity, a curse of the mundane. There’s no mystery left.

The elemental power of sexuality has also waned in American popular culture. Under the much-maligned studio production code, Hollywood made movies sizzling with flirtation and romance. But from the early ’70s on, nudity was in, and steamy build-up was out. A generation of filmmakers lost the skill of sophisticated innuendo. The situation worsened in the ’90s, when Hollywood pirated video games to turn women into cartoonishly pneumatic superheroines and sci-fi androids, fantasy figures without psychological complexity or the erotic needs of real women.

Furthermore, thanks to a bourgeois white culture that values efficient bodies over voluptuous ones, American actresses have desexualized themselves, confusing sterile athleticism with female power. Their current Pilates-honed look is taut and tense — a boy’s thin limbs and narrow hips combined with amplified breasts. Contrast that with Latino and African-American taste, which runs toward the healthy silhouette of the bootylicious Beyoncé.

A class issue in sexual energy may be suggested by the apparent striking popularity of Victoria’s Secret and its racy lingerie among multiracial lower-middle-class and working-class patrons, even in suburban shopping malls, which otherwise trend toward the white middle class. Country music, with its history in the rural South and Southwest, is still filled with blazingly raunchy scenarios, where the sexes remain dynamically polarized in the old-fashioned way.

On the other hand, rock music, once sexually pioneering, is in the dumps. Black rhythm and blues, born in the Mississippi Delta, was the driving force behind the great hard rock bands of the ’60s, whose cover versions of blues songs were filled with electrifying sexual imagery. The Rolling Stones’ hypnotic recording of Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster,” with its titillating phallic exhibitionism, throbs and shimmers with sultry heat.

But with the huge commercial success of rock, the blues receded as a direct influence on young musicians, who simply imitated the white guitar gods without exploring their roots. Step by step, rock lost its visceral rawness and seductive sensuality. Big-ticket rock, with its well-heeled middle-class audience, is now all superego and no id.

In the 1980s, commercial music boasted a beguiling host of sexy pop chicks like Deborah Harry, Belinda Carlisle, Pat Benatar, and a charmingly ripe Madonna. Late Madonna, in contrast, went bourgeois and turned scrawny. Madonna’s dance-track acolyte, Lady Gaga, with her compulsive overkill, is a high-concept fabrication without an ounce of genuine eroticism.

Pharmaceutical companies will never find the holy grail of a female Viagra — not in this culture driven and drained by middle-class values. Inhibitions are stubbornly internal. And lust is too fiery to be left to the pharmacist.


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