March is Women’s History Month, but championing the contributions women have made to the video game industry over the years is a year-round tradition.
But lifting women’s voices and celebrating their influence throughout the sprawling business of technology and gaming doesn’t end when March fades into April. It’s important to harbor a lifelong appreciation for the tremendous contributions women have made in terms of design, development, and innovation over the years.
It’s more important than ever to empower women’s voices. ASTRO Gaming continues to champion the unique and diverse ways women have shaped the industry. With that said, we’re honored to highlight three remarkable women who paved the way forward for their colleagues in celebration of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month.
Carol Shaw is a tremendously influential figure in the history of gaming. As one of the first female professional video game designers, she’s perhaps most well-known for producing River Raid, a critically-acclaimed vertical scrolling shooter published by Activision in 1982. Shaw grew up harboring a love for computer science and technology, earning degrees in the then-male dominated field in the ’70s.
Her programming prowess led her to join Atari, where she developed games for the company’s early VCS console, which would go on to become the Atari 2600. Shaw quickly became Atari’s most reliable coder, especially when it came to the more challenging programming asks. Some of her well-known works while at Atari include 1978’s 3-D Tic Tac Toe and 1982’s Super Breakout.
When Shaw moved on to Activision, she continued to remain a trailblazer for women in programming. Her work on River Raid won her a variety of awards, firmly establishing her legacy as one of the most successful and influential women in the industry.
Joyce Weisbecker is another of the earliest known female game developers in the industry. She’s also credited with being one of the first women contracted for her work on a commercial video game. Weisbecker originally began work on hand-coding games for RCA’s Studio II console, one of the first systems to use cartridges for game storage.
The daughter of programmer Joseph Weisbecker, Joyce spent much of her childhood learning about tech and gaming from her father’s efforts. With her mother Jean Ann’s encouragement, Joyce pursued work in the computer science industry.
Joyce practiced her craft with her father’s home PC creation, the Flexible Recreational Educational Device (FRED). With plenty of coding experience under her belt, she began branching out and eventually found work creating two games for RCA: Snake Race and Jackpot. Later, she created 1976’s TV Schoolhouse I in just a week, and went on to craft the racing game Speedway and Tag for the console. These titles continued to cement Joyce as another influential voice in the industry, as she proved time and time again how integral she was for both establishing an independent voice in game creation.
Carol Shaw was an integral part of Atari’s programming department, but when she departed the company for Activision, that left one remaining female programmer: Dona Bailey. Bailey grew up with an appreciation for mathematics as well as 6502 assembly language programming during her time at General Motors. During her time with the mostly male-dominated outfit, she continued to learn more about the coding space before trying out something that would eventually change her career’s trajectory. She played her first arcade game: Space Invaders.
Just six weeks after trying out Space Invaders for the first time, Bailey quit her job with GM and moved to Silicon Valley with one goal in mind: working for Atari. When she arrived she realized the company simply had no other women programmers in the department that created coin-operated arcade games. Her skills won her the part, however, and after spending weeks brainstorming an idea for an arcade game, she found inspiration in a now-sacred gaming classic: Centipede.
Bailey spent time coding Centipede and perfecting it, thinking of the new arcade title as an homage to the classic Galaga. Though her time in the video game industry was somewhat short compared to others, as she left in 1984, her influence cannot be understated. If you’ve ever enjoyed a challenging game of Centipede at an arcade machine, you’ve enjoyed the fruits of Bailey’s labor.