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Her Stories: Inspiring Tales Of Women In The Game Industry

by Ben Reeves on Mar 08, 2019 at 12:00 PM

The Strong National Museum of Play’s new Women in Games exhibit opens with a pair of contrasting statistics: 48 percent of video game participants are female,* but only 23 percent of video game makers are female.** This imbalance is a testament to the fact that the game industry hasn’t always been a welcoming space. The Strong’s sobering exhibit opener highlights inequality, but the rest of its showcase offers hope to burgeoning game makers and fans alike.

“We like to pick a word or two that encompasses the theme of our exhibits and what we want to do with them,” says the Strong’s curator Shannon Symonds. “I picked the word ‘Inspire,’ because more than anything else I want to inspire the next generation, specifically the female generation, and show them that they have amazing role models. That women have been here since the inception of the industry, and when they face opposition or bullying, they can persevere.”

The Women in Games exhibit tells the story of many underappreciated women who have shaped the video game industry and created some of its most beloved games. The space explores the various roles women have assumed in the industry, from programming to sound design to managing entire publishing companies. Old game-design documents and concept art sit next to profiles on industry leaders like Jennifer Hale, Yoko Shimomura, and Roberta Williams.

For patrons, the exhibit is hard to miss. Situated in the center of the Strong’s facility, attendees must walk through the Women in Games exhibit to reach the back half of the museum, which includes the Strong’s popular Toy Hall of Fame. “We decided we wanted this in a place where people are forced to walk through it,” says Symonds. “You can’t miss it. We definitely did that deliberately.”

“There’s a perception, especially in terms of making money, that the industry has to make games that resonate with the core audience of young male gamers,” continues Symonds. “That tends to make it harder for women to feel like they belong in the industry. Even if you’re a gamer, you might not know about the many contributions women have made to your favorite games – even traditionally male-dominated games like Halo. And I wonder, do people know that company is run by a woman?”

In honor of those immeasurable contributions and the work women put into the game industry, we take a closer look at a representative handful of the developers who are featured in the Strong’s exhibit. These are just some of the women who have created virtual worlds, but their stories can inspire us all.

*  The Entertainment Software Association, 2018 Essentials Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry

** The International Game Developers Association, 2017 Developer Satisfaction Survey

This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Game Informer.

Susan Jaekel

The Artist

Immediately out of art school, Susan Jaekel secured a steady stream of freelance contracts. She had always been good at drawing and she loved doing it. Jaekel made illustrations for Addison-Wesley’s line of educational children’s books and created a cartoon owl named Winky to help teach kids how to use Novus calculators. Stringing the paychecks together long enough to pay the bills is an impressive feat for any artist, but Jaekel was just happy making art for kids. Then, in 1977, a friend told Jaekel that Atari was hiring artists to create box covers for its games. That sounded like a fun opportunity, but Jaekel didn’t play video games. In fact, she’d never even heard of Atari.

“The whole Atari thing was a special interlude in my illustration life,” says Jaekel. “At that time, my inspirations were things like [The Beatles’] Yellow Submarine and artists like Peter Max and Milton Glaser. It was a very fanciful era in illustration. That really lent itself to the video game box art of the day.”

Despite her lack of familiarity with games, Atari liked Jaekel’s Art Nouveau-inspired samples and she was hired to design the box for a game called Basic Math, an educational numbers game intended to teach kids arithmetic. Jaekel noticed that Atari was different than other publishers she had worked with at that point. Not only was the game maker incredibly hip and easygoing, but the company encouraged its artists to be creative. Over the years, Jaekel made five additional covers for Atari, for the games Circus, Hangman, Adventure, Concentration, and 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe. By far, her most popular piece was for the classic 2600 game Adventure. That cover featured a castle on a hill and a giant dragon coiled inside a hedge maze, and it has been reprinted many times in books, magazines, and posters over the years.

Surprisingly, Atari’s artists never played the games behind their covers. In many cases, Atari’s artists never even saw photos or concepts for their games. According to Jaekel, Atari’s art director would often simply describe a game to her over the phone. In the case of Adventure, “I think he probably described it as something about a maze and sneaking around,” says Jaekel. However, since Jaekel didn’t play video games, she had no idea what Adventure looked like until it was featured in the 2017 film Ready Player One.

None of Jaekel’s original paintings were ever returned to her, which was the case for most of the artwork Atari collected over the years. “In those days, artists didn’t have creative rights to their work,” says Jaekel. “I just have the boxes. They just gave me the empty boxes as samples. After they printed the box they would send us a copy, but they didn’t give us the game…. Then when Atari – I don’t know if they were moving or shutting down – but somebody told me that they threw all the originals in the dumpster.”

After working at Atari for half a decade, Jaekel went back to making illustrations of plants and animals for educational books and even created a few jigsaw puzzles for the company Ravensburger. But Jaekel’s gaming legacy has lasted longer than her time in the industry. Atari’s classic box-art illustrations fired up the imaginations of generations of gamers…even if those illustrations look nothing like their game’s onscreen action. 

Dona Bailey

The Programmer

During the late ’70s, the car industry was going through a fuel crisis, and companies like General Motors were in a sprint to improve fuel efficiency using microprocessors. As a programmer at GM, Dona Bailey helped write code that told a Cadillac’s internal processor how to better manage combustion. Bailey was particularly fascinated by the digital display readouts GM used to track their cars’ performance. It was a good job, and it would have been a lucrative career. But in 1980, the Pretenders released their first self-titled album and completely changed Bailey’s life.

“I don’t normally like instrumental songs, but there was one song called ‘Space Invader’ that I listened to a lot. One night at a party, I casually mentioned it to a friend and asked, ‘What is this song? What are Space Invaders?’ And my friend freaked out. He said, ‘It’s a game. You have to play it!’ Well, I’d never even seen an arcade game at that point.”

Bailey’s friend dragged her to a dive bar to play Taito’s arcade hit, and it didn’t take long for Bailey to catch the gaming bug. She soon found herself drawn to other arcade shooters like Galaxian. However, Bailey didn’t just want to play games. She was fascinated with what was happening behind the screen.

“I concluded that they must be using a 6502 microprocessor because that’s what I was using at work, and those parts were so limited back then.” Bailey was right, and as she continued to ask other friends about arcade games, she learned that many of their favorites were made by a company called Atari in Sunnyvale, California. “Six weeks after first seeing Space Invaders, I moved out to Sunnyvale without a job, but with the goal of working for Atari.”

Landing that dream job didn’t take long, but actually creating games proved harder. “Atari’s training method back then was to show you around, take you to a cubicle, and then say, ‘Here you go. Make your game,’” recalls Bailey. “I knew how to write code in assembly language, but I didn’t know anything else. That was a really hard immersive process for me, because I was thrown into something that I didn’t understand and didn’t know. I didn’t have a game idea.”

A fellow coworker finally showed Bailey Atari’s internal gamebook – a loose-leaf binder filled with dozens of discarded ideas for video games. Atari’s programmers would use this notebook whenever they encountered “writer’s block,” and they were encouraged to add to it whenever they had an idea that they didn’t have time to work on.

“There were probably 39 ideas in there about lasers,” says Bailey. “Lasers shooting things and incinerating planets and doing all kinds of things. But laser was spelled with a ‘Z,’ and I remember writing it out with an ‘S’ and thinking to myself, ‘That’s the right spelling.’ A laser game wasn’t appealing to me, but on one page there was an idea that didn’t have anything to do with lasers. It said, ‘A multi-segmented insect crawls onto the screen and is shot by the player.’ That was it. That didn’t seem so bad. I wasn’t burning up the world or blowing up planets. I didn’t like bugs, so it didn’t seem so bad.”

The game Centipede quickly took shape in Bailey’s mind, and now that she had the idea, actually programing out the concept wasn’t hard. When Centipede released in 1981, it was a hit. Its trackball controls felt great, and many players thought it was an incredibly fresh take on the traditional arcade shooter. Bailey’s game became one of Atari’s big success stories.

Unfortunately, Bailey didn’t feel like a success. The young designer had become the first female programmer on a coin-op game, but she wasn’t enjoying her time at Atari. The office felt like a boys club in ways that even GM hadn’t. Sure, Atari had a freewheeling party atmosphere, but it could also be incredibly competitive.

“It was a culture of bad management,” says Bailey. “It was people who had no idea how to lead who suddenly found themselves in charge of driving an industry. I don’t think it was all about gender. The guys were rough with each other too, but I think my experience was unique because it was isolating to be the only woman. I didn’t want to be perceived – I didn’t want to always be judged by whether I was strong as a fighter. It was just a constant judging atmosphere. Everything was a contest, and I felt like I wasn’t becoming the person I wanted to be, so I was done.”

Bailey left the games industry and went to work at several universities as a programmer, a database administrator, and eventually a teacher. But from afar, she noticed Centipede’s lasting legacy. She recalls one powerful moment in the ‘90s where she had to lean against a Centipede cabinet at a movie theater to scrounge for change. In that moment, she realized that a whole mass of people were still connecting with a thing she had made decades before, but she still couldn’t afford a bag of popcorn.

“It was so weird that people were still enjoying this thing and I was so separate from the industry,” says Bailey. “I left. I vanished. I allowed myself to be written out of the record. I was revised out of the history, deliberately. And it stayed that way for such a long time, about 20 years, because I only started talking about it again 10 years ago. So I’m glad I’ve been able to set the record straight.”

Amy Hennig

The Storyteller

Amy Hennig never dreamed of making games. She wanted to make movies, the kinds of films she grew up loving – big ’80s blockbusters like Star Wars and Indiana Jones. At film school, Hennig studied traditional animation and cinema history. She also had the opportunity to experiment with early Silicon Graphics workstations, which opened her to the idea of telling stories through computer graphics. To help pay for school, a friend lined Hennig up with a freelance job making art for a never released Atari 7800 game called ElectroCop. Slowly, Hennig began to wonder if she was in the wrong industry.

“When I was at film school, I started to feel like everything was mapped out,” says Hennig. “It felt like you had to learn the craft that other people had established, and your options were limited. I was getting the message that it was going to be really hard to achieve what I wanted to achieve as a woman. Even now, look at how many female directors are in the film industry. I moved away from an industry that I was getting whiffs of barriers of misogyny and into an industry that was the blue ocean, because nothing was established.”

In 1991, Hennig joined EA as a junior artist and quickly worked her way up to lead designer on Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City, a 1994 SNES action/platformer starring the basketball legend. While Hennig didn’t get to meet Jordan himself, she did receive a signed basketball that read: “To Amy. Great game. Michael Jordan.”

“Which I love, because it sounds like we were playing basketball together,” says Hennig.

The games industry wasn’t without prejudices, but to Hennig it felt ripe with the kind of opportunities she hadn’t found other places. “There could be that atmosphere of a boys club, but because it was a young industry and because it was sort of the wild west, it didn’t feel like the ossified, ingrained boys club that you might find in other industries,” says Hennig. “It felt like a meritocracy. To some, that might sound naïve, and when I look back at certain events, I think maybe there was more misogyny there than I realized, but I don’t want to see myself as a victim.”

Hennig continued to work her way up the industry. She directed the Legacy of Kain series for Crystal Dynamics, the first three Uncharted games for Naughty Dog, and then spent several years working with Visceral Games on a Star Wars project until EA shut down the studio in 2017. In the end, Hennig got to work on her own versions of Indiana Jones and Star Wars, and while some of those projects didn’t have happy endings, Hennig realized that, throughout her career, something more important was happening. As Hennig built her impressive resume, a younger generation got to see women like Hennig make games – and that visibility was important.

“Generally I stay out of the fray – I don’t like to feel like I am a female game designer. I’m a game designer. But when I saw the stuff happening during Gamergate, I realized the narrative getting pushed out was that the game industry was hostile towards women. I thought, ‘Well, not in my experience,’ but that’s only my experience. I saw women being discouraged and taking another path, which is what I had done in film. That pissed me off. Why were we discouraging young women from joining the industry? Is there misogyny here? Is there prejudice? Yes, in the sense that the game industry exists within the world and there’s misogyny and prejudice inside the world. But I think the way to take that on is by barreling headfirst through obstacles. That’s how change happens.”

Bonnie Ross

The Leader

Even Bonnie Ross admits she wasn’t qualified to work in the games industry. Before working in games, her biggest accomplishments included a computer-science degree – which her father had urged her to pursue – and a job coaching middle-school girls basketball. But when Microsoft entered the market of publishing PC sports games in the early ’90s, Ross jumped at the chance to do something different. She figured it would be a nice diversion from a career in database management.

“I’m not even sure I would have gotten into the games industry if it weren’t for my love of sports,” says Ross. “It wasn’t until I was working on my first basketball game that the lightbulb went on and I realized that this was art and this was storytelling. Games were so much different than I thought. Basically, it was an artform that I hadn’t looked at as an artform.”

Ross quickly took to her role as a producer on Microsoft’s NBA Full Court Press and eventually went on to work on games like Zoo Tycoon, Dungeon Siege, Gears of War, Psychonauts, and Mass Effect. Then, in 2007, Bungie purchased its independence from Microsoft, leaving the publisher holding the Halo franchise. Ross put together a proposal for the future of Halo and fought for a leadership role. Microsoft agreed with her vision and helped Ross found 343 Industries to manage the mega-popular, cross-media franchise.

“I think the industry has changed a ton,” says Ross. “I think you can visually see that with the people different companies put on the stage at shows and with the characters who are now appearing in games. We are in a positive change place. It has been a predominately male industry, and I think we all probably faced different challenges that were gender related, but I’m really happy that I feel fully supported at Microsoft. I know that’s a luxury others maybe haven’t had, but I think the industry is growing up.”

Today Ross is Microsoft’s corporate vice president and studio head of 343 Industries. In early 2019, the Academy Of Interactive Arts & Sciences inducted Ross into its hall of fame, recognizing her leadership and her advocacy for diversity in the industry. Ross’ journey from a former middle-school basketball coach to industry icon is impressive, but she is quick to recognize that it might not have been possible without the pioneering efforts of the women who came before her.

The women profiled here, and at the Strong Museum, are only a small sample of the countless stories that have taken place across the games industry in the past several decades. Every story is different, but all of those stories seem to talk about creators who share an enthusiasm for making new forms of art and technology that inspire others. Like the world we live in, the games industry is flawed, but over the years it has grown into a more welcoming place for creators of all walks of life, and the next generation of game makers owes an incalculable debt to the women who helped blaze that trail and shaped the industry into what it is today.

For more on the Strong Museum, watch our video interview with assistant vice president Jeremy K. Saucier or check out our video feature on Will Wright's rare design notebooks from The Sims.