The Strong Launches Women in Games Initiative

For many decades, women have played key roles in the design, production, manufacture, marketing, and writing of video games, and yet their history in the gaming industry is too little preserved and too often underappreciated. The Strong’s Women in Games initiative will document and celebrate these crucial contributions through a concerted effort to collect, preserve, and interpret artifacts and archival material related to women in gaming. The Strong will feature many of these materials in an onsite and online exhibit scheduled to open September 2018. 

Women have long played central roles in the development of both computers and games. Going back to the 19th century, female designers produced some of the most influential and important games of all time, including Lizzie Magie’s The Landlord’s Game, on which Monopoly was based, and Eleanor Abbott’s Candy Land, a timeless classic created originally to help polio victims. Women also pushed forward the development of computer technology. Ada Lovelace became the first computer programmer through her work with Charles Babbage on his Analytical Engine in the 19th century. Admiral Grace Hopper created the first computer language compiler in the 20th century. And as seen in the recent blockbuster movie Hidden Figures, African-American Katherine Johnson (known as the “Human Computer”) faced persistent social obstacles and discrimination during her work with NASA’s early installation of digital electronic computers. Her calculations were essential to the success of the first space flights, including those of John Glenn and the Apollo 11.

Not surprisingly, given their deep roots in the history of computers and board games, women also became leaders in the development of electronic games. Carol Shaw, sometimes referred to as the first female video game designer, created Atari’s 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe and Activision’s River Raid, while Dona Bailey co-created the hit Atari arcade shooter game Centipede. In addition, Roberta Williams launched the graphical adventure genre with her groundbreaking games for Sierra, including Mystery House and King’s Quest. Brenda Romero was a central contributor to the Wizardry series that dominated the early role-playing genre and is today a leading creator of analog and virtual games. Brenda Laurel of Purple Moon and Megan Gaiser of Her Interactive led the development of games explicitly marketed to girls, including the Rockett and Nancy Drew series. In fact, women have exercised particular influence over the development of educational computer games, from Mabel Addis’s work on the 1965 Sumerian Game (possibly the first use of a computer game in a classroom setting) to Ann McCormick and Leslie Grimms, co-founders of The Learning Company, whose games like Rocky’s Boots and Reader Rabbit, among others, launched the educational computer sector of the industry.

In recent years, women have led the creation of many of today’s most exciting games, such as Kellee Santiago’s Flow, Flower, and Journey and Kim Smith’s Portal. And in addition to their work as game creators, designers, and publishers, women have contributed greatly to areas such as marketing, manufacturing, music, graphic design, journalism, and historical research. Noted game designer Sheri Graner Ray became one of the first women to formally speak about gender in video gaming, and her book Gender Inclusive Game Design: Expanding the Market was nominated for the 1996 Game Developer’s Book of the Year.

Unknown to most, women heavily populated the assembly lines of early Atari coin-up manufacturing plants and created the first game assurance testing program. In 1980, Margot Comstock launched Softalk—an early magazine dedicated to the Apple II series of computers and the first to cover a wide range of topics related to computing (e.g. programming, gaming, industrial and hobbyist usage) rather than having one specific focus. Women feature prominently in game marketing, including Mary Fujihara of Atari and Cathy Carlston of Broderbund. Women have also made their auditory mark on games. Yoko Shimomura became the first widely recognized female Japanese game composer with her work on Street Fighter II, Kingdom Hearts, Super Mario RPG, and Parasite Eve. Jennifer Hale holds a Guinness World Record for “most prolific female videogame voice actor” and is especially lauded for her work as the female version of Commander Sheppard in the Mass Effect series.

Launching this initiative will enable The Strong to document women’s contributions more effectively and share it more broadly. Through the work of the museum’s International Center for the History of Electronic Games, we have already collected thousands of games, publications, and archival materials related to women’s history in gaming. They range from the classroom materials Mabel Addis used for her pioneering Sumerian Game to Roberta Williams’ game design notes and also to a wide range of development and business records in the Atari Coin-Op, MECC, and Her Interactive company collections. These materials provide a strong base for understanding the vital contributions of women to the video game industry, but there are so many more parts of the story that need to be collected,  preserved, and shared before they’re lost.

So we need your help! If you’d like to partner with The Strong to gather historical materials as part of the Women in Games initiative or to make a donation of artifacts or archival materials, please email ssymonds@museumofplay.org for more information.