The Women Who Made Our Video Games Possible

Women have been major contributors to science, technology, and video games, but we don’t always hear about them! It’s time to change that. Women have helped build our computers from the ground up, have been major developers in video game fields, have made mobile gaming possible, and have even established international organizations to further women’s involvement in computing, engineering, and technology! During Women’s History Month, it’s imperative that we recognize them. 

Computers are so prevalent in today’s society; smartphones, cash registers, TVs, and even microwaves have computing elements within them. But, it’s not common knowledge that a woman is credited with writing the first computer program. In the late 1800s, a woman named Ada Lovelace was assisting her friend Charles Babbage with his “Analytical Engine.” Her notes included an algorithm designed to be run by a machine. In 1953, over a hundred years after her death, her notes were republished. It was then recognized that the Analytical Engine had been an early model for a computer, and Ada’s notes had been the early model of computer software. Her algorithm had been designed to compute Bernoulli Numbers, and was the first algorithm specifically designed for implementation on a machine!

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Since computers were still a little further out in the future, groups of people were enlisted to become “computers.” This entailed literally computing answers to equations. One such woman in these “computer” groups was Henrietta Swan Leavitt. She joined the Harvard Observatory in examining the distance and brightness of stars. Her work later enabled scientists to determine that the universe was expanding and the Milky Way was not the only galaxy! Other notable woman “computers” included the wives of scientists at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project. In addition, American women were recruited to do ballistics calculations during WWII. Orbital calculations for the United States’s Explorer 1 satellite were solved by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s all-female “computers,” many of whom were recruited out of high school.

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When computers began to roll to around, women were hired to operate them; women were operators of the WREN Colossus computer at Bletchley Park. Not only did they operate them, they developed them. Grace Hopper was a United States Navy officer and the first programmer of the Harvard Mark I. She was known as the “Mother of COBOL” and popularized the term “debugging” – a reference to a moth extracted from a relay in the Harvard Mark II computer! Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Fran Bilas, Kay McNulty, Marlyn Wescoff, and Ruth Lichterman were the original programmers of the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer — the first electronic general-purpose computer. Adele Goldstine, also involved in the programming, wrote the program manual for the ENIAC.

The list of women in computer history goes on for a while, and there are still many women in the field developing new technology today. The foundation of computing led to important developments for society — like video games! With women developing languages and machines, new tasks could be done with these things. What better to explore than the video game frontier?

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Carol Shaw is one of the most prominent women in the video game industry, credited with breaking the ice for women in future game development. Shaw first programmed 3-D Tic-Tac-Toe for the Atari 2600, and then went on to join Activision, where she designed Happy Trails for the Intellivision and other games for the Atari. Until the early 2000s, she was still active in the video game industry. Another woman, Kellee Santiago, founded a game company called Thatgamecompany, which produced Flow and Flower. These were ranked among PlayStation’s top 10 games for two years, have a Grammy-nominated soundtrack, and have won many gaming awards. Santiago has also amassed credits on Braid, Guitar Hero, and Dear Esther. Reine Abbas founded Wixel, Lebanon’s first-ever video game studio. Julie Uhrman developed an Android-based console to allow indie developers to make games for TV. Uhrman’s project called OUYA, which launched on Kickstarter, is the second-highest funded project in Kickstarter’s history! Roberta Williams was a co-founder of Sierra On-Line and a pioneer in the field of graphical adventure games. Williams developed the King’s Quest series of games, among others. Heather Kelley is famous as the founder of Perfect Plum, a startup company focused on software for women. In addition to her work as a media artist and video game designer, she’s been involved in game-based efforts to stop gender violence and held the role as co-chair of the IGDA Women in Video Games Special Interest Group.

While women have some impressive scientific and gaming milestones under their belt, it’s also important to recognize women not directly involved with a computer, console, or video game design. These women indirectly contributed to the gaming culture as we know it today through other means. Often, it doesn’t seem like gamers think twice about co-op gaming, gaming from their console while on the toilet, or the buttons they press to save games.

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Hedy Lamarr was an internationally-renowned Austrian actress. She was a strong female presence in a relatively socially conservative period. Her most prominent technological contribution to society (in conjunction with George Antheil) was an early technique for spread spectrum communications and frequency hopping. In essence, she paved the way for today’s wireless communication. When she developed the technology in 1941, the government didn’t allow publication of its details.

Radia Perlman is famous for her invention of the Spanning-Tree Protocol (STP), which is majorly important to network bridges and network communications. Susan Kare was a graphic artist who developed many of the interface elements for Apple in the 1980s. Her work still remains in the symbols and fonts used today, such as the “Lasso” and “Paint Bucket” of photo editing programs, the font used on the first four Apple iPods, save buttons, the trashcan/recycling bins, etc. (Even if kids don’t understand the floppy disks on the save buttons!)

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Even with this laundry list of women technical pioneers, it’s very important to continue to instill an interest in science, technology, and gaming in young girls. While the numbers fluctuate from source to source, it’s agreed upon that women are nearly half the gaming population, but are severely underrepresented. New efforts exist to put women characters into games, but that’s not the only way that women can get involved. Many groups such as the Ada Initiative, Girl Geek Dinners (where the only way a guy can be there is to be a lady’s date!), Geek Girl Tech Conferences, and the Women in Video Games Special Interest Group exist to promote women’s involvement. Women in Games International has teamed up with the Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles in order to create the first video game patch, which the two organizations hope will encourage Girl Scouts to develop an interest in science, technology, engineering, and math.

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So, you go girl! Even if the labels of “Gamer Girl” or “Geek Girl” intimidate you, or the guys want to tell you it’s stupid – you know it’s not! Women have long been involved with science, technology, engineering, and mathematical (STEM) fields. Even if you want to be an actress, like Hedy Lamarr, you can still pursue other things on the side (like inventing WiFi) if you want! Women’s History Month is the best time to learn about these things, but there’s never a wrong time to get involved.

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