At last count by the IGDA, only 22% of the people who produce the games we know and love are women. Meanwhile, the number of women actually playing the games hovers around 40-50%. Somehow, this still adds up to the common misconception that gaming is a man's game, despite the enormous, staggering achievements women have made to change every aspect of how and what we play over the years.
Women have been at the cutting edge of every major paradigm shift of the medium, and as much as things have advanced, it's a medium that doesn't always appreciate them back, either by benign neglect, or by factors more insidious. On this International Women's Day, we hope to give a few of those women the respect they deserve.
The common history book of video gaming pegs Carol Shaw and Dona Bailey as the mothers of modern gaming, with the former long considered the first female developer, working at Atari in 1978 on games for the 2600, the latter as the first to deliver a major hit, having created Centipede in 1981. Neither of their accomplishments should be diminished, but if anyone gets to throw their hand up and yell “FIRST!” it's actually Joyce Weibecker. By day, her father, Joseph, had a day job working for RCA, but at night, he was experimenting with the idea of creating a home computer that could be taught to play games. He succeeded in 1969, having created a slapdash home computing system called FRED (Flexible Recreational & Educational Device). Young Joyce, having been essentially been a tester for all of Joseph's computer experiments throughout the years, eventually started programming games for the device herself. When RCA eventually caught wind of FRED, it eventually morphed into RCA's first attempt at a gaming console, the Studio II. With her in-depth knowledge of the programming language, she created the first games for the device: Snake Race, Jackpot, and TV Schoolhouse. All of which happened in 1976—two years before the Atari 2600 would hit the market.
Once upon a time, Roberta Williams was a mousy, stay-at-home mom taking care of her and programmer husband Ken's two children. After becoming obsessed with a port of Adventure while at home, however, Roberta would find herself full of ideas on how to take the ideas of that game a step further. Combined with Ken's then-unheard-of idea of putting graphics to text, the result would be Mystery House, the very first graphic adventure title, and the beginning of what would over the course of years become Sierra On-Line, the legendary studio synonymous with epic adventures throughout the years. Among other games, Roberta herself would be responsible for two of greatest examples of the genre: including the long-running King's Field series, and ambitious cult classic, Phantasmagoria.
One of the most prolific and diverse composers in the industry, Yoko Shimomura's work spans over 30 years, from the Bay Area themes in Final Fight, to Somnus Orchestra, the beautiful piano melody that starts Final Fantasy XV. However, as brilliant and breathtaking as her body of work is, perhaps her single most lasting and influential contribution is as the composer for a little game called Street Fighter II. Instantly recognizable, her themes are the lifeblood of the games, themes that evoke a character and place like no game had ever done prior (though, as the internet has established, Guile's Theme goes with everything). Common game developer policy in the 80s and 90s was that everyone in the company was credited under a pseudonym, meaning Yoko's contributions have only truly gotten the credit they deserve in recent years. Nevertheless, her RPG work—particularly, her Legend of Mana score--remains some of the genre's most beautiful.
Amy wasn't the first woman to put film school skills to work in video games, but she's certainly one of the first who emphasized that all-too-often neglected factor of writing and character, and certainly one of the few women writing and directing at the AAA level. From humble beginnings as a designer on a surprisingly well-crafted platformer starring Michael Jordan, Amy took things to the next level with her work on Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, a prime example of a game that had no small number of tech issues that were all but forgiven thanks to some utterly outstanding storytelling and character work. Her legacy was set in stone, however, with her writing and directing work on the Uncharted trilogy, which truly changed the game in terms of gaming being able to match film step for step in almost every single aspect.
Possibly the first modern example of a woman rising into a position of power at a AAA studio, Jade Raymond had been a programmer, working at Sony for nearly eight years when she decided to take a job at Ubisoft. Her first order as producer was to create a brand new IP running off a brand new engine. That game, eventually, became Assassin's Creed, which, aside from taking a break in 2016, has been a yearly staple of gaming life every since, largely thanks to her tireless work in explaining the game—then controversial due to its protrayal of Muslim characters during the Crusades—to the public at large. Since then, she has been slavishly committed to the new, leading the charge in new IP at Ubisoft before finally moving on down the road—coincidentally, to work with Amy Hennig.
As hard as it is to get him to notice you now, it wasn't any easier back when Valve wasn't a gargantuan money-printing behemoth, but sure enough, Kim, along with a few of her fellow DigiPen graduates, managed to get Gabe's attetion with a game called Narbacular Drop which employed a nifty little gimmick involving using two portals to move around. Fast forward to 2007 and Swift's team eventually developed that concept into Portal, one of the most innovative game concepts of the century thus far, and also considered by many to be the first time anyone had used first person shooter mechanics to create a non-violent game. Swift would eventually be a staple at Valve until she left in 2009, but the legacy her work left on what was possible for the first person perspective is set in stone.
Even before her fame in video games, Doris Self was a legend, having been among the first class of trained stewardesses for Eastern Airlines in the 40's. But it was in the 80s that Doris truly found her calling, as one not only one of the first true competitive gamers, but also the oldest, having earned her world record in Q*Bert in 1984 at the age of 58. She continued to play for the next 20 years, with one of her final attempts at a world record immortalized as part of the King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters documentary. Sadly, Doris passed away after a car accident in 2006, but it's impossible to not keep Doris in mind whenever anyone says they're too old to be a gamer.
Despite being the daughter of the late, great Terry Pratchett, Rhianna Pratchett has never traded on her name, forging her own path as a writer over the last decade with some of the most memorable female-led stories in gaming, from the painfully underrated heroine's journey at the heart of Heavenly Sword, to giving us a more human, relateable, and nuanced Lara Croft in 2013's Tomb Raider reboot—the tone of which is the basis for a new Tomb Raider film. While it's not her pen on paper for the film, it's been her work bringing some of her creations to books and comics over the years to wonderful results.
Many game designers get into games to bring a cinematic sensibility into the medium, something the medium still doesn't always get right, to be fair. Kellee Santiago, however, came into gaming seeing a different problem: a lack of empathy and emotion. Thus, she found herself teamed with fellow USC graduate Jenova Chen. After developing Cloud, a dreamy title about daydreaming while bedridden, they officially came together to form thatgamecompany, who have been responsible for some of the most unique and empathetic projects in all of gaming. Kellee didn't stop there, however. Her drive to bring creativity and warmth to the medium have led her to becoming a TED fellow, famously speaking on the potential of video games as an artform, and backing the Indie Fund to help invest in independent gaming projects.
There's an extraordinarily long list of women who haven't been highlighted here who deserve their due, from every aspect of development, production, criticism, and just plain ass-kicking achievement. They are everywhere, doing the work that will shape gaming for years to come, and their names will go unsung unless we choose to sing them while they're here. Gaming is for everyone. It's only fitting that everyone, men and women, should know their share of its greatness.