In 1980, Atari had one single software engineer who was female. That woman, Dona Bailey — whose only prior programming experience was assembly displays at General Motors — created the classic arcade title Centipede, against enormous odds in a high-stakes environment in the infancy of the gaming industry. As the keynote speaker at the Women in Games International Conference, she will share the lessons of her experience, her advice for professional and aspiring female game designers, and her ideas for the unique role women can play in game design.
Ahead of the conference, Gamasutra spoke with Ms. Bailey about some of these ideas, and discussed her challenging experience at Atari — where colleagues didn’t believe she could possibly be responsible for Centipede even after completed it. She discusses how treating programming as an extension of verbal language can bring greater artistic depth to the gaming medium in ways she wasn’t given the freedom to express at the time, and explains how the history-making Centipede might never even have been — if not for a chance encounter with one song by the Pretenders.
At the time you created Centipede, you were one of the only female game designers in the industry, and at a heavyweight like Atari, no less. Can you describe what that was like?
I always say that it was the closest to being in a frat that I’ll ever be! When I started at Atari, there were probably around 30 game designers who were professionals of one sort or another, either software engineers, or hardware engineers, or technicians. I was hired as the only software engineer who was a female. It was a ratio of 30 to 1! And by the time I left, it was about 120 to 1.
Were you intimidated?
Not intimidated, but it was really an interesting experience. It was my first exposure to this kind of situation when you’re the only person of a certain kind; you kind of lose your identity. It’s really strange; it’s not that I ever forgot I was female, but I would go for stretches where I would sort of forget! It had some good points, and it was kind of tough, though. I remember towards the end of the second year of it — I was there for 27 months — after about two years I remember thinking, “I want to know what I’m like again, on my own, by myself without all of this around me.”
Did you feel additional pressure at the drawing board because of being female?
Yeah. I think that there was a lot of additional pressure just by being the only female. I think I was watched a lot more than I would have been. I could have blended in a lot better, if not for that one thing. I think that my personality was quite a bit different, too. You never know what you’d be like if you were male — and I never spent any time thinking, “I wonder,” but I do think that I’ve always been sort of introverted and quiet, and kind of shy, and all the things that, if I hadn’t been female, would have allowed me to take a place in the back, and not in the line of vision all the time.
I am an only child, and so it’s kind of like that experience in my family growing up. It was kind of like the same thing there, whether I wanted to be stared at or not. I wasn’t accustomed to extra attention in a professional setting, and it was definitely more than I’d ever been given! You have to do certain things to accommodate that, and I don’t think I was fast at understanding how to deal with it!
Did things change once you’d done Centipede?
Yes, but I’m not sure it was for the better! There was a lot of surly attention after that. It’s not always popular to do something [like] that — the first thing that happened, I was not ready for at all, and I still haven’t figured out how to deal with this part — people just started, y’know… the typical kind of thing that people would say was, either it was a fluke or I didn’t really do it, somebody else did it. I’m a very peaceful person, and I felt sick of fighting, so I really just disappeared, and I haven’t had contact with the industry for at least twenty years.
Do you follow the industry at all, now?
I didn’t at all until about a year ago. I teach now, and I taught a special class for some very accelerated students who were the first ones accepted into the new game design program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. They’d had all AP classes, and when I met them, I found out that they had all kinds of certifications, all kinds of things I didn’t expect, and they were very accelerated for the typical students who I teach. And so I was really glad I’d spent the summer doing a lot of preparation so I was up on all the game genres, and spent a lot of time reading Game Developer and all kinds of things. So through reading, that’s my biggest connection.
It’s interesting — one of the first things I realized was that Centipede would be considered, at best, a “casual game” now — which was so funny to me, because it wasn’t that at all — it was an action game with a story, and now it really doesn’t have a narrative at all by today’s standards! It probably wouldn’t even be released today. All of those things were interesting to me when I was going through this period of discovery.