What happened to the women who built the video game industry?

What happened to the women who built the video game industry?
From left to right: Nancy L. Fong, Roberta Williams, Lori Cole, Lori Hopping and Amy Hennig. Joamir Salcedo/Mic
From left to right: Nancy L. Fong, Roberta Williams, Lori Cole, Lori Hopping and Amy Hennig. Joamir Salcedo/Mic

I realized that this pioneer industry that I had never considered ... was actually a new frontier. And it was unencumbered by the ossification and the prejudices that I was already seeing in the film industry, just from my view from film school. So I quit film school, and I applied for a junior artist job at Electronic Arts in 1991.

Amy Hennig, creative director and head writer for the critically acclaimed Uncharted series

In 1996, a computer game company sold for $1.5 billion. That company was Sierra On-Line, and its creative head and public face, Roberta Williams, was a woman. Against everything we’ve come to believe about women’s opportunities in gaming, Williams reached the pinnacle of success. How?

Williams’ career began when she created the first adventure game with graphics, Mystery House, in 1980. (Fans of more recent adventure games like Life Is Strange or Telltale’s The Walking Dead have her to thank.) Back then, “The climate of the early microcomputer software industry was one of vast openness,” Laine Nooney, a soon-to-be assistant professor of media and information Industries at New York University and a leading expert on Roberta Williams and early-’80s computer games, told Mic in an email.

There were no rules. All that mattered was seeing what the newly invented home computer could do.

‘Uncharted 3’ Mic/MediaStinger

The modern concept of “gamer” identity and culture didn’t exist yet. “Very few of these software companies imagined themselves as in a ‘game industry,’” Nooney said. “Many of these companies that we today associate solely with games were actually making all sorts of stuff — word processors, database managers, graphics utilities, you name it.”

In this world, a stay-at-home mother of two like Williams could produce hit software. Mystery House sold 80,000 copies, and her subsequent projects — especially the adventure series King’s Quest — did even better. Nooney noted that one early Sierra employee, Carolyn Box, was a championship gold panner. The area’s small talent pool meant that Sierra would “literally hire anyone who could program, or pick up a phone, or tape a box.”

“Everything was new”

The wild years evened out after 1984, according to Nooney, thanks to an event historians call the “software shakeout.” Many small home computer software companies went under or consolidated, giving rise to a few major houses (Electronic Arts, Sierra On-Line, etc.) that ruled the ’80s and ’90s.

Yet software’s openness continued, as Christy Marx (creator of the TV series Jem and a former Sierra designer) said in May. Even in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Marx recalled, “Everything was new, experimental, without established categories … There were no rules, no laws, for being a [game] designer.” She told Polygon that Sierra “would hire anybody to design a game.”

Lorri Hopping, who’s written games for clients like Scholastic and Microsoft Education since 1986, echoed that sentiment in an email. “Anyone could and would contribute to a software program, even if it meant having to learn the skills on the job or feel your way through it.” The field was still being invented, and the ad-hoc culture of the early ’90s reflected that.

Military simulators, digitized tabletop games and educational products rubbed shoulders in the blurry world of software, filed collectively under the label of “computer games.” Janice G. Davidson’s edutainment game Math Blaster! (1983) and its remakes made her a millionaire, selling 1.5 million copies by 1993. In one breath, Computer Gaming World could recommend both Math Blaster! and Chris Crawford’s famous digital war game Balance of Power as educational products.

In one breath, Computer Gaming World could recommend both ‘Math Blaster!’ and Chris Crawford’s famous digital war game ‘Balance of Power’ as educational products.

Within software, director roles weren’t exclusive to men. Sierra’s female directors even appeared on their games’ packaging. Marx, Roberta Williams, Lori Cole (director of the adventure/role-playing classic Quest for Glory), Jane Jensen (head of the adventure series Gabriel Knight) and others received prominent authorial credit in this way. Their games were beloved. Sierra’s adventures typically flattened LucasArts titles like The Secret of Monkey Island saleswise, even though LucasArts’ adventure games were mostly directed by men.

In an email to Mic, Cole explained that Sierra “actively invited female designers,” in contrast to much of its competition. Given that Sierra was a market leader in computer games (and, by early 1996, the field’s top company), a modern equivalent might be a version of Valve Corporation or Activision Blizzard in which the most visible and respected directors are women.

Demographics weren’t set in stone, either. In 1989, Sierra estimated that 35% to 40% of King’s Quest IV players were female. It sold over 400,000 copies. That’s as many as 160,000 women playing the game. Brenda Romero, game designer and writer of the book Sex in Video Games, said that even Sierra’s raunchy sex comedy Leisure Suit Larry had “a huge female player base.”

Sierra’s ‘King’s Quest’ Mic/Sierra Gamest

The majority of Sierra’s fan letters came from women. Nooney often cites one from a woman named Elizabeth Hood, who in 1987 wrote, “I do not fit the typical profile for adventure gamers. I am a 45-year-old woman who works for L.L. Bean as a telephone order representative.”

Hood was obsessed with Sierra software. She discovered that “adventure gaming has no age barriers.” Unlike the women who play mobile games today but “don’t consider themselves ‘gamers,’” as Christy Marx described recently, Hood wasn’t a nameless outcast. “Gaming” was broad enough that she felt comfortable belonging to it.

The fandom factor

Today we think of fandoms as the subcultures surrounding huge mainstream products — e.g., the Star Wars fandom or the Steven Universe fandom. For most of the 20th century, though, “fandom” was an insider name for what outsiders call “nerd culture.” Things like the science fiction and fantasy genres, conventions, fanzines and tabletop games made up fandom.

From at least the 1920s, according to Justine Larbalestier’s book The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, fandom contained a significant number of women and girls. By the ’60s and ’70s, writers like Anne McCaffrey, Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler were leading lights. Second-wave feminism exploded into fandom via WisCon and the influential Janus fanzine.

Politically, that era of fandom was hard to summarize. However, its growing American mainline was sketched by author Robert A. Heinlein in a (highly critical) March 1962 letter:

It is do-goodish and quasi-socialist — but not Communist[.] ... It is both “democratic” and “civil libertarian” without the slightest understanding that these two powerful and explosive concepts can frequently be in direct conflict, each with the other. It is egalitarian, pacifist and anti-racist — with no notion that these concepts might ever clash.

These views filtered into computer culture when American fandom invaded it. Remember, it was MIT students who made the early game Spacewar! in 1962, inspired by the space operas of E. E. Smith. The legendary role-playing game Ultima IV (1985) begins at a Renaissance fair, and the politics of its sequel Ultima VII (1992) match Heinlein’s description almost one-to-one.

Scholastic’s ‘The Magic School Bus Explores in the Age of Dinosaurs’ Mic/MobyGames

When Russell Sipe started the industry-defining magazine Computer Gaming World in 1981, its debut issue looked and read like an upscale fanzine — which is basically what it was. Two years later, he hired a female pen-and-paper fan named Scorpia to head his role-playing and adventure coverage. In the world of ’80s American fandom, this made sense.

Scorpia quickly became CGW’s (and game journalism’s) most famous and respected voice. As writer Arinn Dembo put it in 2010, “I can’t think of anyone working today who has achieved both her level of name recognition and the level of professional respect that she earned from her audience.” Many other women, including Dembo, wrote for CGW and its competitors. In that era of fandom, again, this made sense.

Designers Brenda Laurel and Carol Manley were present at the first Game Developers Conference, the gathering of a mere 27 people at Chris Crawford’s house in 1988. By the second conference, Laurel and Stephanie Barrett were directors of the event. In that era of fandom — well, you get the idea.

Obviously, fandom had flaws too numerous to list here. Annoyed by the sexist “chainmail-bikini babes” she had to draw for the computer role-playing game Pool of Radiance (1988), artist Susan Manley got into a verbal brawl with the art lead at Strategic Simulations. She kept her job, though.

To someone whose view into ’80s American fandom is The Big Bang Theory, it may be surprising a woman was hired for Pool of Radiance — and notable that she wasn’t fired after protesting its sexism. In reality, women and men debated gender and politics at conventions and in fanzines. Fandom was flawed — and it had struggles with sexism — but it was often bigger than its clichés.

Visible and invisible

One cliché does hold: Computer gaming in the ’80s and early ’90s was, in strictly numerical terms, more male than female. Scorpia recently questioned whether computer games could ever achieve numerically equal gender representation. (During her tenure at Computer Gaming World, though, Scorpia says she never encountered “any instance where being female made any difference.”)

Yet we shouldn’t view the early industry’s powerful women as statistical anomalies. Like Elizabeth Hood expressed in her letter, being unusual didn’t exclude one from belonging. Successful, respected and highly visible women like Scorpia and Roberta Williams had an outsize influence on the early industry’s self-perception. Gaming’s DNA, still being written at the time, wove them through its core.

As Laine Nooney likes to say, computer game history isn’t men’s history with women tacked on. In impact and popularity, Roberta Williams was less like a female Peter Molyneux (creator of famous “god games” like Populous and Theme Hospital) and more like computer gaming’s Walt Disney. We forget that because gaming’s DNA, its whole definition, has changed to marginalize women and their achievements. Janice G. Davidson’s and Chris Crawford’s games are no longer recommended side by side. Even in adventure circles, it’s become hip to hate Sierra.

Computer game history isn’t men’s history with women tacked on. In impact and popularity, Roberta Williams was computer gaming’s Walt Disney.

The ’80s and early ‘90s shatter our ideas about who truly “owns” computer games. Think of Computer Gaming World’s (and CompuServe’s) Patricia Fitzgibbons, or Electronic Arts’ art department head Nancy L. Fong. Think of Danielle Bunten Berry, winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Game Developer’s Conference.

A changing landscape

The modern hostile, exclusionary, hyper-masculine game culture started to emerge in the mid-’90s.

Lorri Hopping believes that the bottom fell out of her edutainment and multimedia scene then, just as “shooters began to dominate the game market, the AAA blitz.” It was the beginning of the end, and fertile ground for sites like Old Man Murray to till with ironic blog posts that often crossed the line into offensive humor and online harassment.

“I lost interest, totally,” Hopping said of the mid-’90s. “I didn’t want to kill orcs.”

Marx made a similar comment, arguing that “the audience for games shifted and became more male-oriented” as the decade wore on, damaging the industry and stifling innovation. In 1998, Roberta Williams herself lamented the change. “I have never seen it this bad before in all my years of writing games,” she told the Orange County Register. “There is such a dearth of games for women. I have never seen the shelves so empty.”

Lori Cole blames the change on market dynamics. At that time, computer game sales had exploded. Yet adventure games — the genre that attracted the highest percentage of female players, at nearly 50% by 1998 — didn’t grow at the same rate as action games. The audience for action games was 95% male. Publishers began to cut their losses and curb their less-profitable, less-macho titles. “Games were marketed for boys,” Cole says.

The impact of this shift can’t be understated, and Cole argues that it led to an exodus. “Women who worked on those games found other jobs,” she explains. “Women who played adventure games ... had nothing to play.” What marketers began, the newly formed gamer culture finished. Old Man Murray’s facile rant “Death of Adventure Games” (2000) cemented in men’s minds that the genre largely hadn’t been worthwhile in the first place. The article’s main target, Jane Jensen, has been harassed for over 15 years.

Sierra’s ‘Quest for Glory’ Mic/Engadget

Other games perceived as “feminine” were dismissed as well. In 1998, the magazine PC Accelerator published a list of “Games for Girly Men,” which included broad-appeal titles like Myst, Theme Hospital and Ultima Online. (Ultima Online’s huge audience was up to 30% female by 2001, and women made up 48% of Myst players.) Only games for men were legitimate; women were no longer welcome.

During it all, an even more insidious change was occurring behind the scenes. Nooney has discovered that the early industry hinged on “administrative and managerial roles within games, and many of these were [performed by] women.” While they’re invisible to us now, these women made everything possible. From the mid-’90s through the ’00s, outsourcing chipped their jobs away to nothing:

Thirty years ago, a male programmer might have walked into an office environment in which women worked in sales, customer support, publicity, copy editing, distribution or other infrastructure roles. But today, outsourcing and digital distribution mean that such jobs don’t exist, or are done remotely by people you’ve never met. You don’t have the same experience of being expected to co-exist in a work environment with a diversity of employees. The rise of the “brogrammer” mentality ... could be thought of as a direct consequence of a work environment that has become increasingly homogeneous and specified.

Sierra On-Line sold for $1.5 billion because computer games, contrary to what most believe, aren’t men’s history. The true history of gaming is antithetical to today’s hyper-masculine, hyper-reactive “gamer culture.” If we want to recover the openness of the early years, our best hope is to tell their story, loudly and often, to anyone with ears to hear.

More gaming news and updates

Check out the latest from Mic, like this deep dive into the cultural origins of Gamergate. Also, be sure to read this essay about what it’s like to cosplay while black, a roundup of family-friendly games to play with your kids and our interview with Adi Shankar, producer of the animated Castlevania Netflix series.