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The Original Gaming Bug: Centipede Creator Dona Bailey

Dona Bailey, creator of 1980 arcade classic Centipede at Atari, was a trailblazer -- the only female software engineer at the company during its early peak. Now an educator, she's set to deliver the keynote for the Women in Games International Conference -- and Gamasutra caught up with her to speak about the past and future of women in games in this exclusive interview.

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.

 


Fast-forward more than two decades later, and here you are keynoting an entire conference celebrating women in the games industry. How do you feel about that?

Just that it’s great! I’m all for it. I think two things are really important. One is something that I don’t think people are taught in school very often -- and I certainly wasn’t -- it’s when a woman is in a professional setting where she constantly feels challenged and is undermined, how to get some power! And I certainly had no clue about how to do that at that age. Maybe young women know more about that now, but then again, maybe they don’t, so that’s something that I’ve learned.

The other thing is -- and I always want to encourage anyone in game development to do this, but especially women -- I think we’re naturals at this, and can make such a contribution. And that’s to get keenly interested, and to stay interested in graphic arts and visual design, and the development of high art concepts and film animation, and high quality film animation, lighting techniques -- all the artistic things that have come such a long way because of digital contributions. To use 3D modeling in a way that isn’t typically utilized, to turn it into a fine art project instead of the... sometimes kinda coarser way that it’s used. Power and art!

The hot question these days; are games art?

I don’t think they are enough like art -- yet. But I do think they’re going in the right direction from what I’ve observed, and I’m thrilled to see that direction, because that was really undermined for me. I had so many things I could have contributed that were frankly just ridiculed and ignored, so I’m so pleased to see when something does go in a direction that I like. But I think that could be pushed a lot more.

I think that in some ways, there is a parallel [to film] being played out. Because at the time when I worked, the teams were really small -- too small. There was a project manager, a hardware engineer, a software engineer and a technician, and typically the hardware engineer was responsible for the board, and it was already done, and pretty stable; there really weren’t many problems in that way. And then there was just the big load of work that fell on the software engineer, and there was squabbling if it was too much. Anyway, I see that game teams are closer to a film crew. It just seems like there’s a much more reasonable idea about how to split up the work and how to assign the roles and stuff.

But at the same time, from the time that film began and was made available to the public -- if whole segments of the public had been left out of the development [of] film -- what would we think, if they’d been done that way? If we’d gotten to this point and there were movies for a specific segment, and a whole lot of people were left out of the whole thing, and we thought of movies as something just for a specific population? That would just be so strange, and so sad that that group was left out. I really think that game development has gone in that direction, and that there’s whole segments that would be happier to have that medium.

How do you think they could head further in that direction?

I think that [games] can serve so many extra purposes -- learning and logic and practice for all kinds of skills, literacy, visual literacy -- many, many skills that we need. And we need good ways to teach those, so I would so much like to see games go in a direction where everyone is included, and so I guess I’m looking for more than just art. And [for them to be] very important in the teaching of visual literacy, which I think is one of the most important skills that we are not good at teaching in schools yet.

It seems you see a particular contribution that a sort of feminine creative sensibility can add to game development.

I worked with so many people who were not very verbal at all. It’s such a funny blend of skills; I really think that. So many people who were good technically were not readers, and not interested in narrative, and they were not interested in exploring verbal possibilities. I see that it’s come a certain distance, but I would like to see women push that farther, because I think we’re naturals at doing that!

So do you think it’s a level playing field now? If so, why does the idea of “women in games” still seem significant to the general audience? If not, what do you think needs to happen before there are more prominent female professionals in the game industry?

Well, you know, I don’t know enough about that part of it. But one thing I see as a great hope is that there are so many open-source avenues now that were not ever available before. Like, I teach writing classes, but I also teach multimedia classes, and sometimes I teach 3DSMax. It’s expensive, and really limits the number of people who have it available, the number of students who ever get a chance to learn it. And it’s not taught much in Arkansas where I live. But recently, I’ve discovered Blender, the open-source 3D modeling program, and it’s completely free and open-source, and there are great tutorials on the web; it opens up a whole new avenue for people who didn’t have access to learning that kind of thing before. And with games that make a modding capability available, that makes so much [accessible] that wasn’t accessible to people -- to women especially -- before. There are so many ways [for] kids, for fifty dollars or even for zero dollars, [that are] pretty much accessible to everybody.

I got the initial training that I had by working for General Motors and working on Cadillacs. And that was rough, but if I hadn’t had that experience, and if I hadn’t learned assembly language under those conditions, I never would have been considered at Atari.

 


You were up against so much as the only woman in your development team at a very high-pressure time in the industry’s history, and you had a very steep hill to climb to accomplish what you did. With the odds stacked so high against you, why was it so important for you to pursue game design at all?

That is a very good question; the answer covers years, but to try to boil it down... When I started college, I was “the brainy girl who did good papers.” And I liked to write, and I’ve always been a big reader. But during college, there were a lot of other “brainy girls who liked to write good papers”. I had always been interested in science too, so I was a little double-sided. But during the time I was in college, just by chance, I got the opportunity to discover that I loved programming. I was not very good at math and I’m still not very good at math!

But I loved programming not from the math approach, but form the language approach to it. They don’t call it a “programming language” for nothing! And it was the syntax, and the structure, and all of the rules-based things that I liked about it.

Did you know you were going to make a game?

No! I really didn’t. I consider my career still evolving -- I’ve had several careers at this point, and I never know what’s about to happen. Whatever I get intensely interested in is whatever I end up doing, or being. All those years, it’s only been in the last ten that when someone asks, “what do you do,” you could say “oh, I’m a programmer,” without having to explain what that is. For years I tried to train myself to remember to say “I’m a computer programmer,” so I wouldn’t get, “Like, TV?” Because I lived in California at the time, so they thought I meant “executive producer”!

All those years, I was a computer programmer when nobody knew what that meant. In school, I discovered I really like statistics -- again, from the language side of it. I could always set up research and define it really well, but the math was the part I needed a calculator or computer for -- but it’s so far back that my training came before we even used calculators, which is crazy to imagine. But all of those things went in to being able to kind of set my sights on this thing I was good at -- approaching programming from a language point of view.

Then I lived in Santa Barbara, and I wanted a really good job, and the GM programming in assembly language (which I had no experience at) -- that was one of the best jobs around. And they were willing to hire me because they were hiring young people with any kind of programming background, which I just barely [had] at that point.

How did you get from assembly language programming at GM to designing a game for Atari?

It was while I worked [at GM] that I saw the first Space Invaders game that I had ever seen. I really liked the Pretenders song “Space Invaders,” and I was asking my friends, “what’s that about?!” It was impossible to figure out, and I had no idea what the concept was.

A friend of mine played that album all the time, and I finally said “what is this?” and another friend of mine just freaked out and said, “you have to go to lunch with me” -- to this crummy bar, where they had a cocktail model of Space Invaders. He dragged me down there during lunch the next week at work and gave me a quarter. I promptly got myself killed, and was just standing there and thinking.

I had discovered while I was working at GM that I liked the display programming, the climate control, things with a visual readout. And I remember standing there thinking “God, this looks a lot like what I do.” And I started to find out, “where did they do this? Is this the only one?”

Now people know so much more stuff because of the Internet. Nowadays, I would have Googled it, but there was just no information back then, nothing written about this programming. One of the things at Atari that was so hard -- there’s nothing to read. I had so many questions about what to do, and how, but there was nothing to read and nobody to talk to.

So you were completely shooting blind, figuring it out on your own?

Completely!

Anything else you’d like to add about the conference?

I’m so pleased that there’s any possibility that I can be helpful at this point. I love teaching because I’m really determined to give back. I never did any volunteer work or anything like that, but I had a really great career. I’ve had such a great life, and such a great career, and when I came back to Arkansas and saw that people here really struggle to get an education, it’s not something that can be taken for granted. So I’m so pleased -- I know that I make a contribution here in higher education. And now being asked to do this -- I’m so pleased to be acknowledged, and I just feel so good about the whole thing! I’m hopeful I’ll manage to strike the right notes.

WIGI will be held Saturday, September 8th at the Austin Convention Center.

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