Visible Women

This female gaming pioneer was so successful she retired at 35

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Anna-Marie Crowhurst
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Forgotten Women is a series dedicated to giving women of history the exposure they deserve. Carol Shaw was one of the first female pioneers in gaming, who created all manner of innovative games throughout her career, as well as paving the way for the women who followed in her footsteps.

In 2017, only 21% of the gamer workforce was female, so it boggles the mind to imagine what it must have been like as a female developer in the Seventies, when Carol Shaw began her career at Atari Inc creating new video games.

At the time, the president of Atari, Ray Kassar, was happy that they had a woman on the staff. “Finally,” he said, “she can do interior decorating and cosmetic colour-matching games.” Instead she went on to become, according to a colleague at Atari, “simply the best programmer of the 6502 [an 8-bit microprocessor] and probably one of the best programmers, period.”

Born in 1955 in Palo Alto, California, 
Shaw was encouraged by her engineer 
father and mother to study her beloved science and maths – at the time unusual
 for girls. In high school she discovered programming in the form of BASIC, and at Berkley, she studied computer science and electrical engineering, followed by a master’s in computer science. Excelling in the field, Shaw’s first job in 1978 was at Atari, a pioneer of video and arcade games as well as home consoles. Shaw’s job was to write games for the company’s groundbreaking home console, the Atari 2600. In 1979 she created Video Checkers and 3D Tic-Tac-Toe, the first commercial game designed by a woman.

Shaw was hired by burgeoning video-game software company Activision in 1982, where she created more innovative games including 1983’s huge hit River Raid, where the user pilots a fighter jet over
a river. This was followed up by maze game Happy Trails. After the computer-game crash, Shaw left to work in processing. In 1990 she realised she could afford to retire and did so, aged 35. 

Students play the original 3D Tic-Tac-Toe in 1958

Why was she a trailblazer?

At last December’s Game Awards, 63-year-old Carol Shaw was presented with the Industry Icon award for her work as a “trailblazer; one of the first female game designers ever; the first woman to get her name on a games box.” 
As one of the very few women in the gaming industry, Shaw was quickly followed by Dona Bailey and Carla Meninsky, who also worked at Atari in the late Seventies. Between them, they opened the door for women working in gaming.

What influence has she left behind today?

In 2014, The New York Times ran a feature on underappreciated female video-game pioneers, naming Shaw as one of the field’s forerunners. It remains a male-dominated industry, although 45% of gamers in the US are now women.

In 2016, a survey by the International Game Developers Association found that 10% of male game developers earn $150,000
or more, while only 3% of women do. 

The Forgotten Women series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.

Illustration: Bijou Karman Image: Getty Images