When Anita Sarkeesian and Rebecca Watson brought attention to the sexism pervasive in video games, one of the popular responses was that games tend to be pandering to male interests because they’re made by and marketed to males. The logic was that if women wanted games they thought wouldn’t be perceived as sexist, the best way to ensure they would get them would be to have more women make games. While that’s undoubtedly simplistic and seems more to be a potential treatment of symptoms of gamer culture gender politics than the disease, here’s a tribute to ten women that have excelled in the field.
10. Carol Shaw
It’s only natural to begin a list about the role women have played in shaping the gaming industry today at the beginning. Carol Shaw is often credited as being the first woman involved in the field of game design (a practice some argue goes all the way back to 1947.) The length of time she worked on them was by far the briefest of anyone on this list, stretching from 1978 to 1984. On the bright side, it was brief for just about the best possible reason: Her landmark, critically acclaimed Atari 2600 game River Raid was so successful that it allowed her to take an early retirement. Her games continued to be so highly regarded that they were being rereleased and she was still receiving credits well into the 2000s.
9. Laralyn McWilliams
Since 1996, McWilliams has been doing design work for some of the biggest companies in the media industry ranging from Disney to Dreamworks to Hasbro through the company Media Station Incorporated. While it’s not all been great (with projects like the tie-in game for the 2006 film Over the Hedge, how could it be?) it has included such beloved titles as Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, Sid Meier’s Pirates, and the extremely successful Massive Multiplayer Online game Free Realms. Free Realms in particular reached such a large audience that one million people joined it in its first eighteen days of release in 2009. In 2014 she became an outspoken commentator on the state of “Free-to-Play” gaming models, her success with Free Realms lending her position considerable credibility.
8. Reine Abbass
While most of our developers listed have worked in America, Reine Abbass in based out of Lebanon. She was one of the cofounders and art department head for the company Wixel Studios in 2008. Since then she has overseen the art development for the online games Survival Race and Little Heroes, both games so popular and highly-rated that she won the Middle Eastern WOW Award for Artistic Expression in 2013. This bodes well for game development in developing countries. To give a more vivid impression of the environment she and her company operate in, in 2011 she and her company were featured in a documentary called Gaza Shield, which showed the company making a game about saving children from suicide bombings related to the Israeli/Lebanese conflict.
7. Kellee Santiago
While the debate about whether video games can ever be art continues to this day, Kellee Santiago’s work is an example of someone making games into art whether it’s allowed or not. Since 2005 when she was a student, she has worked on philosophical gaming triumphs through the company Thatgamecompany which she co-founded such as Cloud, Flow, and Journey. While all have been both very popular and acclaimed, Journey in particular stood out in 2012 as one of those games that transcend medium and appeal to even non-gamers for its story, art quality, and atmosphere. It even became the first game to receive a Grammy nomination. Not bad for something made by a company of only twelve people.
6. Heather Kelley
Kelley’s work isn’t notable so much for its art innovations or compelling stories. It’s more notable for its advances in exploiting technology. Often times, such as her 2010 game Body Heat, this means adding a sexual component to her games. We’ll leave the details of this to your imagination as to how this is done except to say it can be so silly as to involve sprites of cartoon mice. But since she started making these games in 2005, it’s made her successful enough in the gaming industry that she’s done gaming exhibits like Star Wars Identities.
5. Brenda Romero
The Jagged Alliance series. Dungeons and Dragons: Heroes. Playboy: Mansion. These are just a few of the dozens of games Brenda Romero has worked on since she started in the industry in 1981. But probably her most noteworthy and certainly her most personal project is her series of games called “The Mechanic is the Message.” They’re games that dramatize historical tragedies. Most notorious of these is the game 2006 game Train, which is an intentionally arduous game about the banality of evil where the player is a rail manager bringing people to Nazi concentration camps. Romero took the surprising step of transferring these Mechanic games to a tabletop format, and she’s putting enough effort into them that she personally painted 30,000 different figures for One Falls for Each of Us, her game about the Trail of Tears. Even the provocative nature of Heather Kelley’s work looks pretty tame compared to that.
4. Sheri Graner Ray
Since 1989, Sheri Graner Ray has worked with seemingly everyone. For Sony Online Entertainment, she was the senior designer for the game Star Wars Galaxies in 2004. In 2005 she worked for an array of titles including Cartoon Network’s Fusion Fall and the game CSI: Hard Evidence. She also did work for MMOs like Eve Online and Wizards101. She’d even worked with the U.S. government on the award-winning game Geocommander in 2008. For all that, her biography ends on a note that she and her husband “spend their weekends participating in high performance driving events in their Corvettes,” which I believe is one of the best examples in gaming history of having your priorities straight.
3. Roberta Williams
Not many game designers get to have a hand in creating essentially an entire genre of stories and then reinvent it over and over again while dominating a market. Roberta Williams is one of those persons. She was one of the main developers for the company Sierra On-Line of the pioneer 1984 game King’s Quest I: Quest for the Crown. King’s Quest’s “adventure game” style, which focused more on storytelling than on gameplay. It was so revolutionary and popular that it launched eight sequels set in the fantastical kingdom of Daventry (one of which was fan made) and a spin-off series Space Quest. The high point of the series was King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder, which was the best selling computer game from 1990 to 1995. She also was involved in making the Phantasmogoria full motion video game series, but out of respect to her career accomplishments we won’t say anything more about that.
2. Amy Hennig
It’s hard to imagine a less auspicious beginning for a career than to start as one of the creators of the 1994 game Michael Jordan’s: Chaos in the Windy City where the superstar uses magical basketballs to save the players in a charity game. But since then, Hennig‘s writing skills have taken her pretty much from hit game to hit game. There were her hits with the popular Legacy of Kain series and Jak & Daxter. But to date her crowning achievement is definitely the Uncharted games for the company Naughty Dog . There she got a reputation for being willing to put in twists to the storylines of her games that were downright cruel as far as both the characters and the player were concerned. However the general feeling was that these twists served more to enrich and intensify the popular series rather than serve as cheap shots. These immense successes and her high profile made it especially curious for fans of the Uncharted games that in March of 2014, she was let go from the development of future games for Naughty Dog. Speculation for why is running rampant at the time of writing, but it’s hard to imagine that she won’t be able to find an outlet for her talents fairly soon.
1. Julie Uhrman
Of all the people on this list, Uhrman’s role is probably the most controversial. Which is why of course we put here in position #1. Her main achievement is being the CEO of OUYA, a crowdfunded company that developed a gaming console independent of the largest gaming major companies known as “The Big Three” (Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft.) It was such a successful fundraising campaign that it made over eight times its goal and became the second-highest funded in the site’s history. However, the design and marketing of this console, as Uhrman herself freely admitted at a gaming event called the XOXO Festival, were full of problems. The placing of the ventilation on the device left it prone to overheating, no particularly distinctive games have been made exclusively for it, and most notoriously the first advertisement for it was so bad OUYA itself took it down. Nevertheless, the company is still going so Uhrman is still receiving lots of attention at this point. If OUYA can pull through and last in a meaningful way, she’ll probably be one of the highest profile women in the industry for some time.