Published: September 27th, 2021
Author: Caitlynn Joann
Dona Bailey was born in 1956 in Little Rock, Arkansas. We don’t know much about her childhood, but we do know that she skipped her last year of high school and enrolled in the University of Arkansas in Little Rock at the ripe age of 16. After diligently taking classes year-round, she completed her undergraduate degree with a major in Psychology and three minors, in English, Mathematics, and Biology. When statistics caught her interest, she began the University of Arkansas masters program majoring in Mathematics with a minor in statistics.
Dona’s first introduction to computer programming was through her institution’s Psychology Department. With a need for statistical analysis and hypothetical testing, the Psychology Department worked closely with the statistics department. Dona’s first experience with programming was SAS, which relied on punch cards. Later on, she learned the program Fortran and was thrilled to use computers for typing rather than only punch cards. Dona declared having a realization that programming and writing code carried a similarity to writing prose. She quoted, “The machine is parsing what one writes in a program, and so the syntax and coding must be in the proper place, in the proper order. When programming a computer language, all the elements must be used perfectly, or the code will not operate properly. Computer programming is very orderly, and the possibilities are more narrow, more restricted when you are writing code than when you are writing prose with language and words.”
Her first job post-graduation was at General Motors where she learned assembly language programming and utilized a microprocessor to control engine functions in car manufacturing. Dona understood the basic elements of assembly language programming, but her position still came with a steep learning curve. She recalls working primarily with older male military veterans with a strict demeanor yet pleasant to work with.
While visiting a friend’s record store, she heard the Pretenders song, “Space Invader,” and fell in love with it but wasn’t aware it was a reference to an Atari game. Her friend enlightened her on the game and stated there was an arcade nearby, The Grass Shack, where they could play. Dona shares, "He gave me a quarter and I lost all my lives before I could even figure out what I was supposed to do on the screen, but I got really intrigued." She immediately recognized the visual display was similar to GM car displays and understood she couldn’t work on cars forever and video games would be more interesting for her. 6 weeks later she quit GM in Southern California in April of 1980 and moved to Silicon Valley without a job, but with a dream. Determined to work for Atari, she learned they used the 6502 microprocessor and knew assembly language programmers were few and far between. She hoped her previous experience would aid her in the hiring process.
In June of 1980, Dona was hired by Atari. It is important to preface that there were only a handful of women in the United States with experience in assembly language and she was highly qualified for the work, despite not having experience with video game programming. Dona was the only female programmer when she began employment, although Carol Shaw was a game designer in another department. She had no idea the trail she would blaze filling this position. Dona states, “I remember being shocked by the whole thing. I don’t remember who said it to me but – pretty quickly I understood that they didn’t have any women programmers.” She also shares, "It was interesting to see how a male society functioned. It was kind of rough sometimes, too. It was a culture that I don't think they were thinking 'there is one woman, we should modify our behavior for her sake' ... I grew a thicker skin." She described the experience as similar to what she imagined a frat was like and felt more eyes on her as the only woman in the arcade division.
A fresh two weeks in and she was snagging ideas from their notorious “brainstorming notebook,” a three-ring binder containing an ongoing list of roughly 40 game ideas generated on the weekends. Dona reports having seen various typos in this book, “lazer” instead of “laser” and wasn’t impressed with many of the ideas; but one. She found a paper titled, “Centipede,” with one sentence that read, “A multi-segmented insect crawls onto the screen and is shot by the player.”
While visualizing the game, she noted the player was on the bottom of the screen with the centipede at the top, shooting upwards. Centipede was similar to Galaga and Space Invaders, as far as the screen layout was concerned. Many report the similarities between Galaga and Centipede and she mentioned Galaga being her favorite game and Centipede being a homage and a paying of respect to Galaga. Dona utilized the spider in Centipede as the main character as well as an immediate threat to the player. By using a random number generator, she would be able to variably determine where the spider was located on the screen, its next move, and the speed at which it moved. This feature aided in increasing the difficulty of the game and randomizing each play, to intrigue the player. Dona kept the game interesting by having programmed the spider to remain low on the screen to be a constant threat to the player. Lastly, to enhance tension with the spider, she created a point system being the closer the spider is when shot, the more points the kill was worth.
Our other main character, the mushroom, also utilized the random number generator to program the speed as a variable. Dona wrote various codes to ensure the mushrooms were spread out healthily and were equally spaced around the screen. The heavy emphasis on visuals utilized the majority of the 8K code space, but Dona says this is what made the game special. She used blue, green, and violet pastels to attract the eye of female gamers specifically, but not limited to. Dona decided on using a trackball rather than a joystick, making the game more accessible and able to be learned rather quickly. Centipede went on to become Atari’s second best-selling coin-op game. Due to the game’s popularity, Atari’s production line was forced to run two shifts to keep up with demand. Despite its success, her recognition was limited, and she knew it was gender-based. Dona talked about how people would minimize her contributions to Centipede. They made evidenceless accusations claiming it wasn’t her work or suggested that she was graced with luck, rather than skill.
In 1982 Dona left Atari to work for Videa. Remember the three people who left Atari when Ray Kassar took Bushnell’s position and refused to pay the programmers an appropriate wage? She saw this as a bountiful opportunity to leave as well. (If you are lost in the spider web of Atari’s history, click here for a refresher). In 1983, another full circle came to be when Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, purchased Videa and it became Sente. Dona left the video game industry the following year and remained the only female in the arcade division at that time. Roughly a decade later in 1997, Dona moved to Arkansas and began educating in the department of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Arkansas in 2008. In recent years she has been a guest speaker for various presenters including Game Innovation Lab, The Venture Center, and Women in Games: Inspire! As of 2019, she was writing a screenplay based on her experiences at Atari.
To watch a recent interview with her: https://bit.ly/2XWmQk8
For more information on the gender makeup in the gaming industry: https://bit.ly/3zF8otu