Carol Shaw: Gaming’s Hidden Heroine

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Have you ever lost yourself in rebuilding (in some cases, improving) your own life in The Sims? You have the first professional full-time female game designer, Carol Shaw, to thank. Many of the most beloved games now such as Overwatch, Animal Crossing and Portal all had female game designers on the team as writers, programmers and directors. Even two of the Legend of Zelda games had a main female scriptwriter! 

None of this would have been possible without Carol Shaw and her most famous game, River Raid, which is widely regarded as one of the best games for the Atari 2600 (the dominant game system in North America in the 80s).

Carol Shaw was born in 1955 in Palo Alto, California to a mechanical engineer father and a stay-at-home mother. She studied at the University of California, Berkeley, graduated with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and later completed an MSc in Computer Science. Her childhood was filled with technology, and she spent a lot of her childhood being fascinated by model railroading. However, she went to school in the 1970s, a time when women in technology were almost unheard of. Despite this, she persisted and was hired right out of university by Atari, in 1978.

During her time at Atari, she created many popular games, such as 3D Tic-Tac-Toe and Video Checkers, and she co-wrote and programmed Super Breakout and Othello for the Atari 2600. She also did work for the Atari 8-bit computers and developed the Calculator application and co-wrote the Atari BASIC Reference Manual with Keith Brewster. 

She left Atari in 1980 to work for Tandem Computing as an assembly language programmer, which I find especially impressive! She then joined Activision in 1982, where she would go on to do some of her best work. Her first (and most successful) game was the famed side-scroller River Raid, which sold more than one million copies, impressing players with advanced graphics for its time. She also programmed the puzzle game, Happy Trails, for Intellivision, a rival of the Atari 2600. This was another huge success, enabling her to leave Activision in 1984 and return to Tandem Computing, only to retire in 1990. She credits River Raid’s profits for allowing her to retire so early.

After retiring, Carol Shaw did some volunteer work at the Foresight Institute, supporting the development of emerging technologies. 

In 2017, she received the Industry Icon award at The Game Awards and subsequently donated her game memorabilia (games, boxes, source code, designs) to the Strong National Museum of Play. In addition, she was the first female game designer to be inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Science Hall of Fame.

Carol Shaw was (and still is!) a pioneer in video game designing and she is a huge inspiration to me, especially an aspiring female game designer, and I am so glad I was given the opportunity to write about her. Thanks to her, we have such amazing video game titles like the Legend of Zelda, Overwatch, Animal Crossing, and so many more. I hope that this article and her story and achievements can encourage other young girls to chase after every opportunity and persevere through every challenge they face, especially if they are exacerbated by discrimination like hers were.

By Nitya, Lower VI

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