STEM Women Hall of Fame: The First Female Video Game Designer

Cristen Conger

Courtesy: Atari Mania

STEM Women Hall of Fame Facts: Carol Shaw

  • Born: 1955 in Palo Alto, Calif.
  • STEM Legacy: first known female video game designer, best-known for creating the 1982 mega-hit game River Raid.
  • Historical context: In the late 1970s when Shaw began working at Atari, she was one of the only women in the office, although Shaw says she was used to being a lone girl after spending her college years in mostly male computer science classes.

Growing up, Carol Shaw's math-oriented interests not only made her a girl among a sea of numbers-loving boys, but also attracted gender stereotypical statements, as she described in a rare interview with Vintage Computing:

"Of course, people would say, 'Gee, you're good at math - for a girl.' That was kind of annoying. Why shouldn't girls be good at math?"

In high school, Shaw worked on computers for the first time, and she ended up yet again as a young woman among a sea of men in college at Berkeley where received her masters degree in computer science. In 1978, she started her first post-collegiate job at groundbreaking video game and gaming console maker Atari, an historic position -- even though Shaw wasn't aware of it then -- that made her very likely the first female video game designer in the U.S. Her first project was a game called Polo commissioned by Ralph Lauren to help promote its new Polo cologne line. While at Atari, Shaw also worked other titles, including 3-D Tic Tac Toe, Video Checkers, and Super Breakout -- and encountered the type of sexism that still plagues the industry today, in which women comprise 11 percent of video game developers:

"One time when I was working in the lab, Ray Kassar, President of Atari, was touring the labs and he said, "Oh, at last! We have a female game designer. She can do cosmetics color matching and interior decorating cartridges!" Which are two subjects I had absolutely no interest in, so..."

Speaking to Vintage Computing about her experience as a woman in the early days of the video game industry, Shaw didn't seem particularly troubled by the sometimes sexist work environment. That said, her game design career mostly lasted from 1978 to 1984, during which time she worked for Atari, Tandem and Activision, where she created the wildly popular River Raid. Activision's River Raid manual also includes tips for beating the game (which could earn 1 million point-earning players the snazzy patch above) directly from Shaw and describes her as "a scholar in the field of Computer Science." Impressive!

And although the dearth of women in today's video game industry and its links to institutional sexism comes up a lot these days, being a scarce woman in gaming didn't drive Shaw out of gaming. A combination of factors, including the video game bust of the late 1980s, wise financial investments and her husband's lucrative job led her to effective retirement in 1990. From early pioneer to early retirement -- not too shabby, Ms. Shaw.