Celebrating Women in STEM: Carol Shaw

The video game industry generated more than $100 billion in revenue last year. Though the number of video game developers has risen in recent years, a 2014 International Game Developers Association found that only 22 percent of developers are women. The first female video game designer, Carol Shaw, was so successful she retired at 35.

Shaw was born in 1955 in Palo Alto, California. She was not your typical little girl, more likely to play with her brother’s model railroad than dolls. Shaw excelled at math in junior high and high school, though she would get annoyed when people told her she was good at math for a girl. She also got her first experience with computers in high school, playing games on a teletype running BASIC programs.

Shaw attended the University of California – Berkeley for her undergraduate and graduate degrees, receiving a Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering and a Master’s in Computer Science. Her first programming class used punch cards and Fortran with an hour turnaround time. While working towards her master’s degree, Shaw participated in Berkeley’s work-study program, getting programming experience with ESL, Amdahl and muPro.

Though her video game experience was primarily through playing “Computer Space,” the first commercial arcade game, with her friends, her programming experience earned her a position at Atari.

Shaw started at Atari in August of 1978, becoming the first professional female video game designer. It didn’t bother her that she was the only woman in her department, as she’d already gone through most of her coursework with no women.

In 1980, Shaw’s “Tic-Tac-Toe” became the first commercially released video game designed by a woman. She did the programming, sound, and graphics herself.

Around the same time, Shaw left Atari and took a 16-month position at Tandem before being recruited by Activision. In 1982, her second game, “River Raid”, was released to the public. Shaw developed a scrolling format for the game, and it won several awards, including Inforworld’s Best Action Game and Best Atari 8-bit Game of the Year. She returned to Tandem in 1984 and retired in 1990.

Are you interested in empowering women in the STEM fields? The Women in Science (Wi-Sci) group wants you! Email President Lauren Higgins (lahn7d@mail.umkc.edu) for more information.

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