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New book shines a light on women who paved the way in video game history

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Mary Kenney sits on the floor smiling as she looks to her right at the cover of her new book which depicts illustrations of pioneering women in the video game industry.

Mary Kenney found inspiration writing Playful Girls and hope current and future female game developers will do so as well.
Picture: Salini Perera / Mary Kenney / Kotaku

It’s a fact: the women who helped shape the video game industry are often unrecognized, hidden from history by popular narratives and male-centric scholarship. Mary Kenney, narrative writer and game designer at Insomniac Games, aims to shed light on some of these neglected trailblazers by highlighting key women who have made major contributions to the industry in her upcoming book, Gamer Girls: 25 women who built the video game industry.

In Playful Girls, Kenney profiles 25 influential women dating back to 1960 who wrote, designed, programmed and composed for video games. To consider Mabel Addis Mergardt, the first female game designer, who designed the text-based strategy game The Sumerian game; Yoko Shimomura, the composer of Street Fighter II: The warrior of the world, all of the Kingdom Hearts games, and Final Fantasy XV; and Muriel Tramis, the first black woman video game designer, who co-created the puzzle-adventure game Goblins.

“First of all, [Gamer Girls] is a work of education. It is our real history versus our perceived history. And second, it’s a celebration that I hope will really encourage young women who want to participate in games to step into space, ”Kenney said. Kotaku.

Playful Girls started when Kenney had a conversation with her agent Eric smith. Kenney and Smith had assumed that there were more a book about women in the gaming industry, but when they found out there wasn’t one, she decided she should write one herself.

“With any tech industry constantly disrupting itself and restarting and adapting new things, sometimes I think we can forget our own history,” Kenney said. “Pausing and looking at where we’re from makes us better game developers and better people to push for more diversity and advocacy in the future because we’ll know where we’re from, the fakes not what we’ve done in the past that we don’t want to repeat, and the successes we’ve had.

Kenney decided to write Playful Girls as a young adult book so that it can be informative and accessible both to people already in the industry and to young women hoping to break into the space. With colorful illustrations of Salini Perera, Kenney did Playful Girls accessible to readers outside of the industry by defining some insider lingo as “vertical slice” and “game engine”.

A split-black-and-white image shows a girl sitting in a large, old-fashioned terminal.  On the right is a 1984 newspaper clipping from the game's creator, a middle-aged woman.

While many women in the gaming industry started their journeys differently, Kenney said a common trait between them was their determination to continue and succeed in their field. Whether it’s in the face of harassment or misogyny, or the creative pressures that come with any job where you do something, Kenney said the women she featured have remained passionate through the ups and downs.

“I think game developers of all ages can watch [Gamer Girls] and that can give them ideas about what they want to do next, what interests them and what excites them, ”she said. As she wrote Playful Girls, Kenney herself took inspiration from some of the writers she interviewed, who spoke about what keeps them excited and how they get out of creative ruts.

Although this is Kenney’s first book, she’s no stranger to writing. Kenney was a reporter before becoming a game developer at Insomniac and Telltale, generating signatures as a reporter at The New York Times and as a weekend editor here at Kotaku.

Another goal Kenney wanted to achieve with writing Playful Girls was to thank women in the industry for their accomplishments that have often been overlooked or overlooked.

A screenshot from Final Fantasy for the NES shows the silhouettes of four warriors near the water as a bird flies overhead.

Kazuko Shibuya drew much of the art in the beginning Final fantasy games, including the iconic “bridge” screen from the first NES game.
Screenshot: Square Enix / Kotaku

Kazuko Shibuya, who worked on Final fantasy At first she wasn’t credited on the game at all, even though she had done all the art on it, ”Kenney said. “Even the games we know and love haven’t always given credit to everyone who actually made them. So correcting that a bit seems like a good first step. “

One of the hardest parts for Kenney wasn’t finding which women she would include in her book, but deciding which 25 to feature.

“I entered this book a bit out of ignorance thinking that the list of women who worked in games in the 60s, 70s and 80s, and even in the early 90s, would be quite short,” Kenney said. Once she gathered her roster of women in game development, she had over 150 names.

“There were a lot more women working in space that were never really highlighted,” she said, “and realizing it was exciting.”

For the women Kenney couldn’t interview, like fire Danielle Bunten Berry, who worked on groundbreaking games like MULE and Modem wars, Kenney drew on previous interviews and written material to write profiles about them.

Kenney noted that the idea of ​​the author – a “lone genius” who guides art in media – is a misconception that we love as a society, and that is not unique to video games. While a select few are often supported as a spokesperson for a game, she asserted that the end product of a video game is due to the collective contributions of the various people behind it.

“One of the most important conversations we have right now, thankfully, is that when women are promoted and hired, it’s usually white women like me,” Kenney said. “We are not doing a great job of advocacy for the women of BIPOC and for non-binary individuals. We limit our diversity to white cis women, [which] in some ways it’s like an easy way out [toward achieving] inclusion. And I think we could be better.

According to Kenney, two of the (many) steps the game industry needs to take to make game development more inclusive are to listen to non-white voices on issues of inclusiveness in game development and to reshuffle game processes. hiring to invite more people into space. and keep people in space if they want to stay.

“I tried to approach [advocacy] as much as I could in the book and the different challenges women of color face versus white women, Kenney said. “This is something that I hope the industry will continue to push forward.”

For women already in the game development industry, Kenney said every day is bad news. Whether it’s harassment, misogyny, or arguing, being a woman in the industry can be exhausting and demoralizing. Kenney’s hope with Playful Girls is to remind people that there is more to the gaming industry than its worst parts.

“I hope that reading it anyone who feels tired or demoralized will have that uplifting feeling of ‘Oh actually I could belong here’ and ‘I could have fun here,'” Kenney said. “It’s not just about surviving the industry, it’s’ I can be happy here. This is the dream.'”

Gamer Girls: 25 women who built the video game industry released on May 24, 2022.

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