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You were up against so much as the only woman in your development team at a very high-pressure time in the industry’s history, and you had a very steep hill to climb to accomplish what you did. With the odds stacked so high against you, why was it so important for you to pursue game design at all?
That is a very good question; the answer covers years, but to try to boil it down... When I started college, I was “the brainy girl who did good papers.” And I liked to write, and I’ve always been a big reader. But during college, there were a lot of other “brainy girls who liked to write good papers”. I had always been interested in science too, so I was a little double-sided. But during the time I was in college, just by chance, I got the opportunity to discover that I loved programming. I was not very good at math and I’m still not very good at math!
But I loved programming not from the math approach, but form the language approach to it. They don’t call it a “programming language” for nothing! And it was the syntax, and the structure, and all of the rules-based things that I liked about it.
Did you know you were going to make a game?
No! I really didn’t. I consider my career still evolving -- I’ve had several careers at this point, and I never know what’s about to happen. Whatever I get intensely interested in is whatever I end up doing, or being. All those years, it’s only been in the last ten that when someone asks, “what do you do,” you could say “oh, I’m a programmer,” without having to explain what that is. For years I tried to train myself to remember to say “I’m a computer programmer,” so I wouldn’t get, “Like, TV?” Because I lived in California at the time, so they thought I meant “executive producer”!
All those years, I was a computer programmer when nobody knew what that meant. In school, I discovered I really like statistics -- again, from the language side of it. I could always set up research and define it really well, but the math was the part I needed a calculator or computer for -- but it’s so far back that my training came before we even used calculators, which is crazy to imagine. But all of those things went in to being able to kind of set my sights on this thing I was good at -- approaching programming from a language point of view.
Then I lived in Santa Barbara, and I wanted a really good job, and the GM programming in assembly language (which I had no experience at) -- that was one of the best jobs around. And they were willing to hire me because they were hiring young people with any kind of programming background, which I just barely [had] at that point.
How did you get from assembly language programming at GM to designing a game for Atari?
It was while I worked [at GM] that I saw the first Space Invaders game that I had ever seen. I really liked the Pretenders song “Space Invaders,” and I was asking my friends, “what’s that about?!” It was impossible to figure out, and I had no idea what the concept was.
A friend of mine played that album all the time, and I finally said “what is this?” and another friend of mine just freaked out and said, “you have to go to lunch with me” -- to this crummy bar, where they had a cocktail model of Space Invaders. He dragged me down there during lunch the next week at work and gave me a quarter. I promptly got myself killed, and was just standing there and thinking.
I had discovered while I was working at GM that I liked the display programming, the climate control, things with a visual readout. And I remember standing there thinking “God, this looks a lot like what I do.” And I started to find out, “where did they do this? Is this the only one?”
Now people know so much more stuff because of the Internet. Nowadays, I would have Googled it, but there was just no information back then, nothing written about this programming. One of the things at Atari that was so hard -- there’s nothing to read. I had so many questions about what to do, and how, but there was nothing to read and nobody to talk to.
So you were completely shooting blind, figuring it out on your own?
Anything else you’d like to add about the conference?
I’m so pleased that there’s any possibility that I can be helpful at this point. I love teaching because I’m really determined to give back. I never did any volunteer work or anything like that, but I had a really great career. I’ve had such a great life, and such a great career, and when I came back to Arkansas and saw that people here really struggle to get an education, it’s not something that can be taken for granted. So I’m so pleased -- I know that I make a contribution here in higher education. And now being asked to do this -- I’m so pleased to be acknowledged, and I just feel so good about the whole thing! I’m hopeful I’ll manage to strike the right notes.
WIGI will be held Saturday, September 8th at the Austin Convention Center.