The Woman Behind Atari's 'Centipede' Talks About The Early Days & Place Of Gaming In Society

Sep 22, 2015

An early version of the Atari classic Centipede.
Credit Venture Center

Arkansas is in the midst of push to teach computer coding to students and the Venture Center in Little Rock hosted one pioneer programmer of Atari fame that claims Arkansas as home, Dona Bailey, on Tuesday night.

KUAR's Jacob Kauffman sat down with Dona Bailey before her Code IT talk in a conversation covering women in the early days of the industry and the increasingly entrenched place of video games in modern society.

KAUFFMAN: You’ve become somewhat of a focal point in the gaming and tech worlds – you were one of the ONLY women developing games the early 1980s, and you happened to make a big hit, “Centipede.” What was it like working in that time, a hostile environment?

BAILEY: It was fun, and challenging sometimes. I always say that it was the most like being in a frat that I’ll ever experience, a lot of guys [laughter]. At the time I think I believed maybe it was more a gender based issue when there were problems. Looking back on it I think that we were all just young, immature, and we weren’t very well managed. I think that the guys had problems too. It was a very rough and tumble working environment.

KAUFFMAN: You, like another iconic woman programmer from Atari, Carol Shaw, left the company rather quickly. The split, for you lasted a couple of decades was also from the world of video games. What’s your message to women today considering entering the field? Women comprise about half of gamers but only 20% of developers.

BAILEY: Actually, I’ve heard 10 percent for game developers. You know, it’s hard to summarize one message…

KAUFFMAN: Do you think it’s something people should get into given some of the reservations you’ve had.

BAILEY: Absolutely. If anyone is interested in it they should pursue it. Be as prepared as possible. It really wasn’t possible to be prepared back then and I really wasn’t prepared in terms of technical experience. You mentioned Carol Shaw, she had a much better route. She had a bachelor’s degree in computer science and also a master’s degree in computer science and so she was much more prepared than I was to take on that world. Be prepared is a really great lesson.

KAUFFMAN: Just a few years before you helped design “Centipede” you’d never even heard of video games. You worked at GM and a friend took you to play “Space Invaders.” Now 190 million Americans play video games of some sort, how do you feel about society buying into the concept of video games?

BAILEY: We are in a different place and frankly if I had known what I know now about how much people play video games I don’t think I would have been as eager to be associated with games. I’m a big reader and I’ve always been a big reader. That has helped me be a better scholar and a better student. I wish that people would focus a little more on other things, reading and writing skills. Honestly, when I started to work at Atari I thought it would be something like when we played board games when I was little. We just had a healthier mix of concentrations and preoccupations. I would like to see a return to that and I would like to see games bring more to the table in terms of the skills that they offer and a broadening of experience that they offer. Games could be so much more in terms of music and art and could be such a wider experience. I’d like to see that.

KAUFFMAN: Do you think the majority of gaming is stuck in some sort of hyper masculine rut?

BAILEY: The commercial side of gaming has gone in that direction and there’s a tremendous amount of buy-in. In the field of indie games, just like in indie movies or indie music, I think it’s the better route to go. There’s not so much of the hyper aggression, I think is another way to frame that.

KAUFFMAN: Dona Bailey, a UALR graduate and former professor as well, designer of Atari’s “Centipede,” you’ll be speaking tonight at the Venture Center in Little Rock at 6 o’clock [Tuesday]. Thank you for joining me.

BAILEY: Thank you so much, and it’s been really funny to explore my memory of the technical details because it has been a really long time ago. 35 years ago today I know that I was at Atari programming “Centipede.” I’m so grateful that everyone still loves the game, that’s amazing to me, and I’m so grateful people still want to hear me talk about it.