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“I was good at math. I entered a bunch of math contests and won awards. 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?” This memory from Carol Shaw, who is featured in this month’s edition of Pioneers in Tech and was one of the earliest female video game designers, will resonate with many women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

So, too, will the remembrance that upon her hiring at Atari, company leadership said a female game designer could “do cosmetics color matching and interior decorating cartridges.” Shaw wasn’t interested in makeup or decorating. Instead, while later working at Activision, she designed River Raid for the Atari 2600, which allowed players to control a fighter jet behind enemy lines. River Raid sold more than one million copies, and Shaw owns the platinum plaque to prove it.

Trailblazing career and recognition

Born in 1955 in Palo Alto, Shaw was raised by parents who encouraged her to pursue her interests in math, and she graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science. She also earned a master’s in computer science. Her primary interest was software, and she was hired as Atari’s first female game developer in 1978 with the title of “microprocessor software engineer.” She designed one of her first projects, a never-distributed polo game, as part of a promotional collaboration with Ralph Lauren.

Shaw’s gaming career lasted only six years between Atari and Activision. She left Activision in 1984 to work at Tandem before retiring early in 1990 to pursue volunteer interests. For many years, her story remained largely untold, but in 2017, the Game Awards honored Shaw as an Industry Icon, and today, her contributions to the early days of gaming are becoming increasingly well known.

This video from the Game Awards is well worth a watch.

Did you enjoy this installation of SmarterMSP’s Pioneers in Tech? Check out others here.

Photo: Tinxi / Shutterstock

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Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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