Mary Kenney doesn’t really want to well, actually anyone.
The author, educator, and game designer has a fairly gracious understanding when it comes to the misinformation surrounding women’s influence in the gaming world. Her new book, Gamer Girls: 25 Women Who Built the Video Game Industry (which releases in July but is available for pre-order now), is all about dispelling myths surrounding those pesky stereotypes that seem to follow female gamers, no matter what era they live in. But, Kenney’s been intentional about bringing that untold bit of the industry’s history to life in a way that feels accessible, entertaining, and above all, non-judgmental.
“’Isn’t it sad that we haven’t been around very long? But thank goodness we’re here now.’ That’s the biggest [belief] that’s just inaccurate,” Kenney tells UPROXX. “That women are a recent add in the industry. Not to well, actually anybody, but … well, actually, we were here in the ’60s, and we were definitely around in the ’70s and ’80s, and we were all over the ’90s. We’ve been around for a while. We’ve been making games for a while. And we’ve been leading for a while.”
In Gamer Girls, Kenney focuses primarily on those early decades when names like Kazuko Shibuya (who created the artwork for Final Fantasy), Muriel Tramis (the first Black female video game designer), and Mabel Addis Mergardt (the first-ever female game designer responsible for the 1964 release of The Sumerian Game) were pioneering largely in the shadows.
“They were just so excited about the work they got to do,” Kenney explains. “You see that so much in the first women who were hired at Atari and Activision. No one had ever invented what they were trying to create, but they were sure it would be cool, so they just kept pushing ahead.”
It’s that same love of a challenge that inspired Kenney to write her book. Well that, and the sheer disbelief that some form of Gamer Girls didn’t already exist on the shelves.
“My literary agent reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, I think this is a book that should exist. I think you would be a good person to write it,’” Kenney answers when asked what sparked the idea for the project. “And I responded to him with, ‘Eric [Smith], come on. That book definitely already exists. There’s no way it doesn’t.’”
Spoiler: It didn’t.
But as bleakly funny as it was to realize no one had compiled the thoughts of gaming’s female trailblazers from over 60 years, Kenney had a more sobering reason for wanting to write the book too. She’d been invited to speak to a group of high school girls attending a game design camp at Indiana University. There, she gave her “spiel” about what her job at Insomniac Games entailed before answering some audience questions.
“We got to the Q&A, and every question I got was about Gamergate,” Kenney recalls. “Like everything they were asking. It was stuff like, ‘Have you ever been harassed? Have you been targeted because of Gamergate? How have you not been driven out of the industry yet?’”
Kenney didn’t blame them for their curiosity, but she was discouraged that the narrative around women working in games seemed shackled to this terrible aspect of its history and, sadly, its culture.
“I realized the reason they were asking this was that’s all they had had. That was the only experience they’d really read about women in games,” Kenney says. “They haven’t heard a lot of our successes. There wasn’t a ton of women being asked to take center stage on our award shows. They were just mostly hearing stories of harassment and women deciding to quit — and for a very good reason.”
“That really broke my heart in a big way, because I know there are so many women who do work in games and love it,” Kenney continues. “I’m not saying that it’s an easy path. There are certainly things that we’ve all had to endure that we shouldn’t have had to, but simultaneously, I’ve had some of the best moments of my life as a gamer, interacting with other gamers, and also as a creator, getting to celebrate big wins with my teams — and it didn’t feel like there was enough literature out there celebrating that. [Things] that young women, specifically, could look to.”
Kenney originally created the book, which features stories and interviews from some of gaming’s under-recognized trailblazers, with those young girls at the game design camp in mind. She wanted it to be entertaining, something they could sit down and read in a day or two. But, that kind of accessibility also opens it up to newcomers – people just picking up a controller for the first time or streaming with friends during the pandemic. Kenney breaks down gaming lingo for the uninitiated, compiling a vast amount of the industry’s history in ways that are easy to digest and understand. In essence, she’s trying to do for her subjects what the gaming world hasn’t done for them before: celebrate their accomplishments with as wide and varied an audience as possible.
“I think a lot of people are interested in this topic, and there are so many more gamers than I think even people like me in the industry realize,” Kenney explains. “I want it to be accessible to them, too, and again, the technology has changed so much — even since I got interested in games — that I needed to catch everybody up.”
That inclusivity factor was something Kenney was cognizant of in her research as well. As she puts it, “if white women were not always given credit, women of color certainly weren’t.”
“The women who entered the early game industry were overwhelmingly white like the industry is today,” Kenney explains when the topic of diversity in gaming inevitably comes up. “I can point at statistics and say it’s getting better, but also add: not quickly enough.”
“That said, the women who were there in the early days of the industry featured their experiences in their work,” she continues, listing off Muriel Tramis and her 1988 game Freedom: Rebels in the Darkness as an example of the groundbreaking storytelling these creators have been doing for decades. Tramis’ game told the story of a slave escaping a sugar plantation – a narrative that feels rare, even by today’s industry standards. “She told Wired in 2010 that ‘fugitive slaves, my ancestors, were true warriors that I had to pay tribute to,’” Kenney says. “She’s been honored many times for her work but is relatively unknown among American gamers. I hope the book helps change that, as it does for all of the developers I profiled.”
These women are responsible for some of the more interesting titles the industry’s given us, crafting characters that defy stereotypes, creating artwork that is vibrant and iconic, building studios that give young female designers equal footing from the jump, and scoring themes that live in our heads long after we’ve logged off.
“There’s no one background that you can track every woman’s progress from,” Kenney says. “There are women who had liberal arts degrees. There are women who studied computer science. There are women who worked in business beforehand and then changed to games. They really do come from a variety of backgrounds, and some of them became programmers, some of them became designers, writers, and artists, and others were founding studios. The hope for this book is that girls, younger and older, can see there are reasons that women also love this industry. Here are ways that they thrive, and here are ways that they’ve really shaped the modern industry, as we know it.”
‘Gamer Girls: 25 Women Who Built the Video Game Industry’ is available for pre-order now.