Historians find Van Mai, the woman behind the first playable female protagonist in a console game

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A year-long search for the woman behind an industry milestone pays off

Wabbit for Atari 2600
(Image credit: Video Game History Foundation/Apollo)

After a year-long search, historians have tracked down and interviewed Van Mai, the woman who programmed Wabbit for Atari 2600, notable for being the first console game with a playable female character you could actually call a ‘character.’

The history of playable women in video games is surprisingly complicated, and the subject of an ongoing investigation series from historian and YouTuber “Critical Kate” Willært. In short, the first playable female character was in an arcade game called Score, which had a gender switch on the front of the cabinet. The earliest games with dedicated female protagonists were bits of erotica with titles like Streaking and Beat ‘Em And Eat ‘Em. Ms. Pac-Man innovated with the novel idea of giving a female character a name, though whether a yellow circle with a bow really counts as a playable woman is a debatable matter.

On the game’s release in 1982, Wabbit’s protagonist Billie Sue was the only female character on a console who was human, was playable and had a name. Billie Sue is a young girl who’s out to protect her vegetable crops from a horde of hungry rabbits. It’s basically Space Invaders on a farm.

Wabbit was created by Van Mai, though that was before she’d taken her married surname. Like most early game releases, her work was uncredited, and her colleagues had misremembered her name as “Ban Tran,” a mix-up that ensured the search for her would take over a year – until historians thought to check bankruptcy records for Apollo, the company that published Wabbit.

As detailed in a report published by the Video Game History Foundation by Willært and fellow researcher Kevin Bunch, Mai was a refugee of the Vietnam War. Living with her family in Dallas, she took night courses on programming and applied for a job at a company called Apollo, which had recently entered the video game market. A colleague of Mai’s recalled thinking that she didn’t seem like the kind of “nerd” who would apply at a tech company in the ’80s.

In the VGHF report, Mai says that she pitched Wabbit as an Atari game for little girls. “I don’t think my teammates or my boss said anything about [the theme],” Mai explains. “Everything was up to me, I designed it – all the animation and all that. They seemed to like it a lot.”

After Apollo declared bankruptcy – she wouldn’t get her final royalty check for nearly seven years – Mai spent a short time in the game industry before earning a computer science degree and getting a job with a telecommunications company. Now, she works in the banking industry.

Without a whole lot of work from historians, Mai’s work creating a major industry milestone would never have been recognized.

If you want to have some fun with gaming history, check out our guide to the best retro games.

 

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