Carol Shaw is widely recognized as the first woman who design video games professionally
“The less publicized superstars, I would have to include Carol Shaw, who was simply the best programmer of the 6502 and probably one of the best programmers period and she worked on, you know, bringing this back to the 2600, she worked on VCS [Video Computer System, a.k.a. Atari 2600] program and, in particular, did the kernels, the tricky bit that actually gets the picture on the screen for a number of games that she didn’t fully do the games for. She was the go-to gal for that sort of stuff.” (Mike Albaugh, oral history Computer History Museum)
Carol Shaw graduated in 1977 with a bachelor degree from UC Berkeley in electrical engineering and computer science from the department of Engineering, and continued to for a master degree in Computer Science – also from Berkeley. During her time at Berkeley her focus and interest was on software, even though she also took several hardware classes, and she interviewed for Atari while finishing up the last course work. She had several job offers, but decided to accept the one from Atari, since it looked fun and she would get paid to play games. She was hired as the first female game developer with the formal title of Microprocessor Software Engineer in 1978, where she began creating games for Atari’s 2600 VCS console.
Her interests defied gender stereotypes at an early age, as she enjoyed exploring her brother’s model railroad and excelling in math at school. She remembers: “I was good at math. I entered a bunch of math contests and won awards. Of cause 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?” While she was at Atari working in the lab, Ray Kassar, president of Atari came by and said: “Oh, at last! We have a female game designer. She can do cosmetics color matching and interior decorating cartridges!” Which was two subjects which Carol Shaw had absolutely no interest in. During her time at Atari, Carol Shaw created Atari 3D Tic-Tac-Toe, Polo, and Video Checkers. Four years later, she joined Activision, another early American video game publisher. At Activision, Carol Shaw designed and developed her highly celebrated game River Raid, a vertically scrolling shooter game that sold over a million cartridges. In 2017, The Game Awards gave Shaw the Industry Icon Award.