Dona Bailey was the first woman programmer in the coin-op department at Atari when she was hired in 1980. In her first assignment, she was the programmer on a four person team for the successful Atari arcade game Centipede.
Dona Bailey “I remember being shocked by the whole thing. I don’t remember who said it to me but – pretty quickly I understood that they didn’t have any women programmers [in the coin-op department at Atari].”
Dona Bailey skipped her last year of high school and started college at the age of 16 at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR). She especially liked the atmosphere of campus during summer school, and speeding up her education by taking classes year-round, she graduated at 19 with a major in Psychology and three minors in English, Math, and Biology. Bailey liked statistics and wanted to continue learning, so she entered a master’s program in Math with a concentration in statistics. She was first introduced to computer programming through UALR’s Psychology department, since psychology research studies use statistical analysis for hypothesis testing. She first learned SAS programming, which still relied on punched cards at that time on her campus, she notes. Later in the Math department in her graduate studies, she learned Fortran, and she was pleased at that point to have access to typing on computer terminals, instead of using punched cards for writing code. In graduate school, Bailey was happy to discover that grad students were allowed computer run-time to test programs using experimental data sets on a weekly basis, compared to once per semester during her undergraduate work.
Outside of her university studies, Dona Bailey loves to read and to write, and she has the greatest respect for the persuasive nature of language and writing. When she was first exposed to programming, she immediately understood the similarity between writing code and writing prose using words and language. “The machine is parsing what one writes in a program, and so the syntax and coding must be in the proper place, in the proper order. When programming a computer language, all the elements must be used perfectly, or the code will not operate properly. Computer programming is very orderly, and the possibilities are more narrow, more restricted, when you are writing code than when you are writing prose with language and words.”
Dona Bailey was hired by General Motors (GM) in Goleta, California after one year of graduate school, and there she was introduced to 6502 assembly language programming while learning to use a microprocessor and sensors to control engine functions in car manufacturing. At GM she had a steep learning curve, beginning with the most basic elements of assembly language programming, such as using binary and the base-16 hexadecimal number system, which she had never heard of before working there. She remembers learning how to use bits and bytes, how to do simple binary arithmetic, and how to constantly convert between decimal, binary, and hexadecimal numbers in order to write effective 6502 microprocessor code. She remembers her initial delight at using 0 to F in hexadecimal, in order to save space—save digits, and she remembers becoming accustomed in a short time to thinking in three number systems so that it became natural to her. At GM she worked mostly with older men who had military backgrounds, who were strict in demeanor while being professional and pleasant to work with. It was a very rule-based workplace culture, where everyone was polite and there were no conflicts.
While she was working at GM, Dona Bailey had her first experience playing an arcade video game, Space Invaders. She immediately recognized how the visual display of the game was similar to her work on GM car displays, and she thought, “I can’t work on cars forever, and working on games would be a lot more fun.” Within six weeks of first playing Space Invaders, she had quit her job and moved from southern California to Sunnyvale, California, in what she learned was referred to as Silicon Valley. She moved north without a job, and she was determined to work for Atari, which she had discovered was the predominant video game company in America. She had also learned that Atari used the 6502 microprocessor, and she knew there were few experienced assembly language programmers available at that time. She hoped her 6502 programming experience would provide a strong edge to help her get hired at Atari.
The interview process was tough, and Dona Bailey remembers an air of surprise from some Atari employees since “experienced assembly language programmers—especially a woman programmer—didn’t often just turn up on the door step.” For her part, Bailey was unaware there were no women programmers in the coin-op department where arcade games were made. However, she was lucky enough to survive the interviews and to be hired fairly quickly. Only a little over a month had passed since she moved north at the end of April and then began working at Atari in the first week of June 1980.
So how was Centipede created? After two weeks at Atari, the manager of software engineers came by Dona Bailey’s cubicle and said, “I think you need to look for an idea in the game development notebook—the brainstorm notebook.” The game development notebook was a 3-ring binder with sheets of lined paper, which contained game ideas generated during Atari brainstorming weekends. Each game idea was written on one sheet of note paper, and there were maybe 40 pieces of paper—40 game ideas. Most of the ideas collected seemed to involve lasers, and each time laser was written, it was spelled “l-a-z-e-r.” Bailey remembers being puzzled that laser was misspelled so many times and thinking it was weird how the guys apparently couldn’t spell well. She remembers reading about all these laser games and not being impressed, until one sheet of paper caught her attention when she saw the game title “Centipede.” There was one sentence describing the game idea, and it read, “A multi segmented insect crawls on to the screen and is shot by the player,” and that was it. Bailey could see the game in her head, and it looked cool to her. As she first visualized the game, she knew this was the one she wanted to make. None of the laser games has suggested any visualizations to her. However, “Centipede” made sense. It seemed obvious to her that the player was at the bottom of the screen and shooting upwards and that the insect would crawl on to the screen from the top. Centipede is similar to Galaga and Space Invaders in that sense. Galaga was Bailey’s favorite game at the time, and any way in which Centipede turned out to echo Galaga is a reflection of Bailey’s respect and admiration for Galaga. As she was programming Centipede, Bailey sometimes thought of her game as an homage to Galaga.
Dona Bailey wanted a spider she created to be a main character in Centipede, and she used a random number generator on Atari’s custom “pokey” sound chip to variably determine where the spider appears on the screen and how fast it moves. She wanted the spider to move at variable speeds and angles so that it would be different in each game played. Finally, she wanted to keep the spider low on the screen, making it an immediate threat to the player. To enhance tension and risk for the player, she added the feature that shooting the spider is worth more points when it is closer to the player. She also used the spider’s position and movement on the screen as a basis for the spider’s sounds each time it makes an appearance.
The mushrooms are another core element in Centipede. Dona Bailey thought it was important to use the random number generator for the variable placement of the mushrooms on the screen for each level in Centipede. She wrote code to use a different beginning seed for the random number generator for each game played. She wrote additional code to make certain the mushrooms were spread across the screen rather than bunching in places, and she wrote more code still to be sure that the mushrooms were equally divided and spaced over the whole screen instead of being too sparse in places. Putting so much emphasis on the visual aspect of Centipede used up a lot of the game’s 8K of code space, but Bailey says, “To me, Centipede’s visual appeal makes it special.”
In 1982, Dona Bailey left Atari in order to work for Videa, a video game company founded by three ex-Atari employees with whom she had worked in her first year at Atari. Videa was purchased in 1983 by Nolan Bushnell, who had previously founded Atari, and at that time, the company became Sente. Bailey left the video game industry in 1984.
In 1997, Dona Bailey moved to Arkansas. Beginning in 2008, she taught as a faculty member in the department of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock until her retirement. Currently Bailey is writing a screenplay based on her experiences programming Centipede at Atari.